Much like the relics it has you seek out and plunder, there’s something inherently old fashioned about Rebellion’s new co-operative third-person shooter Strange Brigade. It’s set in the past, yes, but at a time where most players seem intent on pointing their gun at each other (more specifically up to 99 others) online, Strange Brigade celebrates a time in games when fighting side-by-side was a treasure in and of itself. Here, it still is. And it’s all thanks to a pitch-perfect mixture of shooting, puzzles, and exploration that sees you and up to three friends up against swarms of nightmarish foes.
Set against the unabashedly camp backdrop of 1930s adventure serials, the look and tone of Strange Brigade’s characters appropriately follows suit. You take up the role as a member of the eponymous taskforce, itself made up of four specialists each with their own unique skills and attributes. There’s Gracie Braithwaite, a Lancashire lass great for close-quarters combat. Nalangu Rushida, warrior of an ancient tribe with speed on her side. Thick-skinned soldier Frank Fairbourne. And Professor Archimedes, the team’s resident secret finder. What’s brought such a ragtag group of heroes together you ask? The return of Seteki, an ancient Egyptian Witch Queen.
In a bid to put her down for good, you’ll work your way through the game’s nine secret-filled levels as a brigade member. Beyond the few defining traits mentioned, all play and operate similarly, until eventually you discover the collectibles necessary for crafting your own custom loadout. Starting off with a fairly basic main weapon, sidearm, and grenade, only by exploring every nook and cranny of Strange Brigade’s intricate, multi-layered levels will you improve your character and advance their role. Short of dispatching mobs of enemies in the most creative way possible, it’s in these levels where the game’s core hook of exploration shines through.
While the main path Strange Brigade sets you on over the course of the campaign is largely linear, each level is made up of a series of semi-open world hubs. Transporting you and teammates to such adventurous locations as subterranean pirate caverns and luscious jungles full of ancient Egyptian ruins, there’s an overt emphasis on exploring these hubs that’s key to your group’s progression. What will you find? A few things. Stages are littered with plenty of puzzles, relics, and collectibles which, if solved, spoil you with an abundance of goodies.
Gems, for example, are found in randomised loot boxes, nicely slotting into your main weapon to power it up with effects that make dealing with the undead more manageable. These effects range from everything to freezing enemies upon impact, letting your rounds ricochet off walls, to something as simple as steadying your weapon’s recoil. It’s not all just about building the biggest, baddest gun, however. Part of Strange Brigade’s 30s-set pulpy charm comes from its willingness to poke fun at the decade in which it’s set, giving it free reign to blur the line between the historic and paranormal.
Leaning into this alternate fiction are what’s known as amulet abilities which are unique to each character. When activated, these deliver a major area of effect attack capable of decimating foes in an instant. As with the other elements of your loadout they start off quite standard at first, until eventually you complete a relic set only attainable via the natural act of discovering secrets and resolving puzzles. Because of this you get a real sense of being an explorer. Strange Brigade constantly rewards you for veering off the beaten path, and there’s always an excuse to meticulously comb through levels.
Strange Brigade manages to avoid the typical co-op shooter slog of having you merely dispatch wave after wave of meat bags before moving on to the next section. There is a Horde mode (and Score Attack mode) for those who want it, but in the main game any risk of monotony is happily avoided thanks to the many traps that litter open areas – in addition to the puzzles. Triggering these not only helps you make light work of enemies and the odd boss that will appear, but also is also a solid strategy of crowd control that makes seeing a mob of skeletons make friends with a swinging spiked log or fire pit immensely satisfying, as you can imagine.
Sadly, it isn’t all tea and crumpets. Those expecting Strange Brigade’s story to be as deep and sprawling as its levels will be disappointed, with only the most basic of interstitial exposition dumps serving to colour in the plot between stages. Strange Brigade is a game more concerned about the moment-to-moment co-operative action than it is giving a good reason for providing them. Despite this, though, the chemistry between characters during these emergent set piece moments delivers on the era’s honest sense of carefree fun.
Where Strange Brigade impresses is not in how it encourages you to methodically explore, solve puzzles, or pit you against creatures that wouldn’t feel too out of place in an unproduced entry from the Brendan Fraser-led series of Mummy movies – it’s by juggling all three. While most co-operative shooters might be content having players mindlessly shoot and move, Strange Brigade kicks this up a notch by adding in a well-balanced amount of depth and customisation, all wrapped up within an exotic world that is enthusiastically good-natured and thrilling to be in with friends.
Strange Brigade is out now for PS4, Xbox One, and PC.