The mission was going great until I shot a toilet.
We once wrote on PC Gamer about what toilets can teach us about game design, and how an interactive toilet is a hallmark of a game that takes the 'reality' of its world seriously. A flushable toilet tells you what kind of game you're playing. So does a toilet that explodes into a toxic green cloud that poisons you, leaving you to hack and retch until your health ticks down to zero. That kind of toilet tells you you're playing Cruelty Squad.
In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2021, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We'll post new staff picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
Surely the result of a severe food poisoning fever dream, Cruelty Squad gleefully aims to depict what rancid sushi does to your body in the form of a first-person shooter. Walls and floors are dizzying grids of repeating puke textures or leering tiled faces. Cruelty Squad has the broad structure of an immersive sim like Deus Ex, with elaborate spaces you're meant to explore and find secret routes through to determine your own angle of approach.
But where Deus Ex and other immersive sims strive for some approximation of realism, Cruelty Squad says fuck that. Why should a long hallway lead to anything? Why should you expect to walk all the way around the back side of an armored fortress and find a secret entrance? That's normal videogame logic, and Cruelty Squad doesn't care about any logic of its own. It's out to pulverize your brain at every opportunity.
Sometimes you can carry a garbage can into a room to climb up to a vent, but other times you'll find yourself lost in a maze of rooms that lead nowhere. Sometimes you open a door and there's just a wall of flesh behind it. Sometimes a door is just… tiny, and you think maybe some pills will shrink you down to get through it, but actually the pills turn the entire world upside down and you get stuck in a funky corner of the floor that used to be the the ceiling and you just have to restart the level.
Paired with the gurgling, screeching, droning, pulsating soundtrack, every space makes me feel disoriented and confused and honestly a little sick. Cruelty Squad gives me a headache. But it earns that headache. I've never played anything that assaults my senses in this way.
I'm sure there was something clever I could do to get through that tiny door—Cruelty Squad does let you upgrade your character in some classic videogamey ways, but with its own pukey twist. instead of earning a grappling hook you turn your own intestines into one. You can enhance your zoom if you exchange your eyeballs for bionic eyes that haunt me just like the Polish movie poster for Alien. There are upgrades to find that give you new abilities, like a bouncy ball suit that eliminates fall damage, and these open up entirely new strategies for replaying each open-ended level. You can also pick up the organs of people you blast into ragged bloody chunks and sell them on the black market, or pump your hitman earnings into the stock market to make a buck when you trepan the next dirtbag CEO.
I appreciate just how completely Cruelty Squad commits to being a filthy hypercapitalist hellscape. Calling it satirical just feels quaint—if it's meant to hold up a mirror to the worst of our society in 2021, it's a mirror someone first fractured into a thousand pieces and then vomited on to tinge our reflection with bile.
It's hard not to fixate on the outwardly deranged elements of Cruelty Squad, but underneath that theming it's a genuinely satisfying hair-trigger shooter where both you and enemies die in a few shots. Every mission just charges you with killing a key target or two and then getting out, and that flexible structure works just as well here as it does in Hitman. It just happens to involve a lot more intestines.