Cruelty Squad is a lab-grown monstrosity, created through genetically splicing samples from Deus Ex, Quake and Hitman. Destined to be a cult hit on release, the game is intentionally obnoxious through its visual style and sound design, while taking a nihilistic tongue-in-cheek approach to satirical commentary on gaming and society as a whole.
If the presentation doesn’t initially put you off, you’ll find a surprisingly refined gameplay experience with some interesting mechanics that I hope other developers consider leveraging in future.
The primary objective in each mission is to assassinate one or more targets, their locations being marked on screen with a crosshair icon. As the marker is physically attached to the target and can be seen through walls, the first step is figuring out the route to your target/s.
Between you and your target will be a mixture of non-hostile NPCs (talk to them, trust me), as well as hostile guards, armoured golems (armour piercing weapons needed) and some more interesting biological targets.
Once you’ve successfully eliminated all of the targets in the level, you must proceed to the exit. Sometimes the exit is near where you started and there may be a shortcut back. Some levels include multiple exits.
Additionally, four levels include secret exits, granting you access to four of the game’s six secret levels. You do not need to assassinate the current mission’s targets before using a secret exit.
Weapons, Implants & Loadouts
Your character is capable of carrying two weapons at a time and can equip up to four implants, each corresponding with a different part of your character’s anatomy (head, chest, arms and legs).
The weapons range from genre staples (e.g. silenced pistols, shotguns, rifles), to more exotic and unique guns, such as the ZKZ Transactional Rifle, with damage that scales with the amount of money you have invested in the stock market (more on that later).
Cruelty Squad’s implants can boost your character’s stealth and defensive capabilities, with body armour upgrades and tools for delaying the time between enemies seeing you and detection. Some implants, like the Grappendix (the game’s grappling hook), grant additional abilities, while others are jokes by the designer or serve a specific use case.
New weapons are discovered throughout Cruelty Squad’s campaign and can be selected between stages, providing the player is carrying the weapon in one of the two weapon slots on level completion.
Some implants can be purchased between stages in the Equipment & Implants menu, while others are found during missions. You do not need to complete the current mission to keep newly acquired implants, they will be accessible regardless (useful knowledge for the Hazmat Suit in Bog Business).
Don’t worry about losing your Divine Light!
The time for enemies to kill you in Cruelty Squad can be brutal, you may even die during your first level. After your first death, you will see the “Divine Light Severed” message (Image 5), corresponding with a reduction in game difficulty to “Flesh Automaton”. You will no longer be able to access divine doors and enemy damage is significantly reduced.
I’d managed to access the divine door (Image 6) in the first level during my first attempt, giving me early access to the game’s rocket launcher (Security System Anti-Armor Device). I died shortly after, while attempting to kill the level’s second target. Part of me wanted to delete my save and start again, as I wasn’t sure how to restore my Divine Light or if I would be able to do so.
Don’t fret, there are a couple of levels with Divine Light restoration pickups and as with collecting implants, you can return to the level selection menu straight after picking it up!
Welcome dying during your first playthrough
After dying multiple times in the same level on Flesh Automaton, the game reduces your difficulty again to “Power In Misery”. This is the game’s lowest difficulty level, granting you the ability to eat corpses to restore health with an additional reduction in incoming damage.
Even in the lowest difficulty, it’s possible to die in seconds, particularly when experiencing a level for the first time. Don’t let this reduction in difficulty bother you, it’s a chance to explore and learn levels with less risk of dying. You can always come back later with your Divine Light restored and the knowledge you’ve gained through your initial attempts!
Stocks, Organs & Fishing
Cruelty Squad has an economy system that doesn’t detract from the core assassination experience. Successful mission attempts come with a cash reward, and money can be made through buying and selling company stocks, trading in bodily organs and fish.
Fishing is the easiest way to make money overall. The fishing rod can be picked up during the Sin Space Engineering mission and takes up a weapon slot. Once you have the rod, try casting your line into bodies of water and clicking when you get a bite. You may not be able to catch certain types of fish at first, but you get an implant later to help with that (Tattered Rain Hat).
Organ harvesting is best done in “Power In Misery” mode, as eating corpses gibs enemies and enemies must be gibbed to collect organs from their remains. In later stages, the fish you catch are worth far more than the organs requiring less effort.
Outside of purchasing the Grappendix and Gunkboosters, I wouldn’t worry too much about making money in the early game. There’s a fish in Casino Catastrophe that’s easily caught with the Tattered Rain Hat, worth $1,000,000. Sell what you need to buy the House level, followed by the upgrades you want and keep the rest of the fish for when you get the ZKZ Transactional Rifle.
A Unique, [semi] Accessible Experience
I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Cruelty Squad. It’s intentionally ugly and designed to look like Steam shovel-ware. Nevertheless, this veneer covers a well-executed stealth/assassination experience, with competent level design and re-playability through providing different ways to progress through levels, as well as a novel difficulty mechanic.
This book has an ugly cover that’s riddled with herpes, emits sounds like nails on a chalkboard and smells like a corpse. But don’t be put off! Grin and bear it for a bit, you may find it growing on you in no time!