Cruelty Squad: an audio visual nightmare

A dark, surreal tale of late stage capitalism. Explore the twisted world of the cyberpunk dystopia that is Cruelty Squad. Wake up early. Start the grind. Invest, invest, invest! Maintain that CEO mindset. And remember, potential is infinite.

This post has been marked as containing mature or distressing themes.

Beneath the glitz and glam of modern AAA video game titles lies a vast sea of niche indie games. One of these games is Consumer Softproducts’ ‘Cruelty Squad’. A game that looks like a faulty winamp music visualiser, sounds like a dying fax machine, and functions like said fax machine. Gameplay wise Cruelty Squad is in many ways your typical run of the mill tactical shooter, but the difference here being is that the developers of this title weren’t afraid to experiment and make some bold creative decisions. Cruelty squad is a nauseating mess of eye burning visuals, incoherent dialogue plastered over a vague and abstract story, and forcefully fed into a vile, distressing, and colourfully bleak world. First impressions with the game might even leave you considering the game an elaborate joke, one where the developer intentionally corrupted the files of a game from the 90’s so that textures don’t load in properly. However, just under the surface of all this there is a true work of art. 

Opening the game, you’re greeted with a very unintuitive UI. It might be uncomfortable to use but it works. Loading into your first level you’ll see it looks like a ps1 era game that a toddler with an array of crayons went wild on. Cruelty Squad is not a pretty game, and it doesn’t want to be. At its best it looks like a weird outdated internet virus, at its worst it can be downright nauseating. If you’re like me then you already know you’ll love this kind of visual aesthetic, as for everyone else however I understand that this may be quite off putting; It might even take you some time to get used to.The sound design is incredibly fitting to the visual style. It knows how to create an atmosphere fitting to its unique setting. The game features a lot of surreal ambient tracks that create an unnerving hostile environment, this is done through a range of techniques from using droning digital choirs to unearthly and freakish sound effects arranged to produce a soundscape fitting for a nightmare. The music also then ranges to a series of much more melodic and chirpy tracks, reminiscent of SNES games, arranged to just border on the line of cheerfulness as to dance around the uncanny valley and make the player that more uncomfortable.

So what about the story? Well to put it briefly the story is bleak. You're a depressed grunt working in a sewer infested cyberpunk world fueled by a gig economy. You take on the role of a biologically augmented assassin in order to make rent. That’s about all there is to it. Before each mission you are given a short brief about your objective, where you’re going and why, who you’re assigned to kill, etc. The game takes you through a world that is hyper corrupted by capitalism, where any second spent out of that CEO mindset and avoiding the grind is a second spent wasting your pitifully brief life and squandering company time. The dialogue parodies the very real topics and issues we face today, but does so with aggressively tongue in cheek internet humour. Perhaps this is done to draw parallels on certain responses and attitudes some people, governments, and corporations have towards the mentioned issues and themes; or perhaps this is just another way to make the world they have created that more obnoxious to the player. The story is there, it is no masterpiece, but it is certainly there if you wish to follow it beneath all the incoherent chatter and screams of npcs.

Each mission acts as an open sandbox style area, where you as the player are allowed to execute your task before moving onto the next. To talk in depth or describe some of the locations the game takes you to would be to spoil half the fun of playing, so I wont. I will say however the locations drastically differ from each other, to a point where it arguably affects even the type of game you are playing; whether that be puzzle, a linear shooter, or even horror. You start with two very simplistic weapons, but you unlock more through finding them across the map, encouraging an exploratory approach to playing. Enemies drop quickly, but you drop quicker, so you may find this game challenging to initially get into. This isn’t challenging for the sake of being challenging either, the game doesn’t want you to feel welcome in any sense of the word and that’s with good reason. There is a deliberate lack of hand holding the developers have designed into this game and this is done to create a nihilistic playground for you to explore and suffer through. To play this game you need to embrace a mindset that allows you to explore, fail, and adjust your approach; because discovering weapons, hidden paths, npcs, and a whole host of secrets is all in the fun of the game. You might be searching for routes to certain vantage points in order to avoid enemies when you take out or target, or maybe you found a fishing rod you can use to disarm troublesome foes so you can approach the task head on. Where there might be a labyrinth of enemies in front of you, there might be a platforming challenge to the same destination tucked away just out of sight behind you. The game is challenging in whatever way you make it challenging, if you can identify your own strengths and give it the time to understand, Cruelty Squad can offer near endless replayability as to how you want to approach it. Once you finish your mission, you are rewarded with money. The currency system isn’t much to behold however there is an ingame stock market. The market, aside from your expected list of companies and stocks, deals with trading the pleasant mix of both human organs or fish. On a certain unlockable difficulty you are able to harvest human organs to sell on the market from fallen npcs, and the fish? Well, you can just go fishing as you please if you manage to find both the fishing rod and any body of water (sewers included). So whether or not you want to earn some extra cash by hunting down those who’ve wronged you and selling their organs for personal profit like some sort of deranged psychopath, or live the simple life of a fisherman, that’s up to you. And as a pleasant surprise, the stock market is reactive to the game. It is an extremely volatile market that ticks away at every second, so be sure not to sink all your hard earned cash without due care before doing anything that might affect the market for better or for worse. But what can you do with the money that you earn? A key feature of the game is the ability to purchase biological augmentations. You can purchase these augmentations and swap them out as you please between levels. On paper this sounds like some sleek cyberpunk power fantasy from the likes of ‘Deus Ex’ or ‘Cyberpunk 2077’, but in practice this is more so like experiencing some grotesque body horror from a David Cronenberg film that you’re banking on coin toss to whether or not it’s going to be beneficial to you or not. These augmentations dramatically change how you play the game, from how you see the world, how you move through it, and even how it reacts to you. One augmentation might simply give you more armour, another might give you even more armour but in return completely obscure your vision. It’s a mechanic that makes you question whether it’s risk versus reward, or if there’s an easier way altogether. Is it junk just because it’s jank? Or are you just approaching it from the wrong direction?

So why play it? Visually, it is difficult to look at. Audibly, it sounds abrasive. Mechanically, it can be cryptic and challenging. But beneath all of this there is something that has a lot of passion worked into it. Everything it does, it does immaculately. It doesn’t want to be nice, or predictable. It wants to stand out, be visually distinct. Cruelty Squad offers a truly unique experience that doesn’t care if you have a nice time with it or not, it is simply happy to give you the opportunity to find out. This game isn’t for everyone, and I don’t necessarily want to argue that you should like it. However, I do believe that people should give art like this a chance because underneath the grime and discomfort there is something beautiful to be found. There’s so much room to explore and experiment with interactive media that when it decides to step out of the normative expectations of video games, like this one, it really shows just how much untapped potential there still is for the medium. Some things might seem needlessly cruel, or difficult, but these things are designed to encourage the player to experiment and explore the options you can find that make it easier. There’s never just one way to approach something. And this playful approach to playing a game is honestly something I feel is missing from so many creative works. The ability to fail and learn is an essential part of growth.

Header Image Credit: Consumer Softproducts' header for Cruelty Squad's store page

Author

James Middleton

James Middleton

24 year old artist from Birmingham. I create audio visual work manipulated and generated through a hybrid of both digital and analogue mediums. Through the misuse of computer software and the utilisation of today’s outdated technology I apply techniques within my practice to play with the concepts of chance and control within art.

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