Strange Brigade Review

When I saw the reveal trailer for Strange Brigade in spring, I was hyped. The game was promised to be a fun action adventure drawing its inspiration from the pulp fiction serials of 1930’s. Just what I wanted to see! Uncharted series, that had started with a tongue firmly in cheek, ended up being too serious and not fun at all by its fourth installation. Could Strange Brigade fill the gap Naughty Dog’s series had left? Not even the fact that the game was touted as an online co-op shooter up to four players diminished my excitement, as the British developer Rebellion assured that the enemy masses would be scaled down for single players. Be that as it may, I had to go solo. By the time some online games were finally available during the review period, I was so far ahead in the campaign that I didn’t feel like backtracking in it. So, after ending up playing the game through all by myself, I fail to see how the experience would have been enhanced with any more players.

The adventure kicks off when an ancient Egyptian witch-queen Seteki is disturbed in her slumber. Full of anger, she threatens the civilized world of the 1930’s with her second coming. The only one capable of standing in Seteki’s way is Strange Brigade, a group of misfit adventurers. The players choose their brigadier from a stern sharphooter, a dashing young professor, a jungle warrior with a painted skin and a no-nonsense factory worker. While I applaud Rebellion for toying deliberately with stereotypes, none of the characters particularly hit my fancy and I grew fast tired of their mistimed one-liners. For most of the campaign I played as Gracie, a not-so wee lass from Manchester, even though her remarks made her sound annoyingly simple-minded.

Strange Brigade plays out as a third-person shooter and sees brigadiers jogging through pretty straightforward nine levels of Northern-African landscapes. When it comes to fending off Seteki’s swarming minions from mummies to minotaurs, the camera switches to an over the shoulder view. Puzzles that come between the heroes and their progression are pretty simple in nature and requires just paying attention to the immediate surroundings. Only various treasures offer distractions off the beaten path. Gold coins are used to open caches for one-time use special weapons and to buy new arsenal between missions. Brigadier’s amulet powers - their personal special attacks - are unlocked by completing sets of relics, found from secret rooms. Gemstones, in turn, are used to upgrade weapons with various effects, like giving armor-piercing or damage over time qualities to them.

The game fails at delivering its premise of a fun B-grade romp. There are no thrills along the ride, just the same gameplay loop over and again. It goes like this: you venture a bit, shoot random baddies, solve light puzzles and find treasures along the way, and arrive at an arena with explosive barrels, blade traps and other exploitable hazards conveniently laid out. You activate a blue crystal sticking out of the ground, triggering a set piece of hordes of enemies coming at you. You run around, kiting the monsters and trying to activate the traps to aid your cause because weapons are comparable to peashooters in their effectiveness. You gulp a healing potion and try to find another (maybe of one the mummies is holding it) because only one can be carried at a time. When all the enemy waves are dealt with, the path forward opens up - until you arrive at a similar set piece. Rinse and repeat all the way up to an inevitable boss fight, featuring zillions of adds harassing you while trying to focus on the main targets. The same process recurs with a clinical obsession throughout the game. The only variation comes in introducing new monsters to join the ranks of Seteki’s minions.

I guess much of the blame can be put to the fact that the game was stubbornly designed around co-op play. Character’s cant jump or climb, making the progress flat. I think this is the first time in third-person games that when I see a ladder, I can’t grab and climb it. The developers must have thought that they can herd the players better by restricting their movement and putting them into mostly linear levels. Otherwise, multiplayer participants could be all over the place like caffeine-overdosed monkeys. Likewise, the puzzles are embarrassingly simple so that players won’t be hampered by them. All this renders Strange Brigade only a hint of what it could have been; a brilliant and fun action adventure giving Tomb Raider and Uncharted a serious run for their money.

I had no bigger troubles as such in dealing with Seteki’s wrath single-handedly, even though controls did their best to throw a monkey wrench into the works. A third-person shooter where you can’t trust aiming kind of misses its point (pun intended). The crosshairs lopes wildly, making it hard to hit overly skinny mummified enemies. The bosses’ weak spots are all too tight for such wonky controls, making the boss fights unnecessary hard for all the wrong reasons. Weapons seem puny despite their upgrades, and due to the jumpy targeting, more powerful single-action rifles are mostly useless. It’s all too traditional British game design to have badly implemented controls that don’t fit in with their intended purpose.

if the gameplay lacks, so does the narrative, again thanks to the multiplayer needs. Who watches proper cutscenes in online games? No one. That’s why there’s resemblance of a story only in between missions with black & white footage of brigadiers inside their zeppelin being prepped for their upcoming tasks. I thought that Uncharted 4 had too many and too long cutscenes, but I actually missed that kind of stuff when going through motions in Strange Brigade. You just don’t feel a part of a grand adventure as all you have is an over-zealous narrator whose pretentious quips you grow tired of very quickly. It’s only embarrassing to have him trying to stir up zeal into boring gameplay elements.

The only thing worth of admission are incredibly crisp and detailed visuals that depict lush (if repetitive) environments vividly with a good framerate even during the busiest set pieces. Despite being a multi-platform game, its looks are easily up to Uncharted 4 and The Lost Legacy standards. Outside aiming weapons, the player movement is delightfully brisk and animated sturdily. It’s a shame, then, that the game doesn’t live up to its exciting premise. It’s just too repetitious for its own good. To be fair, all games basically repeat their patterns but most manage to mask it better than Strange Brigade. The score attack and the horde mode offer alternatives to the campaign, but they too feature more of the same tepid action. A season pass promises new characters and campaign missions. I can only hope they also bring along much needed variety to the gameplay.

Video game nerd & artist. I've been playing computer and video games since the early 80's so I dare say I have some perspective to them. When I'm not playing, I'm usually at my art board.