Why Cruelty Squad Is a Better Cyberpunk Game Than Cyberpunk 2077 - VRGyani News and Media

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Saturday, August 28, 2021

Why Cruelty Squad Is a Better Cyberpunk Game Than Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk is a genre that has experienced a bit of a renaissance in gaming as of late. Cyberpunk 2077 may have generated a mountain of controversy, but its financial success in spite of its many issues is a testament to the genre’s popularity. But while many recent games have successfully adopted the aesthetic of the cyberpunk genre, it’s debatable how well some games truly embody the themes of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk 2077 certainly captures the look of the genre, but there are times when it feels almost too appealing. When standing in the gorgeously rendered Night City, surrounded by flashing advertisements and sleek skyscrapers towering overhead, it’s hard not to be in awe of your surroundings and the world as a whole. Body mods that can turn you into a half-mechanical demigod, braindances that allow you to experience any scenario you want from the safety of your mind, hover cars whizzing by overhead - the game never quite shakes that feeling of "I may not want to live here, but it would be cool as hell to visit." This isn’t a criticism per se, but it does result in the game trending more towards more traditional sci-fi rather than cyberpunk.

This may seem like a strange nitpick, but it’s crucial for understanding why the genre is popular in the first place. The major themes of cyberpunk as a genre are bleak and borderline nihilistic: unregulated capitalism, frightening technological advancements, the value of human life being reduced to a passing thought in the face of profit at all costs. With wealth and class disparity becoming a greater and more prevalent issue each day, it’s a small wonder that the genre is gaining popularity once more. Many games attempt to capture that vision of a technological wasteland, but oftentimes it ends up being a beautiful wasteland, paradoxical as that may sound. At its core, a cyberpunk world is purely dystopian, and it can be difficult to design a game that fully embraces these themes while also being an entertaining product in its own right.

This is why it almost seems poetic that an indie studio managed to create a game that perfectly captures the thematic elements of the cyberpunk genre. A game that wallows in filth and decay, in which the value of human life fluctuates by the whims of the stock market and the executives who control it. Where immortality becomes a waking nightmare you must experience over and over again. That game is Cruelty Squad, and it is nothing short of a wretched masterpiece.

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The first thing players will notice when loading into Cruelty Squad are the visuals. That may seem an obvious statement, but not nearly as obvious as the statement made by the visuals themselves. To put it charitably, the game is ugly. Horrendous to look at, and borderline uncomfortable to experience for extended periods. Jagged polygons make up the composition of the distorted landscape. Harsh purples, sickly greens, and rotting reds are the primary tools of a color scheme that seems to scream at the player wherever they turn. Players receive their orders via a shapeless blob with gnarled teeth and dead eyes. Grotesquely proportioned NPCs litter the game’s open-world levels, each with an uncanny silhouette that seeks more to mock the human form than depict it with any accuracy. Every aspect of the visuals is seemingly designed to be as aesthetically displeasing as possible.

It’s not uncommon for visual designers to pour hours upon hours of work into refining their games’ art styles, making them unique and pleasing to the eye to better immerse the player into the world they are trying to create. To have a visual style that seems designed to attack the player rather than immerse them is a bold move, to say the least. And yet, for the world being depicted in Cruelty Squad, it couldn’t be more appropriate. This is a world where human life is worth less than the bullets that frequently bring it to an end. Civilian casualties are expected and acceptable collateral damage. Organs sold openly on the stock market are worth more than the humans they originated from. Even the menus are ugly and irregular. Hastily cobbled together with handwritten labels and an unintuitive layout seemingly designed to confuse players unfamiliar with it. This world, down to its core, is ugly and rotten, and the game wants you to feel it. Even as players may be having fun with the combat mechanics and power fantasy the game is selling, it’s hard to ever truly feel ‘good’ playing Cruelty Squad. The visuals simply don’t allow you to relax enough to do so.

And yet, there’s a horrific beauty to appreciate here as well. To draw a comparison to Cyberpunk 2077, even though that game also seeks to tackle themes of capitalistic overreach and the devaluation of human life, the world itself is still sleek and stylish. And that’s not to say that a game’s visual design has to be ugly to tackle themes inherent to the cyberpunk genre. However, cyberpunk since its inception has typically served as a cautionary tale of what happens when unrestricted consumerism merges with unchecked technological growth. It can be hard to take Cyberpunk 2077 seriously as a cautionary tale about the future when the future looks this beautiful. In this regard, Cruelty Squad is arguably more honest about its message and the themes surrounding it. This is not a future that anyone wants, and the game never lets you forget it.

But visuals alone don’t necessarily make a game worth playing. Thankfully, Cruelty Squad isn’t content to let its themes be expressed through graphics alone. To give a brief summary, you play as a member of a corporate wetwork subsidiary called Cruelty Squad. In short, there are people that companies want dead, and it’s your job to ensure that happens. Before each level begins, your handler will inform you of the targets and why the company wants them dead. After that, you’re dropped into a level and told to get the job done. No more context is needed for a hired gun, after all. And if you’re worried about not getting the job done the first time, no problem at all. Corporations have essentially solved the minor issue of mortality. Take a few too many bullets to the face, and the company will reconstruct your body for the modest fee of $500. In the future, death is merely a minor financial inconvenience for those privileged enough to have access to the proper technology.

The game has drawn many comparisons to other assassination games, including Hitman and Dishonored, and on a surface level, they do have their similarities. An open-world level design in which you have complete freedom to kill your target in any manner you see fit. However, there are some key differences in how players are encouraged to interact with the world. In both Dishonored and Hitman, while killing civilians and guards is not strictly prohibited, players are encouraged to approach missions with a scalpel rather than a hammer. They are rewarded and praised for keeping collateral damage to a minimum and eliminating targets in as surgical a manner as possible. Cruelty Squad has no such standards. After each death and the completion of a mission, there will be a counter showing how many civilians were killed during the completion of your assassination. That’s it. There’s no penalty, no consequence. Just a tally of how many people got in your way.

You can speak to most civilian NPCs, though many times you’ll wish you hadn’t. Speaking in barely coherent sentences, most civilians seem preoccupied with either purchasing a product, drugs, or creating said products/drugs. After all, what else is the point in a world where consumption is the most common pastime? Regardless, the death of civilians is nothing more than something that must be noted in your final report. The only real deterrent for attempted murder in this world is having to deal with a company’s security force. However, as you attain greater wealth and purchase more potent upgrades for yourself, even they become more of a minor inconvenience in pursuit of your targets. The strong devour the weak in a corporate hierarchy that has no rules. What are a few civilian casualties in service to a strong Q1? In fact, there are certain ways in which the game subtly encourages a disregard for collateral damage.

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After dying several times in a level, players will be greeted with a message from their handler, stating that their body has been upgraded due to their hogging of the machine that allows them to be brought back to life. With this ‘upgrade’, players are now able to consume the corpses of both civilians and enemies, restoring a single point of health. Not only that, but players are also able to loot the organs of dead civilians, adding them to their inventory to be sold on the stock market for profit. In true cyberpunk fashion, human life is only as valuable as how it helps further your goals.

The stock market in question can be accessed anywhere with the press of a button, bringing up a list of companies and commodities to buy and sell stock from. The prices are not static, however, and the values of companies are tracked in real-time. Shrewd players will be able to recognize patterns in price hikes and falling stock, allowing them to make a sizable amount of money without having to even play the game. Organs harvested from fallen enemies and civilians can be sold here as well, meaning a run of bad luck can be turned around for profit with the right level of resourcefulness. Throughout the game, players may also notice that killing off the heads of companies will cause a fall in said companies’ stock prices. If you have a large number of stocks purchased in a company whose CEO you are about to murder, you can preemptively sell off your shares in anticipation of the downturn you’re about to cause. Alternatively, players can kill a company executive, buy as much cheap stock as possible, then simply gamble on whether the company will be able to recover enough to recoup your investment. Everything the player does is in service of profit. Everything has a price, nothing is off-limits. The market is king, and you are but a humble servant to the new God of this world: the almighty dollar.

Another common theme of the cyberpunk genre is the destruction of the human form. After all, in theory, there’s no reason to hold onto one’s fleshy appendages when a mechanical replacement does the job much better. One of the major reasons for making money at all in Cruelty Squad is to afford genetic and mechanical body modifications. Enhanced thrusters in the feet allowing the use of double and triple jumping, bionic eyes that allow you to zoom in to see distant objects, an appendix that doubles as a grappling hook (aptly named the Grappendix). In true Cruelty Squad fashion, even these crucial upgrades create a sense of unease in their implementation. Each upgrade’s image depicts an uncanny merging of man and machine. Jet thrusters implanted directly into the skeleton of one’s back, a bio-suit of hardened flesh to serve as armor, an artificial organ merged into the intestines that passively generates ammunition. As you continue to upgrade your character, becoming less human and more machine, it begs the question of where the stopping point lies. Like the old thought experiment of Theseus’ Ship, at what point of modification do we cease to be primarily human rather than a machine? But there’s no time to dwell on what you may or may not be. After all, more upgrades mean easier and quicker assassinations, which means more money in your pocket. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what truly matters?

Cruelty Squad is not shy about what it has to say about our current societal trajectory. It paints a scathing critique of unfettered greed, mindless consumerism, and the deterioration of the value of human life. Even in a genre that has great games releasing more frequently than ever before, Cruelty Squad stands head and shoulders above the rest. It distills the themes of the cyberpunk genre down to their purest forms and isn’t afraid to make the player uneasy in the confrontation of those themes. In a world where Cyberpunk 2077 and The Ascent are light beer, Cruelty Squad is straight vodka. Ugly as sin and borderline uncomfortable to play, Cruelty Squad knows what it wants to be and has enough faith in its players to recognize and understand the ideas it explores. At its core, cyberpunk is a genre meant to hold up a mirror to our greatest flaws and cautions us to envision a future where those flaws grow too large to control. Cruelty Squad will likely never receive the widespread recognition and praise it so desperately deserves. And in a way, that might be more fitting for it. For better or worse, Cruelty Squad is honest about what it has to say. Whether we take heed of its warning or not is up to us.

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