Strange Brigade Review – Co-op With Style

While it definitely carries the troubling legacy of colonialism, there’s still something indelibly appealing about the adventure genre–which is to say the genre of adventure broadly, not necessarily adventure games. The trek, the hunt, and the questing through ancient ruins all make a compelling foundation for any journey. That spirit is one that Strange Brigade carries well. It cribs iconography and ideas from the likes of Indiana Jones and its thematic kin for a cooperative romp through unknown jungles packed with zombies, magic, and mysteries–all while nailing the fun-loving wanderlust and, unfortunately, flubbing some of the basics.

The premise is simple enough: a cooperative third-person shooter where you beat down mythical monstrosities. Often these will take the form of a cadre of mobile, combat-hardened mummies or the legendary Minotaur. Your mission, as given to you by the English secret service, is to conquer these foes and help lay to rest the soul of a millennia-old queen whose spirit rampages through the region.

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Your crew of four is a raucous bunch, each with their own thematically-appropriate skills and story. Tough-talking Gracie, for instance, provides the industrious muscle for the squad, and Frank is the experienced leader. The pair of magicians include the classically styled Archimedes and the vaguely racist Nalangu, an amalgam of tribalist stereotypes of indigenous shamans and warriors that does Strange Brigade no favors. To be fair, there’s little hint of mean-spirit in Strange Brigade itself; it’s more a natural consequence of the genre and a failure to adequately or actively push back against some of those tropes. Problematic elements aside, there’s plenty of stylized presentation and jovial pomp to keep you entertained–though you’d be more than forgiven to not overlook those touchy aspects, too.

Beyond its setting, it can be a bit tough to nail down what precisely Strange Brigade does that stands out. Gunplay is straightforward, as are its foes–most of whom are either big baddies or swarms of mooks. But the ’30s radio serial tone actually works well to create a solid premise for its better elements. Traps and puzzles feel like logical extensions, and the cooperative nature helps you better manage the chaos. While you’ve no doubt mowed down your share of zombies while an NPC scrambles to unlock a door, shifting that role to another player adds a little something extra. When those panicked shouts come through the headset, you feel imminently responsible for your friend’s safety and they trust that you’ll have their back.

All of this works with the game’s relatively straightforward inventory system. Alongside the spread of traps and obstacles throughout the stage to create an unusual method of traversing and battling, an array of bonuses and upgrades encourage traversal of these branching worlds. You can, and are encouraged to, for instance, manipulate traps to squash, pierce, and dismember teeming hordes of monsters. These battles play out in labyrinthine stages, too, offering a few different ways to guide and control enemies along the way. Everyone in the group will get a chance to flex their skills and contribute at some point.

While the variety of locales is a bit limited–they’re all Egyptian-themed to a degree–there’s quite a bit of variability within that. Desert areas offer much more open battle spaces than the caverns of an ancient tomb, which will funnel you through cramped passages packed with swinging axe blades and pressure-plate flamethrowers. All-told, you can spend upwards of 10 hours exploring each of them with a crew, and while they’re all a bit similar, they don’t wear out their welcome too soon.

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Each character will have items and supplies they can buy with the loot they collect along the way, and all carry a magical amulet that can absorb the spirits of the baddies they’ve conquered to unleash super-charged attacks. Other gear, like specialized and temporary weapons–akin to the turrets or miniguns you might be able to wield in more traditional shooters for a time–help break up the pacing a bit more, and offer up a few more chances to coordinate with the team.

Despite the extra fluff, it’s hard to shake the sense that Strange Brigade isn’t much more than a snack. The tongue-in-cheek tone and setting are the big draws here, and while they facilitate some unusual and entertaining play, they don’t do much beyond that. Puzzles are dreadfully simple–bouncing between connect-the-pipes and basic matching games–and upgrades just don’t provide a lot to play around with. Each weapon has a few slots, but even that’s plug-and-play. For such an unusual world, more types of attacks, weapons, foes, would be a joy. And, unfortunately, what’s there does have some significant technical problems. Texture pop-in can be jarring, and a bevy of other problems like clipping issues and uneven loot distribution give the impression that parts of Strange Brigade are in need for further refinement.

The grand result is an amusing adventure that makes a powerful case for more creativity with level design, setting, and pacing in co-op shooters, without thoroughly capitalizing on all of its own best ideas. Traps and their extensive use within many of the levels are a joy, and the underpinning gunplay is strong enough to warrant a sturdy recommendation, but it all comes to a head well before it should.

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