Competent, campy co-op action.
The first time you play Strange Brigade, you’re probably going to be surprised that it’s a new IP. It just feels like it’s one of those things that should have happened by now, you know? You’ll look at it and think, “We had to wait until 2018 for someone to make a co-op shooter inundated with 1930s pulp that has you kill hordes of undead while you try to put an ancient Egyptian witch-queen back in the ground? How had nobody thought of this yet?” Seems obvious, right?
Well, it wasn’t to everybody but Rebellion, who went about making this strange hybrid child of Indiana Jones, The Mummy – the Brendan Fraser ones. The good ones. Not the one with Tom Cruise – and Left 4 Dead a reality. And God bless them for it. Rebellion is probably best known for letting you murder the hell out of Nazis with supremely glorious, gruesome bullet physics in the Sniper Elite series and their take on the popular Alien vs. Predator franchise, but this kind of campy, pulpy co-op adventure, filled to overflowing with British humor, feels like the game the studio was made for.
"The cast looks like they sprang from the pages of a ’30s pulp novel. There’s Frank Fairburne, a former mercenary and ace shot who’s in it for the money; Professor Archimedes De Quincy, a fussy academic out for redemption; Nalangu Rushida, an African demon hunter; and Gracie Braithwaite, a factory worker and former boxer from Northern England."
Strange Brigade’s story is relatively simple. The aforementioned Egyptian witch-queen, Seteki, was so evil that, when she died, the ancient Egyptians put her at the bottom of a deep, deep hole, hoping that the world would forget about her (think Imhotep from The Mummy). Unfortunately, a meddling archaeologist digs her up. Like any good undead witch, Seteki brings her minions along for the ride, and then she’s off to destroy the world. Standing in her way is the Strange Brigade, a secret arm of the British Department of Antiquities, who are hoping to put her back in that hole.
The story doesn’t get much more complicated than that and is wonderfully unobtrusive. The only real cutscenes are black-and-white efforts that mimic old serials, complete with wonderfully British narrator that comments on what’s going on in real time, generally in hilarious fashion. The rest of the game’s storytelling occurs through traditional means like collectible journal entries, hidden treasures, and the ever present voice in your ear who provides mission objectives. You can read it if you want to – it maintains Strange Brigade’s light, fun, campy atmosphere fairly effortlessly – but it’s there as an option, not a requirement. You just wanna put together a team and turn some mummies to dust? Go for it.
The cast looks like they sprang from the pages of a ’30s pulp novel. There’s Frank Fairburne, a former mercenary and ace shot who’s in it for the money; Professor Archimedes De Quincy, a fussy academic out for redemption; Nalangu Rushida, an African demon hunter; and Gracie Braithwaite, a factory worker and former boxer from Northern England. They’re largely the same, but there are a few differences: Frank, for instance, can take more damage than anyone else and when he headshots an enemy, that enemy explodes. Nalangu, on the other hand, moves faster and has a vampiric strike. These differences are minor, in the grand scheme of things, but the larger ones (exploding headshots, vampiric strike, etc) make each character feel unique and actively reward you for a specific style of play that feeds into the character’s backstory. It’s a nice touch.
"The game’s combat is also impressive. Enemies are varied and numerous, and new enemies are constantly introduced, usually with a mini-cutscene and a bad pun explaining how they’d like to kill you."
After you choose who you’re going to roll with – after giving everyone a fair shake, I opted for Frank. Exploding headshots were too good to pass up – you have to choose how you’re going to play. Strange Brigade can be played solo or in co-op, and both work well. There are no AI teammates in solo mode, so you’re free to explore the game’s lush jungles, spooky tombs, and ancient cities at your leisure. It’s worth doing: Rebellion’s attention to environmental design are more than worth taking in. The levels are incredibly impressive, and many manage to toe the fine line between feeling like a level in a video game and a real place you could explore. That level of detail does have a downside, however. Environmental destruction is limited, usually involving little more than pottery and the odd destructible door, and there are invisible walls that keep you out of parts of the environment you feel like you should be able to explore. The levels work despite this, but it’s disappointing when everything else about the game’s level design is so good.
The game’s combat is also impressive. Enemies are varied and numerous, and new enemies are constantly introduced, usually with a mini-cutscene and a bad pun explaining how they’d like to kill you. The generic mummies with run right at you, hoping to claw your face off, but later enemies are more subtle. There are assassins that teleport around the environment with blazing speed, scorpions that burrow underground, swarms of bugs that overwhelm the screen, and armored enemies that toss projectiles and require accurate shots to take down. In large combat arenas, there can often be dozens of enemies on-screen at a time, so you’ll have to manage each enemy type while using your resources – ammo, explosives (which recharge on a timer), any special weapons you might have, the one potion you can carry at any given point – wisely.
While each character’s abilities mean they naturally gravitate towards a certain type of gun – Frank’s exploding headshots makes single shot rifles a natural fit, and Gracie’s melee focus means she probably wants a shotgun – there aren’t any limitations to who can equip what. Each character has a primary weapon and a sidearm, plus any special weapon you find throughout the level. The first two can be swapped at any supply cache throughout the level, and you can use the treasure you find as you play to buy better ones, which carry across to every character. Better still, the ammo packs scattered throughout the level will replenish any weapon you choose, giving you the freedom to use what you want, when you want. Special weapons, however, must be purchased in the levels themselves. These weapons – an extraordinarily powerful blunderbuss or automatic rifle, for instance – deal tremendous damage, but you can’t get more ammo for them unless you buy a new one. Once they’re done, they’re done.
"Killing enemies will also charge up your amulet, which grants each character one of four specific powers. Frank, for instance, can punch enemies so hard they fly backwards and explode, while Professor De Quincy shoots bolts of energy at foes."
Killing enemies will also charge up your amulet, which grants each character one of four specific powers. Frank, for instance, can punch enemies so hard they fly backwards and explode, while Professor De Quincy shoots bolts of energy at foes. Some feel more useful than others, but most compliment the playstyles of their characters and add a lot to the game’s already fun combat. There’s also environmental taps that drop spiked logs, activate spinning blades, and unleash jets of fire on your enemies. Many of these can be activated multiple times after a short cooldown, but some can only be used once. Using them effectively is paramount when the game starts throwing large numbers of enemies at you, so you’ll have to lure enemies to them and position yourself just right to shoot them at the right time. They’re easily one of the best parts of Strange Brigade, and combat improves significantly when they’re involved.
Of course, it isn’t all shooting the undead. You’re also doing a lot of looting. In addition to the piles of coins and treasure chests lying around the level, Strange Brigade also features puzzles to solve. In general, they’re pretty simple. You might be asked to move shafts of light between crystals to open a door, connect a series of pipes, find and shoot a series of targets in a short time, play a memory game, or find the combination to a door elsewhere in the level. None of these are particularly hard, but they break allow the game to breathe and provide just enough challenge to remain engaging. This is good, since the game isn’t very forgiving. Mess one up three times, and that room, and the treasure inside, will be locked off until you replay the level.
Better still, there’s active reason to do them. In addition to the monetary rewards you find, which allow you to buy more guns, you’ll also find relics and gems. Completing a specific set of relics will reward you with skill points, which reward new amulet techniques. Gems, on the other hand, allow you to upgrade your weapons. Some might allow you to fire faster, while others will imbue your weapon with lifesteal or elemental abilities. These systems add to the feeling of discovery and mysticism Strange Brigade tries to convey while making the optional areas worth your time.
"Strange Brigade really shines in co-op and Rebellion makes things tricky by making sure the puzzles change, too. A puzzle that only required one person to step on marked tiles in solo mode will require more people in co-op, and there are more options in combat, as well, allowing you to set up in the environmental traps in ways a lone player simply can’t."
Strange Brigade really shines in co-op and Rebellion makes things tricky by making sure the puzzles change, too. A puzzle that only required one person to step on marked tiles in solo mode will require more people in co-op, and there are more options in combat, as well, allowing you to set up in the environmental traps in ways a lone player simply can’t. Loot also isn’t shared, so you’ll want to get puzzles done quickly to beat your friends to the goods. The campaign itself is a probably around 12 hours, depending on how you play, but there’s also a horde mode and a score attack mode if you want more monster-killing to do.
As good as parts of Strange Brigade are, however, it is still a fairly flawed game. The lack of environmental destruction and presence of invisible walls are very noticeable, and can detract from the game’s theming and level design. What’s worse, however, are the gameplay flaws. While it’s satisfying to blow a large group of mummies up with a stick of dynamite or get a series of perfect headshots, the game’s moment to moment gunplay often feels pretty weak. Weapons sound muted, which weakens the feedback loop, and the melee attack are clunky and inaccurate unless they’re tied to an amulet ability. There’s also the always disappointing decision to have boss fights that consist of waves of enemies that you need to kill in order to damage the boss itself, and while some might like the competitive aspect of not sharing money in co-op, it seems out of place considering the game is so built around teamwork. The worst flaw, however, is that the game has no local co-op. While I understand that local co-op is (unfortunately) becoming more rare and many view it as an outdated feature, Strange Brigade is at its best with other people, and it’s heartbreaking that there’s no option to play it on your couch with your friends. These aren’t gamebreaking flaws, as everything else about Strange Brigade works quite well, but they do detract from the game’s highs.
What will make or break your time with Strange Brigade is how well you jive with the game’s style and tone. Personally, I loved it. A lot of this is due to the narrator, who constantly quips about everything you do. He’ll cheer for you when you set off a huge explosion, or burst into a fit of alliteration when a new enemy appears. He even has a number of remarks for pausing the game. The characters aren’t any slouches in this regard, either, and this, paired with the game’s devotion to its setting, make Strange Brigade stand out in ways it probably otherwise wouldn’t. It’s a flawed game, yes, but also a damn good one, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to see the Strange Brigade again down the road, when some knucklehead opens yet another cursed tomb.
This game was reviewed on the Xbox One.
Beautiful, varied levels. Lots of enemies to fight. The characters feel distinct. Collectibles actually matter. Fun puzzles that break up the action and improve pacing. Lots of environmental traps to use. Gun upgrades are a lot of fun. Puzzles and combat are balanced for solo and co-op play. The narrator is fantastic. Tongue-in-cheek British humor and a great use of the '30s pulp setting.
The gunplay can feel pretty weak. Environmental destruction is limited and there are many invisible walls. Melee attacks are clunky and inaccurate. No option to share loot in co-op. The lack of local co-op is a huge missed opportunity.
A number of small flaws keep Strange Brigade from greatness, but its style, humor, and core gameplay make for a satisfying romp solo or with friends.