As the British Empire’s occult hit squad, the Strange Brigade are dispatched whenever the rampant looting of other cultures leads to supernatural forces being unleashed on the world. While many would argue this may just be karma paying the Brits back for years of colonial oppression, it’s probably best to try and avoid a global catastrophe for everyone’s sake all the same. So, with bad-girl deity Seteki raising the dead across Egypt, you’ll need to take control of one of the members of the Strange Brigade – either solo or in online co-op with up to three other players – in order put down Seteki’s undead horde.
From the very start it’s clear that Strange Brigade draws a huge amount of inspiration from early 20th Century adventure stories – especially those featuring Allan Quatermain, Tarzan, and their ilk. While these stories have a clear inspirational through-line to modern video game characters, such as Lara Croft and Nathan Drake, this co-op third-person shooter has its sights set on aping earlier incarnations of these sorts of yarns.
To that end it feels very much like a 1930’s or 40’s serial, complete with a well voiced, ever present narrator – who amusingly never met an alliteration they didn’t like – and a story light on complexity but heavy on cliff-hangers. It works most of the time, but there’re occasions when you won’t be able to decide if some of the main character dialogue and voice acting is bad, or developer Rebellion was purposefully evoking the cringe inducing acting and scripts of the era. This reviewer likes to think it was the latter.
With four diverse characters to choose from – and a fifth being added at launch – there’s a nice variety in terms of both race and gender to the main cast, with each coming equipped with a different weapon loadout, and a speciality – be it the faster movement speed of Nalangu, the African Spirit-Warrior, or Archimedes de Quincey’s ability to open hidden entrances.
While at first it seems like you’ll be locking yourself into a single weapon type – machine gun, rifle, or shotgun – depending on your character choice, you’ll quickly discover that any of the characters can wield each of the more down-to-earth weapon types, and it’s only the unique amulets abilities that actually end up being the biggest differentiator between the different characters.
With the campaign, a horde mode, and score attack trials open to you from the start, the story serves as a good starting point, as it’ll get you to grips with the gameplay at Strange Brigade’s core, as well as giving you the opportunity to unlock not only additional areas to play in both the horde and score attack modes, but also some new weapons, amulet abilities, and upgrades for the Strange Brigade themselves.
Spanning nine missions, and taking a similar number of hours to complete – depending on how thorough you are at exploring every level –- most stages in the campaign are linear treks, with pauses at various junctures to solve a few straight-forward puzzles, dodge some traps, and blast your way through enough of the undead to populate a small town. Despite their obvious linearity these areas are multi-tiered with plenty of twists and turns, and as you explore the nicely rendered caves, tombs, or outdoor ruins, each level will cleverly give you glimpses of upcoming areas, making them feel a bit less like a series of arenas and connecting corridors.
It terms of gameplay it’s a formula you’ll have seen before in other titles, such as Rebellion’s own Zombie Army Trilogy. However, there’s much more of a focus on the use of traps scattered around the environments to thin out the mummified waves of enemies, and this helps the combat encounters feel a bit different than expected. Whether it’s a crate you can drop on some undead skulls, or the ever present genre favourite, the exploding barrel, drawing enemies into the kill-zones for the wide variety of traps on offer is not only encouraged, but it’s pretty fun as well.
While you’ll be dispatching enemies throughout each mission, the larger scale fights are heavily telegraphed by placing you and your co-op partners in large areas, packed full of ammo, health potions, and the aforementioned traps. Before things kick-off you’ll have the opportunity to get the lay of the land, and it’s entertaining to plan out your initial positioning, where you’re going to fall back to once you inevitably get overrun, and if you’re playing in co-op, who’s going to cover each potential route of attack.
The gunplay is also fast and responsive, with nice reaction animations and sound effects that make pumping round after round into an oncoming wave of enemies very satisfying – especially when you trigger a chain reaction of explosions that sends them cartwheeling into the air. It’s also fun to use the amulet abilities unique to each character – charged by collecting the souls of dead foes – for dishing a lot of damage out quickly. It’s just a shame that some abilities are much more fun to use than others, and they can only be unlocked by collecting a number of relic sets, which requires you to be meticulous in your exploration of each mission in order to find.
The frequent introduction throughout the campaign of faster, armoured enemies, as well as some quite enjoyable boss fights, provides a different set of challenges when compared to the run-of-the-mill zombies and skeletons, and since there’s no option to run and gun – you can only shoot when aiming down your sights – you’ll need to be mindful of the slower basic enemies closing in on you as you prioritise the more dangerous targets. Despite these challenges, though, it never feels unfair, with the standard difficulty level striking an enjoyable balance between making you feel both powerful, and vulnerable at the same time.
Once you’re done with the campaign you can choose to revisit the various missions on higher difficulties, or you can dive into the horde and score attack modes. These mix up Strange Brigade’s formula in their own way, and while they’re pretty much what you expect – you’ll no doubt have come across them in this sort of game before – they do offer a slightly different challenges to the main story missions. Whether you’re interested in long drawn-out battles of endurance, or fancy some bite-sized scenarios you can blast through as quickly as possible – while trying to build up lengthy kill/score combos – both have you covered.
While far from revolutionary, Strange Brigade makes it hard to dismiss it as “just another horde shooter”. The pulpy adventure aesthetic and the focus on the use of traps are a definite draw, and while a more interesting, self-aware story would have been nice to see, it’s the satisfying shooting, well implemented online co-op, and interesting game mode variants that help stave off the tedious repetition that quickly end up haunting many horde shooters.