by Samuel Corey
reviewed on PC
The Ugliest Game Ever Made
The first thing you'll notice about Cruelty Squad is how hideous the graphics look. Indeed, it's downright impressive how ugly this game is. The art style is lifted from early 3D games of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but where those were often ugly as the result of an accident or technical limitations, Cruelty Squad is ugly by deliberate design choice. The game even goes out of its way to assault the sense with garish clashing colors. The NPC models look like they were made out of sodden toilet paper. Even mundane objects become bizarre, as doors are often given crudely drawn faces and walls frequently pulsate with tumor-like growths.
The screen is ringed at all times with an unsettling flesh-like border that helpfully informs you that yes, you are currently playing Cruelty Squad... As if you could possibly mistake this for something else. All in-game text, including the options menu, is scrawled out in a crude font that resembles the handwriting of a small child or someone suffering from a severe case of Parkinson's. Even the health bar, a massive neon green pulsating tumor taking up the entire upper left quadrant of the screen, seems painstakingly designed to be as ugly and unpleasant as possible. The music is, if anything, even more, atrocious than the visuals. The overall effect is unsettling in the same way that tilting your cartridge on the N64. The game gives an impression of wrongness with every aspect of its design.
This is no doubt, partially a marketing decision. The game certainly made an impression on me when I stumbled on the Steam page. I'm sure a good number of its sales were people who, upon seeing the atrocious screenshots and disturbing trailer, bought the game just to see if the entire game really looked like that. Yet, if Cruelty Squad really was just an impressive troll game it would be good for a laugh and nothing more. Fortunately, the game's grotesque visuals, dissonant music, and bizarre design are all in service of its theme.
The World of Cruelty Squad
It is fitting that Cruelty Squad is as grotesque in appearance as it is, as the world it takes place in is hideous and repulsive in the extreme. Cruelty Squad takes place in a nightmarish future, that at first glance just seems like an especially depressing version of cyberpunk. Vast corporate interests dominate the planet, enforcing their will through the usual mix of subtle psychological domination and overt terror tactics.
The player character falls into the later part of that equation, being recruited into the titular Cruelty Squad where you're given a series of targets to eliminate, usually anybody who has wronged your corporate overlords in some fashion. The system is hardly just and you'll be frequently asked to assassinate people who have done nothing worse than running a casino where your CEO lost money. The player character is even targeted for assassination once, though this is the result of someone fat-fingering the controls and you're expected to go back to work the next day.
Yet, right away there is something to differentiate the world of Cruelty Squad from your run-of-the-mill cyberpunk hellscapes. Part of it is just the reliance on controlled mutations and synthetic organs as opposed to the classic circuits and wires. Several of the game's upgrades are disgusting biological adaptations, so instead of a normal grapple hook, you'll be swinging around on a modified appendix which is just as repulsive as it sounds.
Those biological modifications become less concerning though as you start to peel back the layers of the onion and dive into Cruelty Squad's cryptic and disturbing lore. For me, the first clue that something else was afoot, came when I was ordered to assassinate the head of an aerospace rocket firm because he's doing too much to limit casualties on the upcoming mass migration to Mercury. With the language of the mission's description calling the trip to Mercury “a sacrificial mission designed to satiate the appetites of some of our higher-ups.” This sounds less like the machinations of insane cyberpunk hyper-capitalist and more akin to the actions of an Aztec god. The veil gets peeled further back as the game progresses, and we learn that in addition to normal corporate overlords the world is also populated by strange supernatural, even divine, creatures. In later levels, the game casually drops mention of things like demons, archons, and trigons.
There really isn't space here to dissect the game's religious/spiritual themes in this review, nor is there any definitive answer about just what is going on below Cruelty Squad's surface. In much the same way as Dark Souls keeps much of its lore obscure offering only a few tantalizing hints in item descriptions and environmental details, so does Cruelty Squad. For the purposes of this review, it suffices to note that the game's world contains a remarkable level of depth and mystery with no clear answers.
Rest assured, though Cruelty Squad may look like dog vomit and sound like someone tossing a trombone into a garbage disposal, it is a remarkably sound game. It never crashed in the 20 hours I spent with it, nor did I even encounter any significant bugs. It is, of course, quite amusing that a game designed to look as janky as possible is, under the hood, in far better shape than most AAA releases, but the solid design of Cruelty Squad goes further than that.
The levels are visually cluttered (often with garish eye-straining colors), yet they remain easy to navigate once your senses have acclimated to all the visual noise. Targets are usually pretty simple to find just by following the target icon marking them, and exit signs are usually not only massive but visible at maximum draw distance to boot. There was only one case (the mall level) where I was genuinely confused about how to finish a mission after eliminating all my targets.
Even the health bar which is massive, garish, and extremely ugly, also serves its purpose on a functional level. I can guarantee you that there will never be a moment where you're at all confused about how much health you have left (unless of course, you're wearing the armor that reduces your field of vision to a knight's visor, intentionally obscuring the health bar as well as your remaining ammunition). A far cry from many, far more expensively produced shooters, where I'm forced to auger my current health based on the amount of dirt and strawberry jam is currently obscuring the screen.
The maps themselves are a perfect size, large enough to feel expansive and hide numerous secrets yet small enough that you are never just wandering around through an empty wasteland. Each one contains a host of optional areas and secrets to delve into, sometimes containing additional weapons or upgrades and sometimes just giving you a peek into the game's disturbing lore. In any event, exploring them is always rewarding, and never tedious.
The gunfights are also utterly thrilling because both you and your targets have such minuscule health pools that shootouts are often decided in a matter of seconds. This gives the game an excellent sense of tension that will have you creeping along slowly through the levels, constantly wary of being ambushed by unseen enemies. This tension when combined with the dissonant music and disturbing visuals creates an atmosphere of fear and terror, that is as effective as some of the better horror games on the market.
Make no mistake, this game is the definition of niche appeal. Its visuals are ugly in a way that is not just visually repellent but deeply unsettling. Its world and lore are in turn, confusing, disturbing, and sickening. Playing its soundtrack above a certain decibel level probably constitutes a war crime. Yet the game demands attention all the same. It's brilliant, disturbing, and endlessly fascinating. I'm painfully aware that not everyone will love Cruelty Squad as much as I do, but those that love it will love it with abandon. For me, it's a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.
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Rich story and lore, though much of it is off the beaten path. Unique visual and audio style creates a lo-fi nightmare world. Genuinely terrifying.
Quite possibly the ugliest game ever made