By Ryan O'Connell
Sometimes, all you want to do after a hard day’s work is jump into a world where you can build your investment portfolio with human organs and assassinate high-ranking businessmen you know nothing about. “Cruelty Squad” can help with both.
Developed and published by Consumer Softproducts in June 2021, “Cruelty Squad” is an immersive sim best known for its surreal, almost nauseating visual style – but it’s so much more than that.
You play as a hitman in a hyper-capitalist cyberpunk future, fulfilling orders to assassinate anyone who your high-paying clients mark for death. Whether they be political rivals, rogue CEOs, or underperforming business partners, the player is the one who ultimately does the dirty work.
But it’s hard to appreciate or even critique the game when it’s difficult to get past the store page. The first impressions of “Cruelty Squad” are negative at worst and intriguing at best.
These intense feelings are mostly due to the creative art direction, painting the world with wide swathes of repeating textures, harsh limes and magentas, and unintelligible designs. It’s mesmerizing in a fresh and ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way, and definitely something to see for yourself.
Despite these bizarre choices, “Cruelty Squad” distracts from the visuals of the “sewage infused garbage world” it takes place in through a surprising number of ways. From the solid core gameplay to the deep lore, there’s so much more going on than you’d gather from the visual style.
The level design follows a sandbox structure, meaning individuals can explore the area at their own pace toward a goal – usually a target or two – which needs to be killed before locating an exit and escaping.
Not only does this allow each player to develop their own unique approach to the missions, but it also happens in a natural and engaging way, something becoming increasingly rare in first-person shooters.
Complementing this freedom of movement is the expansive catalog of weaponry and body augments, which the player can obtain in several ways. Sometimes through simple purchases with in-game currency, and other times only accessible by secret passages intermittently buried in the 19 levels.
Some of my favorite options include a handgun that turns people into mounds of flesh, a rifle that gains power with your liquid asset value, and a body augmentation that turns your left arm into a grappling hook.
And despite the engaging gameplay and creative selection of options, “Cruelty Squad” is more than an incredibly fun, solid cyberpunk shooter – it’s a critique.
The disturbingly colorful world, the seemingly odd dialogue, and even the general plot all serve to mock capitalist society. The game consistently builds o[ this as you hunt down a wealth of absurd targets, many of whom the player might recognize as better people than the ones you work for.
A favorite target is a CEO who is doing “too good of a job trying to increase the survival rate of our [the company’s] mission to Mercury,” as the project “is first and foremost a sacrificial mission designed to satiate the appetites of some of our higher ups.”
I could not make that up if I tried.
“Cruelty Squad” is a type of avant garde approach to video games that uses an offensive visual style and a nihilistic world to tell a story of human suffering and how corporations came to rule.
And I cannot recommend it enough.
It’s a peek into a future not too dissimilar from ours, and pokes fun at a direction we may be headed – toward an environment where business goals are worth more consideration than civilians, corruption is rampant and obvious, a consumer culture consumes us all, and where a hyper-militarized police is a normality.
“Cruelty Squad” is constantly walking the line between self-aware and too far into the joke, consistently reminding players of harsh realities they’re probably trying to ignore, and actually puts the “punk” into cyberpunk as a genre.
Videogames are art. At least this one is.