Cruelty Squad

released on Jan 04, 2021

Cruelty Squad is a tactical first person shooter set in the hardcore gig economy of corporate liquidations. You're an emotionally dead combat-substance fueled grunt of Cruelty Squad, a depraved subsidiary company tasked with performing wetworks for its host conglomerate. Will you make the Corporate Arch Demoness proud or succumb to bitter tears of failure?

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Cruelty Squad quickly desensitizes the player into its nihilistic post-capitalism sewer world just to help immerse them into one of my favorite immersive sims. The grotesque style feeds directly into the games format making for one of the most interesting, engaging, funny, and surprising games in a while.

Cruelty Squad, despite seemingly marketing itself as a shitpost, is genuinely one of the best games I’ve played in a while. A modern masterpiece featuring satisfying ImSim gameplay, a surprising number of deep mechanics and perhaps the most ruthless, scathing satire of late-capitalist ideology in gaming history.
9 / 10
Cruelty Squad defies explanation and analysis in a way that makes it both extremely tantalising as well as almost completely impossible to write about, at least without typing up a literal master’s thesis. In many ways, it’s a cynical, cruel funhouse mirror of our own deteriorating society, unmasking and amplifying its worst elements in a way that seems almost delighted in how brutal and unfair our environment has become. The society it depicts is deeply disgusting, vile, loathsome, and as a result, so is everyone living within its confines. Human lives are worth less than a Funkopop - sorry, Chunkopop - and capital has evolved beyond simply being the means by which this world’s economy is animated, towards being an actual, literal omnipotent god. This is a world that would haunt even Ayn Rand’s nightmares, a society fundamentally built on the esotericism of the Sigma-CEO-Grindset.
In other ways, Cruelty Squad is a fantastic and (mostly) enjoyable experience that tricks you into thinking you’re just getting some dumb, “xD random” Steam shitpost game, when you’re actually getting the lovechild of Deus Ex and Half-life with an addiction to LSD Dream Emulator with some seriously evil satire of late capitalist consumer culture. It feels like what a middle-aged Immersive Sim would see if it developed full blown, psychedelics-induced paranoid schizophrenia early in its childhood. It’s a violently colourful, lightning paced cacophony of sensory inputs that walks a tight line between melting your brain with complete and utter nonsense and giving you the feeling of experiencing the grandest epiphany known to man. If the societal criticism of something like Disco Elysium is like a fine and elegant sword strike into the heart of capitalist ideology, Cruelty Squad has the energy of a crackhead armed with a shank made from a toothbrush, hacking it to pieces and cannibalising its remains.
You can see, it’s almost impossible to write about this game without going into a frenzy of unnecessary verbal flourishes just to approximate the experience it gives you from the first second onward. So I’ll be going into the rest of this review how I damn well please - just like the Sigma CEO I am.
You play as a total loser, a poor sod falling through the cracks of the system. You have no job and no money. Suddenly you get a call from a friend who calls you a worthless bum and offers you a job as a member of the titular Cruelty Squad, which is basically like Uber, but you order mercenaries instead of drivers. A group of emotionless, braindead corporate liquidators who keep this utterly dystopian gig economy alive through unmitigated, gruesome violence against the enemies of the ruling class.
But before we get into all of that, I’ll start with the least complicated subject - gameplay. OR; so you would think. This game, despite pretending to be some elaborate shitpost, has a boatload of deep and cryptic mechanics that you might only fully grasp on your second or even third playthrough. But let’s start with the basics.
Although it initially presents itself as a fast paced retro shooter like the OG DOOM, Quake, CS or even something like Ultrakill, and the breakneck speed at which your character can potentially move certainly lends itself to that sort of play style. In reality however, this game is actually an Immersive Sim and cleaves much closer to games like Deus Ex, Prey or System Shock (2) than it does Half-life or Call of Duty in terms of overall design. As per usual with that genre, you have a wide assortment of weapons, both melee and ranged, as well as a body augmentation system which lets you unlock passive power ups, special abilities ranging from combat- to platforming-centric, and even some super leftfield shit that I still don’t fully understand to this day. This variety in options, as well as the generally fantastic level design, leads to environments with sheer endless possibilities for emergent gameplay and unique scenarios. Levels are typically constructed as big, open spaces featuring more narrow and maze-like spaces on the inside. These levels are populated by 2 types of NPCs, enemies and civilians. Enemies range from normal(-ish) guys with guns to some creatures that can only be described as truly strange abominations, like giant flower lions or a fleshy bouncy castle. Your targets are usually just civilian-type NPCs, but some can actually fight back.
It needs to be noted that the run-and-gun approach isn’t the only way to play this game - although the game does heavily incentivise playing as quickly and efficiently as possible through the “Mission results” grading system, ranging from C to S. The only thing that’s relevant for this rating is the speed at which you complete the level. There are no penalties for killing civilians, no bonuses for avoiding anyone but the target, no extra points for exploration, and obviously no pacifism rewards. All that matters is getting the job done. The rating doesn’t do anything either, it’s purely for bragging rights. What’s really surprising is just how many different approaches actually work. On my first playthrough I tried playing it like I was playing DOOM but realised that enemies will kill you VERY quickly if you aren’t careful. Which is why I adopted a more Deus Ex-y, stealth and platforming based approach that had me constantly weave in and out of a building, taking careful shots at enemies from far away at first, to then eventually get close and personal and start blasting as soon as the opportunity arose. It was honestly way more fun that I thought at first and I greatly appreciate that, while the game clearly prefers you going out of your way to cause as much mayhem as possible, it still lets you take it nice and slow and pretend you’re Solid Snake if you want to. Ultimately, this is something that every great ImSim should aim for.
Something that differentiates Cruelty Squad a bit from the other ImSims is that inventory management as a mechanic has been completely cut from the game, in favour of a loadout-based approach, where you choose which augmentations and weapons to take with you on your next mission. You can equip up to 2 weapons and 4 augmentations, one for your head, arms, chest and legs. While I do understand the idea behind it - take only 2 weapons with you and search the rest of the level for new and better weapons - I did find it needlessly restrictive. Not unreasonably so, but it was a small annoyance I thought wasn’t really needed. I don’t need a full army’s worth of guns on me at all times, but at least 1 or 2 unlockable extra weapon slots would’ve made for a nice addition for me. I think I might’ve been more ok with it if all manners of extra attacks like grenades, extra weapons, the super kick and so on weren’t also locked behind augmentations - especially on slots like the arm, where you you’d almost always want a completely different augmentation, which in 90% of cases is gonna be the Grappendix.
Why? Because it’s a built in grappling hook (in the form of an appendix) that can latch on to ANYTHING. Yes, anything. That means you have virtually 0 restrictions on where to use this thing, and yes, it’s as game breaking as it sounds. It takes 10.000$ to unlock, but as soon as you do, the real game begins. But here’s the crazy part - it’s not the only aug that lets you completely turn the entire game on its head like that. Some other examples include the Abominator, which lets you reverse gravity at the press of a button. And yeah, again, this is utterly game breaking in the best way possible. I just love how much this game trusts you with doing some wild shit with these augs, and isn’t too concerned about keeping things too “balanced”, or whatever. Matter of fact, often the odds are already so heavily stacked against you that making use of these abilities doesn’t even feel like you’re cheating.
On your first job, you’ll be dropped right into Pharmakokinetiks - that is, if you don’t complete the tutorial level first, in which you can (but don’t have to) complete a little training course at Cruelty Squad HQ to familiarise yourself with the game’s basic mechanics like shooting, platforming, sneaking, opening/circumnavigating doors, etc. There are also a bunch of secrets here, and some stuff that is relevant for the true ending of the game, but more on that later. Back to Pharmakokinetiks, which is a semi openly designed area consisting of a large, central building with multiple ways in or out, including the obligatory air shaft, proving that this IS indeed an immersive sim. Here is where you’re more than likely are gonna be confronted with this game’s approach to shifting difficulty, which is really unique and interesting.
Enemies are fast, aggressive, have good aim and tracking and seem designed to run around in the most unpredictable, skittish pattern imaginable, consequently making hitting them while alerted as hard as possible. Meaning: You’ll more than likely get your ass kicked on your first couple of attempts here. Upon dying for the first time, you’ll be met with the message “Divine Light severed”, your bank account goes -500$ in debt, and the mechanical looking HUD has been replaced for a mix of flesh and metal. Die 4 more times in the same level, and you’ll get the message “Power in Misery - Traversing the gift of death”, the HUD becomes fully fleshy and your boss informs you that: “Due to your wasting of company resources by hogging the genetic recombinator, you've been selected to participate in an experimental biological enhancement program. All your debt is cleared and from now on your body will regenerate by itself. Can't say I envy you though."
So what does any of this mean?
This game has 4 modes of difficulty, and they cannot be actually be picked deliberately, but are rather tied to your actions in this game. You start with the default difficulty, called “Divine Light”, in which enemies deal normal (which is to say, very high) damage and no special bonuses, except for a couple of doors throughout the various levels that can only be accessed while on this difficulty. If you die once in any level, you’ll transition into “Flesh Automaton” mode, in which enemies do half damage, but no other changes. Further deaths eventually transition you into “Power in Misery” mode, which is the mode in which you’ll most likely spend 90% of the game in. Enemies still deal half damage, but there is one door in Pharmakokinetiks with one of the few friendly NPCs inside who informs you of another perk of your new, gross fleshy form: You can EAT dead bodies for a tiny health boost, and also to save some money. How so? Well, because you can also STEAL THEIR ORGANS and sell them on the black market. Due to your newfound appreciation for cannibalising the working class, he considers you family. Finally, there is “Hope Eradicated”, but the game’s first ending can be achieved without ever achieving this mode. Enemies deal full damage, the HUD turns blue, every stage gets new, beefed up enemies and the sky turns red. This mode is only relevant for unlocking the second and then the final, true ending of the game. Again, more on that a bit later.
This sudden and extreme downgrade for the character right at the start of the game can feel extremely disempowering and makes you feel like you failed significantly super early in your playthrough, and that is very clearly by design. It really sets the tone for the rest of the experience, in which you have to effectively climb a mountain of corpses of people who are just as pathetic and sad as you. Everyone, except the TRULY rich, is getting fucked by this system, and no-one is safe from its all-devouring maw. Even the people who would usually be considered rich, like the suburbanites in Paradise, are revealed to be effectively middle-class, due to how immensely more wealthy those at the top actually are compared to even those who can afford big mansions and private security forces.
You can also increase the difficulty for individual levels by selecting “Punshiment mode”. In this mode, enemies will deal twice the damage they would depending on your current difficulty mode. Power in Misery usually gives you 50% enemy damage, this way it’s 100, while on Divine Light or Hope Eradicated, you’ll now take 200% damage, which essentially means you die in one hit. As a trade off, you get twice the reward money AND, if you beat any level on Punishment for the first time, you’ll get restored back to Divine Light. This only works ONCE per level though, if you die at any point after that you’ll be permanently locked out of it until you either a.) get to the Archon Grid mission at around the halfway point (or ending, depending on how committed you are) or b.) find the secret area in Cruelty Squad HQ.
The final, and one of the game’s most important mechanics takes the form of an in-game stock exchange, in which you can buy and sell shares from the many companies existing in this universe. As mentioned, you can also buy and sell organs. Neat. Oh, and fish too, for some reason. Next to finishing missions over and over again, this will be your main way of making money in this game. And just like in real life, this stock exchange is completely arbitrary, doesn’t make a lick of sense and will decide to fuck you over because it feels like it, but once in a blue moon you may get lucky with some unforeseen development in your favour. The only thing I understand about this system is that it resets every time you boot up the game, so you can never be sure which companies might blow up over night, and which ones will suddenly lose you money. There are some companies, and some of the organs and fish that will seemingly always become completely worthless, I’m not sure what triggers this. You can use this money to buy various new augmentations, and even an entire level.
With that all out of the way, let’s get into this game’s level design.
Generally speaking, it’s fantastic. Its biggest influence stems very clearly from the original Deus Ex first and foremost, as the progression in this game works by going from level to level in a linear fashion. These levels are generally designed in a very open manner, allowing multiple ways of access. Let’s take the first level as an example again.
In Pharmakokinetiks, you’ll be confronted with finding a single target hiding inside the office building of a local pharmaceutical company. I assume that finding your way in isn’t all that easy at first if you’re not familiar with how these games usually work. Most obviously you have the front door. You could just waltz in guns blazing, but that will more than likely get you killed very quickly. There is a back alley to the right of the entrance gated off by a small fence, next to the only “Power in Misery” door in the game. You could either break down the flimsy wood door with an explosive, or stack a bunch of barrels on top of each other and go over it. Alternatively, you may find your way up a bunch of stacked containers to the left of the building and find your way in via a good, old air vent - which is how I went about it. And those are just 3 of the ways the devs actually intended you can go in. You could also use the baton to allow for small wall jumps up to a window, break it, and go in that way. Or climb on the roof and snipe the enemies from the other side and THEN go in through another window. And that’s all without taking into account the many and varied augmentations you can apply to your character before entering the level, but - you guessed it - more on that later. This all works beautifully and way better than you’d expect at first.
For the most part the gameplay loop for all levels is the same: Go in, kill the target(s), find the exit. But, of course, that’s not all there is to do by a long shot. Every level features an abundance of secrets, both in terms of hidden goodies as well as interesting lore tidbits and, uh, “side quests” as it were. Some levels even feature hidden gateways to other, secret levels in the form of paintings. A few of them are pretty deviously hidden, and require you to come back way later, when you acquired the right augmentations, or “implants” as they are called here. Speaking of which, not all of them have to be bought, some have to be found within levels, just like weapons. The latter has the added caveat of having to be physically held in your hand while leaving the level to be fully unlocked. Needless to say, having only 2 weapon slots can make that process quite challenging if the level you’re in is somehow tricky. The same isn’t true for augs, luckily, those are unlocked as soon as you grab them, and stay that way even if you die in the process of grabbing it.
The next level on the list is already one of my all time favourites, the little town of Paradise. In it, you can actually drive around in a car, which makes the funniest fucking noise known to man when it goes fast. It’s probably THE most openly designed level in the whole game, and this time you have 3 targets. It features probably the most secrets out of any level, has an entire underground section you can only access a bit later in your playthrough, realistically at least. The three targets all live in different houses, and security is tight. This mission really tests your ingenuity first and foremost, as walking in through the front gate is a recipe for disaster every time. If you’re smart and resourceful, like using the baton to wall jump up to places you shouldn’t be yet, you can get some seriously overpowered weapons and augs for the early game here. The level after this one, Sin Space Engineering is constructed more like Pharmakokinetiks, one large, central chamber surrounded by a lot of open space. You can find a whole bunch of weapons and augs here and learn a lot about this world’s lore, as well as find one of the most important NPCs in the game here: The guy with the fishing rod. It might not seem like it, but the fishing rod is your best option for making a fast buck. While organs are usually a quicker way of making smaller amounts of money, some rarer fish can earn you some proper fat sums, up to 1 million for a very particular kind of fish. But others can also easily net you multiple thousands per piece though. Just remember to actually grab the fishing rod on your way out. The next level, Androgen Assault, takes the form of a dark, spooky police station, and it kinda delves into more horror themed topics. The music is dark and oppressive, the monstrous noises coming from all sides are stressful as all hell, and the level introduces you to some of the game’s most irritating enemies.
Generally speaking, I love pretty much all of the levels here, with only some exceptions. The only one I would I say I’m not a huge fan of is Bog Business, which takes place in - you guessed it - a poisonous bog. The poison melts through your healthbar like a 1000° knife through butter, pretty much every enemy has long range weapons and the design isn’t particularly interesting either. The saving grace would be the fact you can find a bunch of goodies, as well as an entire secret level here. While this mission feels kinda annoying to play through, it also feels like that’s the point, like the devs are taking the piss. I also wasn’t a huge fan of the game’s true final level, Trauma Loop. It feels unnecessarily brutal and cruel, yes, even for the final level of a game called “Cruelty Squad”. That last section is nigh on impossible if you don’t know what you’re doing. Some other areas that left me a bit cold were; Apartment Atrocity, which is just a bit short and uninteresting (even IF you get to shoot your landlord in the head, which is always a plus!), Miner’s Miracle, which can get very frustrating with enemy placements on higher difficulties as well as takes too long to get you from the start of the level to where you actually need to go (which means dying here is SUPER punishing) as well as the locked-off section of Cruelty Squad HQ. Other than a story relevant mission, as well as the most broken gun in the game, there isn’t a lot here.
Luckily, the rest of Cruelty Squad’s missions are generally extremely good. If I had to make a tier list, I’d rank the majority of levels in either S or A tier, with only a few in B and only the ones I already mentioned in C and D tier. S Tier would include areas like the aforementioned Paradise or Sin Space Engineering. Or, take the extremely interestingly designed Idiot Party, which involves murdering the members of an elite cult meeting up in the “Rothenburg” Fortress as well as their security forces. The place is basically just one massive hole in the ground, meaning; with enough platforming finesse you can skip the entire thing and get straight to the target, although properly exploring the place is not only worthwhile, but also really fun. Another easy S comes in the form of the Office level, which has the potential to become one of the most chaotic experiences of the game, but also has some of the most interesting, vertical design out of all of them. The grappling hook and super jump upgrades really come into their own here. Finally, perhaps one of my favourite levels in the whole game; the lovely cruise ship extravaganza called “Seaside Shock”. Here, you murder the inhabitants of a Peter Thiel-esque, Libertarian floating city-ship for the ultra rich. It’s one of the largest levels and allows for so many approaches, but I personally loved finding my way to the rooftop and snipe just about every enemy in the game from there. I also went with a run and gun approach as well, and it worked just as beautifully. It also houses another secret level.
There are plenty of other levels in this game, but I don’t feel like going over each and every one here. They’re all at least good, with the best of them being among the best levels in the genre. Once again, I have to note that the level design being generally this good is nothing short of amazing, and once again shows that you should never judge a book by its cover - or a game by its aesthetics.
Speaking of aesthetics, let’s talk about what is easily Cruelty Squad’s most recognisable and infamous aspect: It’s art direction and presentation. Somewhere in between 2000’s Y2K core, generic 80’s Gordon Gecko style office space designs feauting black marble floors all sorts of horrible, corporate taste as well as contrasting colours so unrelenting they come across as some horror version of some really disturbing version of some Nickeoldeon kids show from the naughties. Calling it “beautiful” or even “aesthetically pleasing” is probably not really what most people would agree with, but there is some strange, idiosyncratic appeal to it. Its most obvious influence, at least concerning visuals, is very clearly the ever infamous 1998 PS1 classic “LSD: Dream Emulator” - looking at them side by side, it’s impossible to ignore the inspiration. This general madness also extends to sound design, which has characters talk like a Banjo-Kazooie character from hell, guns sound… very interesting, and the music has this really strange, dream-like quality to it where it always alternates between kinda goofy and shitposty to genuinely quite catchy versions of old, tracker-based game OSTs, once again, Deus Ex being a likely source of inspiration. Also, again, hearing that car sound for the first time might be the hardest I laughed at a piece of sound design, maybe ever. It’s such an inspired overall aesthetic that, despite feeling like a constant all-out assault on your senses, is internally consistent and has a lot of thought behind it.
This is also probably a good point to briefly talk about Ville Kallio, Finnish artist extraordinaire and mastermind behind the production of Cruelty Squad. I’m really not sure just how much Kallio is involved in the actual process of coding or engine work, although judging from their instagram, they do do a lot of modelling and give insight into creating assets for the game. What’s less clear (to me, at least) is how many people are actually involved in the production studio “Consumer Softproducts”, or whether this was essentially all made by Kallio. It’s clear that they were pretty much entirely responsible for the concept, design, writing and art direction of the game, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that “Consumer Softproducts” is just some alter ego Kallio works under. I guess we’ll never know!
Easily the most impressive thing about Cruelty Squad isn’t its gameplay - although, as already discussed, it’s up there - or its aesthetic or any individual piece of its structure, really. It’s the blend of the individual elements coming together that deliver a hitherto unseen level of idiosyncrasy in its artistic essence. In most contemporary cyberpunk media, there seems to be almost some sort of reformist optimism permeating every facet of the genre. In the vein of “Yeah society kinda sucks but look at all this cool tech! I mean yeah, only the rich and powerful get to benefit from it, but those cool body augmentations sure make up for it, especially if we just kill the bad guys!”. Cruelty Squad’s world, on the other hand, is perhaps THE most pessimistic and apocalyptic version of cyberpunk dystopia since Tsutmo Nihei’s Blame! From 1999. EVERYTHING sucks. Wealth disparity is at a point where people who are literal millionaires are considered barely upper middle class. The elite have transcended into some sort of digitally enhanced giga hive mind and keep the world, aka the economy, running through brutal mass human sacrifice. And like mentioned before, that’s where we come in: Were are nothing but capital’s mercenary. The outer gods of profit maximisation demand blood, and damn it, we are going to deliver it. This is the libertarian dystopia, the world that disconnected AnCaps think they want but truly don’t. No one is safe, not even the people working to uphold the system.
For example; in Sin Space Engineering, we are tasked with murdering the CEO of a big space company. In the words of our boss: "It has come to our attention that the CEO of Advanced Orbital Instruments has been doing too good of a job trying to increase the survival rate of our mission to Mercury, currently estimated at around 20%. This simply won't do as it is first and foremost a sacrificial mission designed to satiate the appetites of some of our higher ups. Once you get rid of him we'll be free to install our own CEO who is more attuned to the concept of mass scale human sacrifice."
So, even a CEO isn’t safe from capital’s wrath, and his reason for, uh, “being let go” wasn’t that he did a bad job at leading the company or being responsible for huge lay offs, no: it’s that he tried to DECREASE the amount of human casualties of a mission that was 100% intended to just kill people. It’s obviously a very extreme and hyperbolised version of a very real, vicious type of logic that permeates every facet of capitalism and its respective branches of ideology while at the same time offering extremely sharp criticism of it. Kallio clearly understands that the individual actors within capitalism, although partially responsible for upholding the system, are they themselves always subject to the logic of the flow of capital first and foremost. In our world, capital(ism) is a mechanism to uphold the integrity of class society first and foremost, and isn’t actually a true individual with agency or a will. In Cruelty Squad, capital has become an actual, omnipotent god that seemingly fused with the ruling class of this world.
This is only a fragment of the surprisingly deep and complex lore that this game features. I feel like I only barely scratched the surface as far as the actual narrative, lore and worldbuilding go. It’s extremely cryptic and features a lot of religious and psychoanalytical imagery here that kinda flew over my head, or at least I couldn’t confidently decipher everything to the point where it made sense. There is also the obsession with flesh and body parts, and how they are considered disgusting, as opposed to the mechanical “Divine Light.” While I am not really all that familiar with the man’s work beyond reading his Wikipedia article and a few very basic concepts, Kallio’s greatest philosophical inspiration seems to come almost entirely from the writings of 20th century French philosopher, Georges Bataille. One of the games 3 endings ends with a passage from one of his works. I’ll be honest, from what I’ve read his stuff is extremely post modern and hyper-intellectual, to the point where a regular old commie like me almost feels a bit alienated by just how academic it all seems. There are way smarter people than I who can properly decipher all of the imagery and game’s plot and how it all relates to Bataille’s work. The thing that is most essential to understand for our purposes here is the idea that; if any given system is unable to absorb excess energy back into itself, it will be released in a wasteful manner.
What I can do is tell you what I THINK the game’s three different endings mean. Please note that lots of people have very different intepretations for this game’s subtext, and this is just what I came up with on a first reading.
First, we must set the stage and explain some of the game’s lore that can be gleamed from talking to the many civilians populating the levels. The most important fact to understand is that the ruling class has somehow discovered resurrection technology and immediately consolidated it for themselves. They’ll occasionally lease out these abilities to other people, say, cold, soulless mercenaries like us. This is why our character keeps coming back after being killed. As previously mentioned, each time we die, our bank account gets debited for 500$, until we are so endebted to the company they decide to test an experimental new form of said resurrection tech, which involves you reconstituting your fleshy body with the flesh of other people. The fact that the rich have found a way to keep death at bay indefinitely has resulted in what you could cynically describe as a massive market crash for the value of life. Life is worth less than the shit stuck on the soles of your combat boots. Literally the organs in your body are all worth more than the sum of their parts. The very concept of life itself has lost any intrinsic value due to the availability of immortality. Profit maximisation has become the be-all-end-all goal for human society, by any means necessary, for no reason other than its own sake. The, uh, “”””innovative”””” power of capitalism has been cranked to 110%, constantly creating new, revolutionary products such as Chunkopops or burger-flavoured coffee, resulting in utterly unchecked, rampant consumerism and complete emotional detachment from reality for just about every person alive.
While we are, at first, simply a gunman mowing down the class enemy (from the POV of the bourgeoisie) at some point the narrative suddenly shifts from killing the people going against company interest to targeting people running the company instead. I’d say it probably happens some time around or after the Idiot Party level, in which I noticed a sharp change in tone coming from our boss, aka The Handler, in which he suddenly delights in the idea of violently murdering what is essentially the Illuminati. But even before that you may notice that the targets you’re getting assigned and the reasons for their liquidation becoming increasingly more arbitrary. In Seaside Shock for example, you’re essentially punishing a bunch of mid-level rich people (as opposed to the unimaginably wealthy ruling class) for trying to attain sovereignity from the system, even though you’d think that - at least according to libertarian thinkers - trying to split off from the government is essentially the point of capitalism. In reality however, capital needs the state to cement its influence over society, and cannot function without it. But it turns out, the ACTUAL reason you’re liquidating them is just so your branch of the conglomerate’s mercenary troops can cash in that scrumptious security department fond. In a later level, Casino Catastrophe, you’re killing the owner of the casino because Corporate Arch-Demoness Elsa Holmes lost a bunch of money there. That’s it, no other reason.
This all culminates in the game’s first final level, the Archon Grid. Here, you are tasked with navigating a vast, abstract level and killing what I identify as the personification of death itself, the demon-like being Abraxas. A giant, three headed monster with his hands in a position evocative of depictions of Baphomet. The name “Abraxas” is often used as an alternative name, or even form for God in Gnosticism, but originates from Hellenistic-Egyptian magical papyri where he is described as a “powerful demon”. This interpretation seems to have stuck with most Christian scholars and philosophers, who identified this name as being connected to Satanic cults. After killing him by shooting his three heads, the wall behind him opens, we walk through and are greeted with the first ending, known as “ENTRAPMENT”.
We walk across a flat plane with some NPCs walking around there as well. The sun is in the sky, dancing to a strange tune. The game hits us with the following text:
While I’m sure there is a book’s worth of stuff to unpack here, my interpretation of this whole ordeal is fairly simple: We are liberating the power of immortality from the hands of the elite, and apply it on a world wide scale. We killed the demon of death, that was previously worshipped by the elite, so now the power of death is no more, and everyone is now immortal. However, we didn’t really solve the problem of human life being worthless; in fact, we just made it way worse. We will never be able to escape this living hell. The world keeps rotting, and we are now doomed to inhabit it forever. Life will continue for all eternity, robbing it of what little value it had to begin with.
The word “Archon” has multiple meanings, 2 of which seem directly related to the nature of the Grid. The first, classical use refers to the simple Greek word for “ruler”. This, of course, makes sense, since the Archon Grid effectively houses the source of the ruling class’s power. It’s the Gnostic use of it that seems more apt, though. In this definition, an Archon is an angelic/demonic entity that actually built the physical world and are tasked with prevent immortal souls from leaving the material realm trapping them inside of mortal bodies. In some interpretations, such as Basilides’, Abraxas is actually the “Great Archon” and presides over 365 Archons.
The second ending requires us to unlock the hardest difficulty of this game, “Hope Eradicated”. You can either find an shrine containing the blue orb inside the Archon Grid, or in a secret area in CSHQ. You can also find the “Cursed Torch” aug in Paradise, which emulates the effect. The second might be the most popular spot to pick it up, since to unlock the second ending, you have to unlock a big, mysterious door that’s been there from the start, and kill a damn-near invincible target at the HQ. But before we do that, we have to go back to Pharmakokinetiks while in Hope Eradicated and find a secret door. In this door, there is an NPC who hooks us up with a “Soul simulator”, which unlocks “DEATH mode” for us. This brings with it a whole number of benefits, but most importantly for our purposes, it lets us pass a hallway after the big mysterious door which would otherwise instantly kill us. There are ways to skip this, but those are primarily speedrun strats, rather than being intended. Back to the HQ target. This guy has a gorillion HP, can kill you in one or two hits and is extremely aggressive. There are a couple of ways to deal with this bloke, but the most straightforward would be to find the ZKZ Transactional Rifle in this level, which scales with your net worth. If your fortune consists of 1 million or more, the gun will kill just about anything in this game in 1 shot. This also applies if enemies hold it though, and it still scales off YOUR net worth. There are ways of killing the HQ target without the TR, but they require a bit more thought on the player’s end, are are more like fail saves, so people don’t get stuck here when they can’t find the rifle.
In either case, after killing the HQ target, you’ll be once again met with a bit of text. This ending is colloquially known as “LIFE”.
This one is a little less clear to me, but I understood it the following way:
Somehow, through the killing of the HQ target - who might the boss of the cruelty squad? - you somehow are granted access to the soul of life itself. You have ascended to some sort of godhood, aka, you have become a high net worth individual who has climbed the corporate ladder. You are now part of the elite. You have survived the rat race while “your friends” all died and have been crushed by the wheel of capitalism. You ascended to the ruling class. You have convinced yourself that you aren’t an empty husk devoid of emotions. Life congratulates you on achieving financial independence. But you are not done. You are the only one who has actually worked to change how things are, and there is still more to be done. You may be rich now, but truly you’re no freer than you were before. Your life is still intrinsically worthless. Society is still crumbling.
It all makes more sense in the context of the third, and true ending.
To truly finish the game you need to beat its final mission, Trauma Loop. This mission unlocks only after you’ve beaten every single stage in the game, even the secret ones, including a level that you can unlock for 1 Million $ in the augmentation screen: House. Like the name suggests, you are a home owner now. Now more stinking landlords, no more rent. You can buy it before achieving the second ending, but considering that ending sets itself up where it kinda expects you to find the Transactional Rifle, which requires you to have a million bucks to effectively use it, I think the game only expects you to buy it AFTER achieving the second ending. You are now wealthy and part of the elite, the world is immortal. Time to buy a house!
Near the village the house resides in, you can find what are essentially the gods of this world: The Triagons. There are a few mentions of them here and there throughout the game, but here is where we REALLY learn about them. The three triagons are massive snake-like entities with a giant ball for their head and named “Malice”, “Life”, and “Death” respectively. Visually they are fairly reminiscent of Abraxas, and I think this is an extremely important fact.
Now, this next part is about to get really abstract, and there’s a good chance I’m not fully getting the lore behind these guys, but I’ll try and give my best explanation of what’s happening here.
The first Triagon, Malice, is effectively the creator of life. It took the sun’s seemingly endless flow of energy and used the energy to create life. Life in this context is seen like a disease, spreading and multiplying. This form of life is unbridled and chaotic, a massive organism that only consumes. The second Triagon, Life, gives form to this misshapen form of energy in the way of bodies made of flesh and blood, regulating its flow to self-contained systems and limiting the excess of waste. With the invention of bodies come limits. Existence becomes scarce and segmented. Suffering is created through experiencing life in a limited, physical form that is subject to pain and fear. So we have a world populated by fleshy automatons, carrying within them unlimited life - but no value to any of it. While there are emotions and feelings already, life itself has nothing to distinguish itself from, nothing to compare it to.
This is where the third Triagon comes in; Death. To briefly reiterate the aforementioned concept by Georges Bataille; if any system is unable to reintegrate excess energy into itself, the energy will be released in a wasteful manner. But what if the opposite were true? The third Triagon effectively introduces death into this loop, imbuing the energy within the fleshy bodies with monumental intrinsic value, creating “souls”. Death is what gives life meaning, which differentiates existence from non-existence. Where there is no end, there can be no beginning. According to the lore “The hole was quickly mended, and the overpowering transmission of value was cut short”. The discovery of resurrection technology takes away the value that the third triagon gave to living. The concept of death introduces strife, conflict and discord. But at the same time, struggle begets meaning. Through taking it all away, life stagnates, and now only money and power are the only things with intrinsic value. There is nothing to live for other than the maximisation of capital, if living itself is nothing to strive for anymore.
We are presented with the option of killing the three heads, just as we did with Abraxas. For killing the lowest of the three heads, we are gifted Golem Exoskeleton, greatly increasing our health and melee power if we choose to put in on. The second gives us a semi-automatic shotgun, one of the best weapons in the game. The final Triagon grants us “financial freedom”, in the form of 1,000,000$ transferred directly to our bank account. Killing them isn’t necessary to unlock the final ending, but will leave you with permanent changes to the game in the form of a green and purple colour scheme during Hope Eradicated (instead of the previously red and green colour scheme) as well as their heads being visible in place of the sun, instead of what would usually be Abraxas.
Onto the final level; Trauma Loop.
We have reached the end. Aeons have passed since we “””liberated””” the world from death, and everything has gone to shit - more so than before, even. We find ourselves in a dark world, devoid of light. This level is fucking brutal, even on normal difficulty. Initially I tried to beat it on Hope Eradicated but gave up after getting killed in the first two rooms for an hour straight. The use of augmentations has been blocked in this area, and you need to kill a specific NPC to allow their use again; the problem is that this NPC is located very close to the end, so you realistically have to finish the level without augs at least for the first time, unless you’re willing to kill the NPC and then do the entire level again - albeit a lot easier. Personally, I wasn’t too much of a fan of this one, because like I said earlier in this review; it feels almost unnecessarily punishing and cruel, even for this game - yes EVEN on normal difficulty. I do have to admit to looking up how to effectively navigate this level, and how to beat the bottom section of this map.
Like the Archon Grid, this level is extremely abstract and doesn’t really resemble anything normal in particular, it consists of ruined bits of buildings floating in a dark, endless void. Our mission is to “locate the Cradle of Life”, which takes the form of a perfectly round ball, like the Triagons’ heads. This makes me think that this “Trauma Loop” is actually some sort of representation of life itself. Life IS the trauma loop. An endless cycle of pain, suffering, death and rebirth. At the heart of this, well, malicious loop is none other than the first Triagon. At the very bottom, Malice waits for us surrounded by a veritable army of the game’s hardest enemies. Getting here can take quite some time, and these guys will fuck you up instantly, so at this point you REALLY have to watch out unless you want to start again from the top. I found this section to be unbelievably frustrating, and it almost made me not want to go through with it, but luckily I did come back another day to finish the job. While other levels did sometimes go a bit overkill with throwing a whole bunch of super tough enemies at you, this part here felt like the devs just giving you the bird and laughing at you for trying to beat their game. While I understand it in the context of Cruelty Squad, I can’t say I felt like getting this obnoxious with your level design and enemy placements added all that much in the way of immersion in this regard. Seriously, do NOT try this level on Hope Eradicated unless you have some SERIOUSLY high tolerance for frustration.
Ultimately, we persevere and confront - and likely kill - the Triagon of Malice. 
We are presented with the game’s final ending, “DEATH”.
And like before, we are met with some text, but this time it’s a lot more and gets quite lengthy, so I will not copy paste it into this already super-long essay, you can simply read it HERE.
If you paid attention to this game’s story at all, the meaning of this ending should be fairly obvious. We ended the Trauma Loop. Where as in the first ending we ended death for all, resulting in life becoming utterly meaningless, and the second ending saw us try and carve out our own meaning in the way of “LIVING THE GRINDSET, BABY” even if it meant stepping over everyone’s dead bodies, the third ending has our character make the only sensible choice left: To end this entire nightmare once and for all; we give death back to the world. And for the first time in the history of this world, this seems to actually change things. The text presents us with a whole bunch of impressions; child hood memories, the sensation of taste and smell, of feelings like lust and sadness, of the feeling of the warmth of the sun on your skin, of bitter tears of pain. Maybe this is from before we all became immortal. Maybe these are the feelings we couldn’t feel in this infinitely recurring nightmare. We can finally feel again. Live again. We are meant to die. And that’s okay. No one else understands this. They all still cling to what they know, even if it’s literally the thing eating away at their soul. And so, like the game states, “In your violent mercy, you terminate the world life”. We are met with the image of a large, golden tree and the words “GOLDEN AGE” appearing triumphantly on the screen. A new life begins.
If you’ve played Dark Souls before, or any other game that deals with mass scale immortality/undeath, this sort of ending is something you’ve probably seen before. It’s the benevolence of letting an immortal world finally die. The comfort of eternal rest after infinite suffering. But it’s more than just about the esoteric concepts of life and death; I very much think it also speaks to US directly. To reconsider the system we live in. To consider that, for society to truly live, to truly evolve, our old system of economics needs to die. To build a new one from scratch. To not give in to the cynicism of late capitalist consumer culture. To not believe the lies that a better world isn’t possible. To reject the idea of things like Chunkpops and Coffee burgers as “innovation under capitalism”, but to recognise them as distractions meant to drag us away from what we truly need; actual, lasting change. Value to our lives outside of our jobs and the things we buy. To be people again, with thoughts and feelings. To be humans with souls, instead of just flesh automatons.
It is genuinely shocking to me just how wonderfully optimistic this final ending is. What a sudden rush of genuine, heartfelt emotion and love for humanity. Coming from a game so fundamentally violent and cruel in its world-building, deeply cynical in its story telling and satire and sheer contempt for each and every person in this universe, this ending is like a punch in the face. Like a lotus flower emerging from a poisonous bog.
I truly and honestly did not expect this game to be as deep as it is. This will be one of my go-to games whenever I see the argument pop up that “Games cannot and never will be art”. The sheer density of subjects being approached here is mind bending.
To summarise what little I have to criticise in this game, I think some changes to the games balancing system would be nice and could make for an even more enjoyable gameplay experience. Things like more additional weapon slots, armour being not TOTALLY worthless (because, honestly, then why even have it in the game at all?), perhaps a slight tweak to enemy AI to make them not AS frustrating to deal with when alerted, nerfing poison, improving some of the more annoying missions, more options to deal with armoured opponents, etc. I guess some of the numbers could use some tweaking as well, even on the easiest difficulty it still feels a bit too easy to be killed by some random stray bullet. On the flipside, Hope Eradicated makes almost any level damn near un-completable for me. But honestly, I’m thinking REALLY hard here trying to even come up with things to criticise. There genuinely isn’t a lot of in this game I would describe as “flawed”, other than the aforementioned balancing issues.
This really comes as close to a modern masterpiece as it gets, and I could very well see Cruelty Squad as a serious contender for “Game of the Decade”, if its influence will be as wide spread as I imagine it to be. If this game gets some DLC or a sequel in the near future, I think we could be looking at a perfect 10.
I LOVED this game, and even though it’s already a cult classic with an absurdly dedicated community behind it - especially all the people pushing its boundaries in terms of silly speed runs - it still feels criminally underrated. I haven’t been this wowed by a game’s anti-capitalist message since Disco Elysium, and I honestly find this game’s approach to the subject even more personally interesting. And beyond that, this game is just fun and entertaining as hell, and extremely rewarding to master.
A fantastic experience for all Sigma CEOs, Grindset advocates, Datura-megadosing business gurus, Elon Musk worshippers and violent, bloodthirsty goons looking to improve their social standing.

9 / 10

was extremely addictive for a while but there's a point where you have to really look at what you're putting yourself through and say "i've had enough"

this game makes my toes feel weird

vibe and humor is immaculate, has some pretty unique controls as well. its still just a low-poly fps goldeneye/doom game at heart though, but this is definitely one of the more fun takes on it