Release Date: August 28, 2018Platform: PS4 (reviewed), XBO, PCDeveloper: RebellionPublisher: RebellionGenre: Third-person shooter
The games industry is so saturated with content that it’s arguably harder than ever for a title to stand out and grab our collective attention. Novelty and uniqueness are key factors to a game’s success these days, and Strange Brigade has truly got a style all its own. A co-op third-person shooter set up like a 1930s adventure serial, the game offers a unique brand of fun, brimming with British humor and an aesthetic that infuses vintage newsreel charm with vibrant, Saturday morning cartoon pops of color.
There aren’t any games on the market with a presentation quite like Strange Brigade‘s, which is its greatest strength. Gameplay is fast-paced and fun, especially if you team up with friends, but the title disappoints in that its core mechanics aren’t as inspired as the bombastic visuals and art design.
Up to four players can team up to mow down monsters with a customizable arsenal of guns and grenades, as well as character-specific amulets that unlock supernatural special attacks that clear multiple enemies at once. The controls are standard third-person shooter fare, and movement feels smooth and responsive. Secondary actions like aiming and shooting, throwing grenades, evading, and melee attacks are perfectly adequate as well, but stringing together all of these simple actions doesn’t feel as smooth and streamlined as you’d want.
Games like Gears of War 4, Mass Effect: Andromeda, and even Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2 are third-person shooters that allow you to link your actions together naturally and enter a sort of flow state where your movements become rhythmic. Strange Brigade doesn’t quite achieve this level of smoothness and ease of use, so, unfortunately, its core gameplay isn’t as addictive as the aforementioned titles.
The devil is in the details. Melee attacks are woefully ineffective, and while you’ll feel the urge to use them to clear a path when cornered by a dozen enemies, melee simply isn’t useful in these situations because you can only attack one enemy at a time. Also, melee attacks stop you dead in your tracks, which breaks the flow of action in an awkward way. There’s a chance Rebellion made these decisions to encourage gunplay and discourage a melee-heavy approach, but at the end of the day, it feels like an inessential aspect of combat.
The good news is that nothing in the game feels especially broken or unbalanced, and on the whole, Strange Brigade can be an absolute blast to play. An overwhelming number of baddies can crowd in on you at any given time, but to help even the odds, various deadly traps are strewn about the environments, triggered by well-placed gunfire. Swinging blades, spinning blades, spike traps, fire traps, the obligatory exploding barrels, and more can all be used to aid in enemy extermination. In fact, using the environment to your advantage is by far the most effective route to survival. It can be a thrill to barely escape death by luring monsters into a fire trap and reducing them to ashes, and an even bigger thrill when a fellow adventurer sets off a trap and saves your hide.
Multiplayer is the best way to play Strange Brigade, and while there isn’t anything particularly revelatory or transformative about co-op, it can be an absolute blast to wreck shop with three friends backing you up. The game isn’t exactly bursting with features like Borderlands, nor does it support radically different styles of play, but the co-op experience is entertaining in an arcade-y, sweet ‘n’ simple sort of way. Coordinating attacks with your teammates to take down a particularly powerful foe isn’t a mind-blowing experience, but it sure is fun, and sometimes that’s enough.
The game offers three main modes: Campaign, Horde, and Score Attack. All three offer exactly what you’d expect them to — a grinding battle through waves of enemies in Horde Mode, more densely trap-filled arenas to perform chain kills and rack up points in Score Attack — but the campaign is where the game’s strengths shine through. You and your teammates choose between four heroes: fierce African protector Nalangu Rushida, muscly mechanic Gracie Braithwaite, hipster sharpshooter Archimedes de Quincey, and square-jawed archetype Frank Fairburne. Together, they make up the titular group and are sent on a grand mission to fly around Africa on their bitchin’ airship to track down and fell Seteki the Witch Queen, battling swarms of undead along the way.
The secret sauce that gives the largely uncompelling narrative flavor is the game’s cheeky narrator, played by Glen McCready. He provides witty, often sarcastic commentary on any given situation, like when a small wooden barricade blocks your path in the opening moments of the campaign (“Blocked in already…by wood no less! Curses! Is this the end for our heroes?”) and even breaks the fourth wall on occasion, like when you leave the controller idle and he reminds you that there is, in fact, a pause button at your disposal. His quips are invasive by design, but because the writing is so sharp, it never feels like an unwelcome distraction. The narration actually colors the experience in a wonderful way, making certain mundane tasks (like puzzles, which you encounter often but are more tedious than they are head-scratching) a lot more engaging and memorable than they would have been otherwise.
The lush, colorful environments Rebellion has crafted are surprisingly striking and detailed for a title one would think could get away with a more simplistic cartoon approach to visuals. From the jungled early stages to the massive caverns and crypts you explore later on, each locale feels distinct, and more impressively, the levels don’t feel overly designed or contrived. Gameplay can become repetitive, especially when you’ve been stuck in a single area for over fifteen minutes killing wave after wave of zombies and their mummy masters, but the slick audio/visual presentation helps to distract from the tedium. The references to ‘30s and ‘40s pop culture (like the grainy newsreel filter used in campaign cutscenes) feel out of left field in the best way possible, and it’s nice to see a developer explore a milieu that’s almost never touched upon (only Temple Run springs to mind as having a somewhat similar look).
In some ways, Strange Brigade is a unique little gem that’s unlike even other games in Rebellion’s catalog (the studio is best known for series like Sniper Elite), boasting some of the coolest writing and art design in a game this year. But in others, it’s a derivative title that doesn’t push enough boundaries and lacks a certain level of polish that could have made it a must-play experience. Rebellion has announced that there will be free monthly DLC and a season pass available post-launch, which will include a three-part campaign, new heroes, outfits, and more, so maybe there’s hope yet that the game will reach its full potential in the coming months. For now, it’s a solid action romp that’s well worth a look, particularly for fans of fast, frantic gameplay (and punny British humor).
Bernard Boo is a freelance contributor.