What’s this? Nostalgia for something other than 80s synth music? Ancient Egyptian tombs, brain teasers, hordes of undead enemies and transatlantic narration? Oh yes, it’s Strange Brigade! Can our heroes at Rebellion conquer the beast of PvE with charm and follow through with the game’s promise? Find out on the next several paragraphs of this review.
Starting with this one, where I must deliver the unfortunate news that Strange Brigade falls short of what seemed like decent potential, failing to create interesting environmental puzzles and showcasing flat, boring, rote gameplay.
Hardly a Challenge
I remember previewing Strange Brigade at E3 last year. I was intrigued by the game’s potential, but noted some glaring flaws that absolutely needed addressing, not the least of which was its lackluster implementation of environmental puzzles. It’s not like I disagree with the core concept. Who doesn’t love good puzzles? After all, you do play as a group of expeditioners looking for ancient loot while killing any revenant corpses that dare get in its way, a concept ripe with potential for interesting, challenging conundrums.
For the most part, though Rebellion simply landed on a game of Where’s Waldo? In almost every level, you’ll come across a door with at least three symbols, where shooting those symbols in a particular order will unlock the door. Where do you find the order? By looking around for it in the environment. Once you find it, enter it in. This isn’t particularly challenging, and it’s certainly not any fun. Just looking at the nuts and bolts of the gameplay, you’re standing in the middle of a vast area and slowly rotating R3. I know; sounds like a party, right?
Then you’ll find puzzles that challenge you to bounce beams of light off blue crystals until it unlocks the door, a puzzle that is really just trial and error for several minutes, and several more minutes once the developers run out of ideas and just add more crystals, as though the quantity will somehow make it more challenging. There’s also a nice game of Plumber to open up some side doors, where you have to route glowing liquid from one side to the other by rotating a series of pipes. I almost get the sense that Rebellion knew these weren’t very difficult, because you often have to press a simple button to even access these doors/puzzles. It’s like someone told them it was too easy and they said, “Well what if we made them hold R2 first?”
It’s tough, too, because the reward for these puzzles isn’t even all that rewarding. One of the few times I remember laughing at Strange Brigade (despite its many, MANY attempts at jokes) was when I completed one of its auto-complete puzzles to be rewarded with two chests with 500 gold coins each. Why not just one chest with 1000 coins?
Strange Brigade’s dubious distribution of money aside, money hardly feels like a valuable resource. You get way more money than you can possibly spend in the game, so you’re really just saving up for better guns. That said, I saved up and skipped two guns to get to a higher-tier upgrade and I could swear I was playing with the exact same gun as before, and believe me I triple-checked. Guns handle in only a few ways, but guns within those categories in Strange Brigade are virtually indistinguishable. Bolt action rifles all feel the same, shotguns all feel the same, semi-auto and auto rifles all feel the same. There might very well be moderate differences in certain stats, but those don’t do enough to make them handle significantly differently.
And don’t get me started on the skill point system. But seeing as I’ve already started without your help, I’m flabbergasted at how slim the pickings are in Strange Brigade. If you find each of four relics in any level, Strange Brigade will reward you with a skill point that is used to—wait for it—unlock one new special ability. It’s not a new skill that will change how you play or a skill tree where each unlock builds off another; it’s just a different thing that happens when you press circle after killing enough bad guys to fill up your combo meter. With the starting lady, I felt like the starting special ability, where you emit a decently sized radius of fire, was good enough, so I just stopped caring about exploring anymore. Why would I need to? I already have the best ability. Games that have exploration should reward exploration, but I could hardly care less about the spoils Strange Brigade has to offer, as the concept of treasure seems lost on it.
The game is also lacking an expected amount of polish. I’m not one to fault a game for its budget, but these particular errors don’t seem like they would need a lot of money to fix. Enemies blend into the background in ways that don’t feel intentional (believe it or not, there are actually skeletons in the screenshot above), while ancient texts you exhume—one of the other hidden collectibles—are written in what seems to be size-two font. Each time you find a book, our supposedly charming narrator sarcastically remarks “reading … just what I’ve always wanted to do,” as if acknowledging that in-game texts are a hurdle for many gamers. That said, I have a 55” TV, and I couldn’t read these if I wanted to.
The only thing that kept me exploring these side paths was because you can unlock gems for your weapons, once again a pretty disappointing aspect of progression. These add special effects to weapons you have. That said, I soon discovered a gem that gives you a modest amount of health every time you kill an enemy, and I stopped caring. Once again, I found the best one, so why would I need to look for more?
But all of this overlooks the fact that Strange Brigade has perhaps the most finicky, inconsistent gunplay in my recent memory. Its auto-aim leaves a lot to be desired, and it seems to require pinpoint accuracy to land a shot with anything but a shotgun, which can be especially frustrating when you face bosses that require you to shoot a small glowing target on their bodies. And, if it sounds like I’m complaining about the Strange Brigade’s difficulty, I’m not. I died maybe two times during my playthrough. In fact, you’ll most often be playing a shooting gallery of meek, shambling mummies that make it hard not to fall asleep. You’ll only be jolted awake by the jarring screen cut that happens whenever you use the kick button, another odd technical failure.
A For Effort
I’ll be honest, this is a rough one. I take no pleasure in giving games poor reviews, especially when it’s a game that a lot of good people worked obviously really hard to complete, but I’m sitting here at my computer grasping at straws for something nice to say. Perhaps Strange Brigade’s only saving grace is that it’s short—it should only take you around 12-15 hours to complete the campaign—but then that leads me into another negative: the game doesn’t have couch co-op, so, unless you happen to have a pal that bought the game too, you’ll either be playing with randos or by yourself, a huge detriment to a game that already isn’t very fun.
I’ve seen low-effort cash-grabs by people with no imagination, and Strange Brigade isn’t that. The folks at Rebellion had a unique vision for Strange Brigade that wasn’t content to merely tap into the typical 80s nostalgia or other hot cultural icons of the backward-looking 2018 pop culture. So there, I guess I found something nice to say.
Strange Brigade review code provided by Rebellion. Version 1.00 reviewed on a standard PS4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.