There is an undeniable charm to the intentionally B-movie thrilled provided by Strange Brigade. Beneath the enjoyable presentation stands a solid if generally unspectacular action shooter that offers a great deal to do, even if at times what is being done can get a bit repetitive.
Rebellion is likely best known for its Sniper and Zombie Army titles, and with good reason. They are fun, challenging, realistic action games built around a well-designed sniper system. In shooters, I am almost always a sniper. I like the challenge of trying to line up that perfect shot, and of trying to out-think my opponents. This system works far better in the Sniper games than in Zombie Army Trilogy, which is brutally challenging and requires teamwork to succeed – whether you want to play in multiplayer or not.
To its credit, Strange Brigade has provided an all new game here, despite a few moments where it feels like something of a spiritual successor to Zombie Army as well. We shift to a third person shooter here, with a focus on exploration. Some of that exploration is required, much of it is optional – but hunting down rare artifacts is a good deal of the fun here. The option ones usually have some lightweight element of puzzle solving required, such as shooting symbols in a particular order. Others are required to progress in the game, such as walking along a large tiled floor in a particular pattern in a way that calls back to adventuring romps like Indiana Jones. None of these left my scratching my head for too long – oftentimes it was more a matter of my failed powers of observation than my ability to solve problems. Some doors for example, will only open up if you shoot the three blue stones required to unlock them. This is far less mentally straining than making sure to keep a sharp eye for something nestled into the environment that might be otherwise easy to miss.
The gun play is quite similar to the puzzle solving aspects of the game – it is done well enough, even if it is not great. In Strange Brigade, you have a quartet of characters at your disposal at the onset, and a handful of different types of weapon loadouts you can run with to best suit your style. This works better if you are in a group playing with others, because the differences between a short range but damage-heavy shotgun is quite different than using a rifle with its precision but lack of application in close quarters. Thankfully, grouping is merely strongly suggested and not a requirement here. While it is basically impossible to advance far in Zombie Army Trilogy on your own, Strange Brigade might be more fun with a group – but it is not a requirement.
Fundamentally the idea of aiming and shooting is simple enough. It can feel a bit loose here at times, but given the chaotic nature of the game (which focuses more heavily on overwhelming you with waves of enemies than ones who are particularly skilled and proficient as solo threats), that is not much of a surprise. Still, in the heat of the fight, it seems oddly difficult to lob a grenade as effectively as I would like, and encounters often come down to battles of attrition as you hope you have enough bullets to hold out against the enemy waves. This lends itself rather nicely to the optional wave / horde mode that can be played, but there were times in the campaign where I was playing solo and just thinking: okay, seriously – when will they run out of these undead guys?
Admittedly this can get a bit monotonous, but I appreciate that there are traps littered throughout the levels as well. Shoot the orange orb and giant pendulum axes will swing back and forth a few times in an archway, or spears will jut up from the ground nearby or perhaps you can loose a giant spiked log to swing down and smash some oncoming uglies. Timing is key here, and there is a bit of a pause before they are ready to be used again, which prevents them from being overly abused and can help even the odds a bit if you are fighting through the level solo. There is also a special power that is fueled up by continuing to play, but unfortunately not all of these are all that equal – though they can still save your bacon in a time of need. The boss battles attempt to inject some variety into things as well, but given how far into each level they are stashed, they are pretty infrequent. Even then, they frequently come at you with their unique new mechanic and… also are sending dozens of lesser critters at you as well, just to muddy things up further.
Thankfully, the enemy variety is pretty solid. Early on they basically just shamble forward slowly, but variations arrive throughout the different chapters. Even in the first you have some armored ones that make it a bit harder to take them down, spear throwers and even critters like large, cranky scorpions. Subsequent chapters provide more variety as well, and while the changing enemy attack patterns are certainly welcome, similar to the puzzles they don’t really require the most thought in fending them off. Enemy designs often look like they would be right at home in one of the earlier Mummy movies.
And really, that is one of the high points to playing Strange Brigade – it’s presentation. It is not just the enemies that do not take themselves too seriously, but there is a campy, charming style to the excellent narrator, the quick black and white ‘takes’ when introducing an enemy or scene and even the cheesy dialogue between members of the cast. The audio design, the colorful visuals and plentiful tongue-in-cheek comments along the way give Strange Brigade a different flavor than most games of this nature. This is a genuinely funny title that embraces its camp and elevates the otherwise somewhat generic if solid action and puzzle-solving.
The new characters found in the existing compliment offered by the Strange Brigade Season Pass feel bland with the exception of one or two “niceties.” For instance, Bash makes enemies explode when he gets a headshet and has a new amulet power that is akin to Hulk Smash (leaps forward, smashes ground, shit goes boom) and Tessie is, though not overly unique in any way, an SMG-wielding spitfire that is just … average across the board though she DOES have more health than the others and her amulet is akin to a fully leveled-up D&D Fireball spell that goes KABOOOM really nice.
The campaign pack, introducing the Thrice Damned 1 campaign mission feels tacked on, but not because it does not fit with the motif of the original game, but more because the motif of the original game itself felt relatively simplistic and repetitively bland, in fact, Strange Brigade could be considered the “mashed potatoes of co-op shooters;” everyone loves them, but they are nothing truly special.
So far, what is available as of end-of-October in the Strange Brigade Season Pass, while unexciting, does prolong the playability of Strange Brigade … assuming you have yet to play the game. Perhaps after the final phases of the Season Pass content are released, Strange Brigade will be a co-op shooter that could be enjoyed from start to finish, new content included.