A strange one indeed, this. Rebellion’s efforts tend to be admirably direct in their titling – Zombie Army, Sniper Elite, Rogue Warrior, all games that serve up exactly what it says on the tin – and so it is with Strange Brigade, an all-new IP that is more than a little odd. What if the Zombie Army formula was transposed from the fuzzy VHS of a straight-to-video schlocky spin on World War 2 to the high-spirited world of 30s serials? What if Indiana Jones, but with a Path voiceover and a heavy dose of colonial derring do washing over that sense of innocent adventure? Best not linger on that last point too long – it seems that not many at Rebellion have, anyway.
Still, if this studio has forged a reputation for anything over the past few years, it’s for making big, dumb and – more often than not – enjoyable action games. Strange Brigade takes the straight-to-the-point gunplay of Zombie Army and throws in its own kinks, doubling down on the co-op – the campaign can be soloed, or opened up to friends or strangers to play alongside you – and sprinkling the lightest amount of strategy atop the shooting.
And so you have four characters (five if you include the pre-order bonus, of course), all loosely drawn from some dusty archetypes, and all with their own particular traits. There’s Frank, the thick-skinned and hard-edged veteran! De Quincey, the magician who can absorb souls readily and is a dab hand at sourcing secrets! Gracie, a Rosie the Riveter repro who’s good with her fists and will remind you at every given opportunity – and a few more besides – that she’s a no-nonsense Lancashire lass. And then there’s Nalangu, the spirit warrior who can draw upon the supernatural as she draws health from the recently deceased.
All that window dressing might well have worked if it wasn’t so hollow, the comic book stylings – penned by 2000AD veteran Gordon Rennie, a writer who seems to have had more success with other similarly pulpy outings for Rebellion’s publications – ringing loud and clumsy with its one-note approach. If you find troweled-on British accents hilarious, and don’t mind the dark heart of the colonial era served up with a shit-eating smile, then maybe this is for you – personally, I found it ends up a like a cut-rate Indy complete with cloying narration by Mr. Cholmondley-Warner, but with absolutely none of the charm that combination might imply. Strange Brigade shoots for a cute British quirkiness and misses by a mile, the end result about as appealing as boiled mutton.
Beneath all that it’s a little more effective, a knowing throwback to a bygone age of shooters when things were much simpler. This is aggressively simple stuff, the sturdy gunplay backed up by a couple of the Strange Brigade’s own quirks. Each character has an amulet that can be charged by collecting the souls of fallen enemies, and when full it gives you access to a super – which vary by character, each able to unlock a slim selection that range from summoning scarab swarms to charging headlong into mobs. It adds a slim layer of strategy to the straight-up shooting (fuelled itself by a fairly slim arsenal that harbours few surprises, though weapons can be upgraded in-mission with upgrades persistent across characters, and more exotic tools can be had temporarily for a small price when you find them on the battlefield).
It’s the battlefield itself that’s of more interest, really, and where you’ll find the strongest traces of imagination in Strange Brigade. The levels – of which there’s a generous selection, given how it’ll take around 12 hours to see them all through – are sprawling, branching messes of caverns and corridors and courtyards, complete with various puzzles to provide diversions along the way. They’re hardly the most taxing of puzzles – the complexity never goes that much further than a game of Pipe Mania or triggering pressure pads and seeking out targets to shoot in the environment, though when you’re playing with three others it makes sense there’s nothing stickier involved – and instead offer a slightly different texture to sit aside the shooting.
More useful are the traps that can be brought into play. Yes, there are exploding barrels that archers do so love to stand besides, but there are also swirling blades, pendulous axes that swing through doorways and fire-pits that can be triggered by pressure pads. Playing solo it’s neat enough, and with a friend or two there’s a bit more to it all – kiting a boss into a trap that someone else can trigger, say, or working together to thin out mobs.
And beneath all this it’s clear that Rebellion really has its straight-up shooting down to a fine art, and Strange Brigade isn’t without its neat touches. There’s a pleasing amount of feedback when felling the undead – met with a beautiful supernatural whisp of a sound that never fails to satisfy even when you hear it for the thousandth time – and it all comes together in the Score Attack mode where Strange Brigade’s best attributes are placed in the sharpest focus, where you’re pressed to make the most of the environmental hazards and pushed up against the thickest mobs.
It’s something, but it’s never quite enough to serve as Strange Brigade’s reason to be. There’s no big hook like Zombie Army and Sniper Elite’s gloriously gory headshot system, and without that you’re left with a brutally basic shooter. Still, like those games Strange Brigade offers up an enjoyable and frictionless brand of action, even if it’s mostly thoughtless. This one, you feel, might be a bit too dumb for its own good.