It’s pretty easy to explain some games. Monster Hunter is about killing monsters and using their parts to make new armor that you use to kill more monsters. Hitman is about assassination. Senran Kagura is about ninjas. Let’s go with ninjas. Other games, though, are a little more difficult to wrap your brain around. Cruelty Squad is one of those games. It’s not interested in explaining itself to you. It offers what it offers and leaves the door open for you to step on in. What it offers, well…that’s a little more complex.
In Cruelty Squad you, uh…um. I’m pretty sure you’re a hitman of some sort who works for the titular PMC (is it a PMC?) and you take on jobs as assigned to you by your hideous, bloated superior. You’re armed with an eventually-vast array of weapons and an eventually-diverse selection of inevitably-gross sorta-cybernetic implants to help you complete your tasks.
In theory, your targets will never see their deaths coming, but in practice it doesn’t really matter. So long as they’re dead, you’re not, and you manage to make it to an extraction point, things are fine. Well, as fine as can be, anyway. I mean, look at those screenshots.
Yes, look at those screenshots. They’re something else. In motion the game looks pretty much exactly like what you’re seeing there. It’s a soupy, nightmarish mess, but it’s a mess that you’ll come to realize was expertly designed to be fully playable as a video game. We need to address this before anything else: yes, it’s hideous. It’s hideous, but it’s also clear that this was all entirely intentional. After a few missions you’ll have re-tuned your brain to comprehend what you’re looking at.
That’s when the fun begins. See, if you don’t consider the sheer weirdness of everything, graphics included, Cruelty Squad plays like a tactical assassination game something like what you’d expect from the Rainbow Six series. Combat is extremely lethal. Both your character and the enemies will pass away after only a few gunshots, so the name of the game tends to be sneaking about, leaning around corners to get shots and approaching situations with extreme caution.
Once you’ve managed to look past pretty much everything about how Cruelty Squad looks, the experience of carefully and methodically working your way into a secure location, taking out your target and getting back out again can be incredibly satisfying.
That’s just the basics, though. There’s more going on. Much more, in fact. You start with only two weapons, for instance – a pistol and an SMG. Both of these are perfectly acceptable for dealing with the entire game, but there’s plenty of other options to try. New weapons are obtained by collecting them during a mission and extracting while they’re still in your inventory, and since you’ve only got two weapon slots that’s going to mean leaving behind one of your old favorites for the course of that mission in order to use the new tech.
Your arsenal will gradually expand to include dart-spewing shotguns, poisonous rocket launchers, a grenade gun that fires blobs of acid and a gun that’s best described as a “meat gun” that turns unfortunate enemies into room-filling tumorous lumps.
We’re still at the basics. Guns are great, but there’s more going on. You can obtain implants that change up your character’s performance, for instance, allowing you to approach missions in different ways. Installing an improved jump functionality can allow you to access different areas of a level that weren’t previously available for instance. You can take that even further by enhancing your soles to fire snot all over the floor, both giving you a double-jump and making a huge, disgusting mess.
Maybe a goo-based dash ability is more your speed? How about a second intestine used as a grappling hook? All of these can be yours and more, you’ll just need to save up the money.
Money, of course, is available by successfully completing missions. If you want more, you’ve got a few options. You could try playing the stock market! There’s plenty of companies to invest in, so give that a shot and make sure to check on your earnings over time as you complete your missions. If business-based investing isn’t enough for you, though, well…the world of Cruelty Squad is hungry for organs, so naturally there’s an organ stock market. Load up on livers and keep an eye on the price! Harvest meaty chunks from dead baddies and sell them for cash!
Just don’t bother with the pancreas, that thing’s useless. Later, there’s even a mysterious third stock market, one that relies on bizarre creatures known only as “fish”…
That leads us into the actual heart and soul of Cruelty Squad: its absolutely insane array of secrets. Nothing in this game is what it seems. The overarching gameplay of hunting targets, killing them and finding an extraction point is, by and large, a front. You’re really here to delve into parts of the game that you’re only tenuously meant to see. By poking and prodding in places that you shouldn’t and doing things you might not expect, you’ll find that this seedy underbelly of a game has a seedy underbelly of its own.
To get you started: did you know there’s secret rooms that are only available when you’re playing at 640×480? Because that’s totally a thing, and it’s just the beginning. This game will eat you alive if you let it.
You have to let it, though. This game is, undeniably, hideous. It’s brutally difficult at first as well, rewarding patient players who form a plan and explore more than your run-and-gun types…until, later, it rewards the run-and-gun types who’ve made a point of loading up on the spiciest weapons available. It’s also more than happy to hide all its best moments behind layer after layer of arcane secrets. It’ll let you dig as far as you want and as deep as you please. Maybe there’ll even be something down there.
That’s the pitch for Cruelty Squad, really: it’s a nightmare shooter that looks like it’s from 1993, plays like it’s from 2021 and feels like you’re playing something that shouldn’t have existed. It requires a certain perspective and maybe even a certain kind of player. If you’re willing to give it the time, though, Cruelty Squad is a hole you can fall into for days. At the bottom there’s probably a big pile of radioactive poop or something. It certainly won’t be for everyone, but this one earns an easy Editor’s Choice from me.