Strange Brigade is a rip-roaring thrill ride, but isn’t equipped to soldier on

, | Game reviews

I’m not sure there’s anything particularly new or even special about Strange Brigade. You could call out its commitment to serial pulp adventures set in the 40s. Or, as it’s known these days, Indiana Jones. These characters and their weapons are the trappings of an era when a pilot was called an aviator and pith helmets weren’t ironic. Steamer trucks full of weapons and nary an assault rifle in sight. Zeppelins, tents and short wave radios at excavation sites of ancient Egyptian ruins, an incredibly annoying announcer trying his darndest to sound like announcers of yore. You gotta give developer Rebellion credit for their commitment to the aesthetic.

But really, Strange Brigade is the simple act of shooting powerful guns at monsters. And lobbing the occasional grenade. And even more occasionally popping off some magic power because, well, that might as well be in there if we’re going to have zombies and skeletons. For the most part it works splendidly. Simple, gratifying, quick, accessible, with a unique sense of character, to boot. So why have I stopped playing?

The issue I have with Strange Brigade is that it doesn’t do progression. This sort of game lives and dies by how much gameplay the developers can wring from the same levels and enemies over and over. And over. I have to want to replay it all, because — the conventional wisdom goes — it’s too little and too repetitive for a once-and-done. For instance, a character advancement system works wonders with this kind of game. Or a loot chase. Strange Brigade seems to think it has these with its unlockable weapons and upgrades. And when you start playing, you might think so, too. But once you’ve seen all the levels, all the tricky monsters, all the bosses, you’ll discover the progression doesn’t have much traction.

The coin of Strange Brigade’s realm is gold coins. Which makes sense considering all the forgotten tombs, valuable relics, and pirate treasure. And there’s loose change everywhere. You can’t help but hoover it up as you play. You even get a cash reward when you kill a monster, with a little something extra for headshots. When you finish a level, all your gold coins get dumped into your coffers and now you can buy new weapons. Oh, goody! Who doesn’t love buying new weapons?

But without more variety among the weapons, or even an incentive to swap weapons at the checkpoints, this coin of the realm loses its luster pretty quickly. You’ll have your favorite gun, and you’ll slap a few upgrade doo-dads into its slots, and you’ll never need another gun again. This happens pretty quickly, so now all that gold is a meaningless number. In fact, since it’s your score for the level, it’s more valuable as a score chase than a progression system. So why aren’t you just playing the (very good) score chase mode?

One reason you might not be playing the score chase mode is Strange Brigade’s lack of interaction among the three ways to play. The campaign is about unlocking levels and then going back through to find secrets; the horde mode is about starting with nothing and being at the mercy of whatever upgrades you find as the difficulty escalates; and the score chases are a scripted progression of weapons, because otherwise, how would it be fair? By design, these three modes have a firewall between them, which is another weakness of the progression system.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a relatively mindless shooter about getting your favorite gun. These are hearty guns, and some of them have plenty of personality. But they simply don’t work as a progression system, and the whole gameplay economy is built around them.

Which leaves us with the characters. The variety is really nice, and it’s not just cosmetic. Each character has a couple of unique abilities, which is easy to miss since it’s only ever mentioned in a text snippet that looks like flavor text. And who reads flavor text? So you probably didn’t know this even though it’s right there at the top of the selection screen, but the soldier’s headshots cause splash damage, the scholar is the only one who can open certain treasure tombs, and the Lancastrian Rosie the Riveter does extra damage with her punch.

All good and well, and these folks make for a charming band of heroes (their various quips almost make up for the annoying announcer). But here again is a missed opportunity for progression. On one hand, Rebellion deserves credit for just putting it all out there. These characters do what they’re going to do. Period. On the other hand, since the game has a progression problem, was this the best idea? Not every game needs to be an RPG with a skill tree. But some games need to flesh out their relatively mindless shooting.

Here is where amulets come into play. A character’s amulet gives him or her a special power that has to be charged by killing lots of stuff with guns. Pretty standard game design, but with a smart tweak for multiplayer: the charges are a limited pool. Each monster drops a single soul and only one character gets that soul. So if you’re playing with others, be considerate of your teammates when holding down the “drink souls” button. Don’t be a soul hog. Once your character’s amulet is charged, you get a special attack of some sort. It depends on the amulet you equipped. And each character has several to choose among.

So, ah-ha, there is a character progression system! I can see all these amulets waiting to be unlocked, and even though many of them are just different “imma kill a bunch of zombies” animations, who wouldn’t want to collect them all, just to try them out? But Rebellion is having none of it. To unlock an amulet, you need a skill point. Which you’d think would be easy enough to get. Other games give me a skill point every time I level up. Skill is something that just happens as you play, right? I’ve spent many many hours enjoying Strange Brigade, so I should be rolling in skill points. Therefore, I should have a collection of amulets.

I haven’t unlocked a single amulet.

That’s because I have never earned a single skill point. And not for lack of trying. First, let’s talk semantics. It’s quite the misnomer to call these “skill” points. You get them by collecting a set of relics, which is a matter of perseverance, not skill. And although these amulets are shared across all three ways to play, only one way to play unlocks them. And a tedious one at that. In the course of playing through the campaign levels, I’ve got plenty of partial relic sets. It’s a list of 2/4 and 3/4 all the way down. So I have played several of the levels over again to look for that last relic in the set. I’m okay with that. I like Strange Brigade, so I don’t mind replaying the levels. Shooting powerful guns at monsters is one of the my favorite things to do in a videogame.

But I have yet to find any of those elusive fourth relics. Which is surprising, because Rebellion’s level design does some clever and rewarding stuff in terms of hiding and revealing its secrets. Cat statues, for instance, are accompanied by a clarion meow. But soul jars are silent, so you have to carefully scan the levels to find them. They’re both blue, so they tend to pop once you’re peering in the right place. But the relics are hidden behind puzzles, which start out simple to teach you the mechanics, and then get just hard enough that you’ll feel a sense of satisfaction for solving them.

However, the crucial fourth relic has consistently eluded me. It seems the last piece of each set is hidden someplace I will only find by watching someone’s “Find All the Hidden Secrets In Strange Brigade!!!” video on YouTube. Which I have no desire to do, so I have yet to complete a relic set. Which means I haven’t earned a single skill point, which means I haven’t unlocked a single amulet, which means the progression system has essentially ground to a halt, because I got the gun I wanted some time ago.

But even if I were to go online and watch videos of people explaining where the hell that final relic is hidden — seriously, I’ve played through the first level, like, five times — I’m on the verge of unlocking a flood of amulets. I’ve got plenty of 3/4 sets, so it would be a trivial matter to just watch a few videos and complete several sets. Would this sudden amulet dump have been better doled out over time, as I played, across all three modes? And if they’re the common element among all three modes, why isn’t unlocking them a common element among all three modes?

But these are my long-term complaints. In the short term, Strange Brigade is beyond reproach as a game with unique character about killing a lot of monsters with guns, traps, explosions, and magic spells. It reminds me a bit of Painkiller, but not as deliriously creative or unhinged. It’s a more restrained shooter, built with an eye for letting people play with other people. Not that it’s necessarily a multiplayer game. I got through most of the content solo and nothing felt amiss. But every mode lets you play with up to four people. Because why not?

Strange Brigade’s best value is in the scoring mode, which is a collection of over-the-top set pieces highlighting the interaction between various hordes and various overpowered superweapons. Yeah, sure, you can easily get through these speed runs without dying. They’re built for you to plow through in short order. But Strange Brigade asks the same questions The Club asked ten years ago: how quickly can you do it, how stylishly can you do it, how efficiently can you do it, can you do it without taking damage, and how many headshots can you get? Your answers will be graded. Otherwise known as scored. Your high score sits on a leaderboard. Of course, you’ll want to beat it.

The open-ended horde mode is pretty much a straight-up adaptation of the zombie modes from Call of Duty, without the inscrutable puzzle layouts. If there’s one thing Strange Brigade knows, it’s that you want to get right to the shooting, as often as possible and against as many monsters as it can spawn. And unlike Call of Duty, traps are littered liberally throughout the level, and they’re all free of charge. Keep your money to buy new guns. These omnipresent traps are true of Strange Brigade no matter how you play it. The whirling blades, thrusting spikes, dangling stalactites, and jets of flame aren’t there to hinder you; they’re there to help you.

Finally, there’s the campaign mode, built to be explored for hidden stuff. Here’s where Rebellion rises to the occasion with their level design. Yeah, each level is basically a long corridor that occasionally widens into combat arenas. But the visuals are all about making them feel rich in detail, making them look vast and open, making them hold up under the close scrutiny required to find those cats, soul jars, and relic puzzles. You won’t find ugly seams, invisible walls, and arbitrarily unclimbable inclines, so go ahead and peer into every nook and cranny. Strange Brigade expects as much.

Ironically, this is probably where you’ll stop playing, because do you care enough about amulets to search for wherever the hell those last relics are? I admit it’s an odd complaint, because there’s a purity to Strange Brigade’s approach. It’s a no-nonsense you’re-here-for-the-gunplay shooting spree, without any obligation to grind or level up. Strange Brigade seems to know you were already playing Destiny, Black Ops 4, and The Division, and it has no desire to compete with those treadmills. It instead just wants to be the most exciting ride it can be.

  • Strange Brigade

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • A spirited shooter with an admirable commitment to aesthetic, but without the game design chops to pull off the progression system it wants to offer.