It’s only March, but I’ve already decided what 2021’s best game is. The title already gave it away, it’s fucking Cruelty Squad.
There’s this meme that’s been going for around the last year or so: “i want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and i’m not kidding.” It has since become something of a rallying cry against the suffocating culture surrounding “prestige” AAA video games, and the White Boy Indie Games that want to be just like them. I’m not here to regurgitate the tired “AAA vs Indie” argument that’s been done to death for about fifteen years. Not every AAA game is bad; Tekken, Resident Evil, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater all count as AAA games. Likewise, not every Indie game is this profound work of art, mostly the ones made by people who post threats in my comments section or hang around with TERFs.
I bring this up because this line is what Cruelty Squad best represents. I have to be careful here, because I need to find the right term to describe this game, but without making it sound disparaging. “Trash.” “Garbage.” “Ugly.” These are terms I’ve seen used to describe Cruelty Squad. Most of the people who say this are not necessarily wrong, mind you, it’s just that to anyone who isn’t a fucked up, problematic, twice-cancelled artist, these sound like insults rather than terms of endearment. I will instead say “aggressively unpolished.” A sardonic shitpost of a vid con with biting commentary that is delivered in a gruesome, extremely violent way. The kind of “messy” art that usually ends with you getting called a brownshirt by a cis woman who’s mad she wasn’t the center of attention for five minutes. It’s brutal. It’s hard as fuck. It’s funny; actually funny, not Borderlands-style “does anyone here like MEMES” bull shit. And the most important thing is the game is actually good. Not ironically good. Good good. This distinction needs to be made here.
So what exactly is Cruelty Squad? For starters, it’s a first person shooter. To be reductive, I would say to imagine what would happen if Hotline Miami was actually good. Fast, objective-based combat with multiple guns to kill people with. You can take different routes, or use an alternate play style, in each level. You can go loud with big guns and mow down everything that moves, or you can take the silent route by sneaking around with silenced guns or by kicking things so hard they explode into a shower of gore. It’s fucking cool as fuck.
Everything takes place in these big, non-linear (at least until the last level) landscapes. There’s no railroaded “Press F To Pay Respects” here. Because you often times have to assassinate more than one person, you can use these environments to pick your spot, so to speak. So you don’t just plan out how you’re going to kill something, with your weapons and your equipment, but where and how. It’s the little things that make this a game worth coming back to. Also, the game is really fucking hard, so you’ll be replaying levels because you keep dying. But that’s fine, hard games are good.
The whole of Cruelty Squad feels like a fucked up dream. One of those dreams where everything makes sense, until you wake up and think about what you saw and did and realize that it was absolute nonsense. The world looks weird. The people look weird. You just sort of teleport around as things just sort of happen. You walk through a wall and have to fight weird looking monsters. You unquestioningly go out of your way to murder an elected official at the mall, a mall with a store simply called “PUNISHMENT” that only sells Funko Pops. The only thing it’s missing is a level where you stock shelves at your old job with your 7th grade math teacher, and a level where you’re back in high school with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, only to realize that you graduated over a decade ago and can leave whenever you want. Few games can pull off the feeling of a lucid dream, even a game about literal dreams. Cruelty Squad does it in terrifying detail. A unique, scary experience.
Cruelty Squad is the game of 2021 because it is an important piece of art. A surrealist commentary on depression, social media, corporations parasocially trying to be your friend, the co-opting of leftist language for sinister means, pretty much anything you can hate about the world in these Roaring Twenties. The gaming equivalent of a mentally broken person, covered in blood, screaming incoherently at the sky. Raw and vulnerable, the final form of art. Despite the garish colors and angular models, Cruelty Squad is the most beautiful game I’ve played in years.