An immersive sim about the overabundance of life and its drastic consequences, Cruelty Squad is one of the most bizarre-looking, nonsensical games on the Steam Marketplace. With smiley faces plastered across the walls and floors, cancerous flesh growths appearing everywhere, a pulsating blob that says LIFE instead of a life bar, and garish multicolored textures, it looks like a shitpost. Despite its off-putting presentation, though, its use of immersive sim mechanics combined with its nihilistic worldview on gig economies makes its world not just believable but almost too familiar.
The premise of the game is that our main character, known as M.T. Foxtrot, joins the organization known as Cruelty Squad, a group of professional contract killers who kill people for reasons as petty as not paying rent on time. One of the key aspects of the world of Cruelty Squad is that life is essentially worthless due to the fact that people can come back to life for the measly cost of $500. This leads to some horrific worldbuilding aspects, such as the fact that individual organs can be sold on a stock market, partygoers will kill themselves to enhance a beat drop, and a whole slew of other horrifying mechanics. Human life is so worthless that the average person is worth less than the organs in their body.
The gameplay does a great job of transmitting this apathy towards life with its general aversion towards typical immersive sim trends. Usually, immersive sims have non-lethal options to coincide with a morality system that weighs lethal takedowns more than non-lethal ones. Cruelty Squad mocks this notion, with the tranquilizer gun being generally worthless except for two incredibly niche uses, and with no penalty for killing innocents. The most the game acknowledges its wanton killing is the tally that it gives you at the completion of a level. In contrast, it’s generally better to at least kill some innocents, as harvesting their organs is one of the easiest ways to make money, and eating them can give you health under certain circumstances. It’s horrible morality-wise, but does it really matter when coming back to life is less expensive than paying rent?
Cruelty Squad’s deconstruction of immersive sim trends doesn’t stop there. In place of cool cybernetic upgrades or magical powers, the protagonist gets to replace his internal organs to move faster, can use his intestines as a grappling hook, and acquires extra pores in his body so he can expel his waste products to get an extra burst of speed. In spite of how satisfying it is to play, the game spends a lot of time drilling the point to the player that the entire thing is pathetic and pointless. The hits our protagonist performs are for thousands of dollars and it’s not like the deaths are even permanent. It essentially amounts to killing people for cruelty’s sake.
The first ending of the game “Entrapment” has the protagonist walking toward a building in the distance forever, while the text mocks M.T. Foxtrot for being foolish and apathetic enough to challenge the avatar of Malice, and thus our protagonist lands in an unchanging flat plane marching forward ad infinitum. It’s a hell of a downer ending, which is why the remaining endgame content revolves around our protagonist essentially doing the first actually meaningful thing in his life by becoming an avatar of Death and fighting the avatar of LIFE to break the pointless loop that this world is trapped in. This ultimately culminates in the destruction of the universe by it being peeled like an onion by our protagonist.
Cruelty Squad plays with genre conventions and game tropes to make a plausible hellscape of twisted morality. It’s a world where finance is a mythical power akin to magic, people are revived for the sole purpose of being slaves, and there’s a gun that turns enemies into a mass of cancerous flesh. It takes the question of “What is life without death?” and pushes it to its most disgusting, illogical extremes. It’s one of those games that sticks with you like an intrusive thought that just won’t leave your brain.
Desmond Leake is an intern for Paste’s games section.