There are at least 20 dessicated corpses chasing me, one of my guns has run out of bullets (again), and my health bar is flashing an angry and very insistent red. But I’m grinning. Widely. Strange Brigade has somehow figured out how to make me seek out enemies not so I can shoot them, but so I can tempt them towards me in ever-increasing crowds until I verge into intense stress territory. Or, it would be stressful… if I wasn’t too busy revelling in the glorious chaos about to ensue.
According to Ben Fisher, Strange Brigade’s Studio Design Lead, the game “comes into its own when you have too many enemies to deal with”. We’ve all had it before: that feeling of impending doom as yet another corpse spawns… until something switches on in your brain and you realise that if you scramble over here and draw those enemies into that trap, then you suddenly have the time to get some ammo and charge up your amulet with the trap kills, then suddenly everything is on fire and all is well again.
The most important bit of that paragraph above? Traps. Around each map there are spears that can catapult out of the ground, wall-mounted flamethrowers just waiting to be set off, big spiky swinging logs, blade pendulums, and sharp rotating fans that slice anything that gets near. Forget these traps exist, and you’ll regret it. When you have a flock of dessicated bodies shambling towards you these nefarious booby traps are there to give yourself some breathing room. Or just to troll your friends (possibly soon-to-be former friends) with. Plus in the Horde mode, where waves of enemies will just keep coming as you try to get your score as high as possible, getting combo kills with the traps makes the narrator erupt in raptures of delight as well as boosting that score up high into the sky.
Speaking of the narrator, one of the things that sets Strange Brigade apart from any other co-op game - or game, full stop - is that its narrator really, really isn’t taking it seriously. Like, at all. When faced with a skeletal archaeologist with sharp spears sticking out of her limbs, the narrator erupts in a melodramatic “oh no!” as if reacting to a piece of scandalous gossip at a garden party. Having him natter through my time playing Strange Brigade provides just the tongue-in-cheek encouragement needed when you’re facing off against some very persistent dusty corpses. It’s all part of Rebellion’s efforts to turn Strange Brigade into a pulpy, light-hearted expedition through colourful sun-bleached maps instead of Zombie Army Trilogy’s darker tone.
Learning lessons from… nazi zombies?
Whereas in Zombie Army Trilogy most of your time was spent kiting and managing those shambling zombies as if they were a giant flock of incredibly deadly sheep, Strange Brigade is taking that same basis and piling puzzles, different game modes, and exploration on top of that. Fisher illuminated me about what Rebellion was trying to do differently. He explained that they “wanted to make sure that there was more replayability, with more options for the player to tailor their playstyle, and also to have those different tones of gameplay. So balancing the shooting against puzzle gameplay, exploration, and that sense of wonder and delight”.
He’s right: plenty has changed. As well as what Fisher describes as the “80s direct-to-VHS tone” of Zombie Army Trilogy being spruced up into a more pulpy style for Strange Brigade, there’s other things besides firing bullets to keep you busy. Although the bullet bit is stupidly fun. Of course you have the usual pistols and rifles, but hidden around the map are prototype weapons that you buy with all those gold coins you’ve been stuffing in your pockets that deal one heck of a punch. Ordinary guns can be upgraded with gems that an do things like break through enemy armour, or you could just use vampire bullets that steal health, or fire bullets which (surprise surprise) set enemies on fire, or just wait until your amulet is full before unleashing it on any nearby foes. And trust me: there will be plenty of them.
Fed up with shooting? Try some puzzles
It’s not all about the enemies, though. Placed throughout the maps are puzzles that’ll make you momentarily hold off on luring your friends into traps so you can work together to unlock the delights within. Requiring a bit of extra brainpower, sometimes they’re like giant, deadly hopskotch and at other times they’re tricksy mazes where enemies and traps wait around every single corner. These remnants of the lost civilisations are slotted into the ruins that you’ll be exploring, and are partly based on the panoramic vistas of Sniper Elite 4. Fisher explained to me that for Strange Brigade Rebellion wanted to “capture the sense of exploring a cohesive environment” just like in Sniper Elite, with the puzzles fleshing out the locations you’ll be voyaging through and making them feel a little less empty.
When it all comes together, Strange Brigade is an intriguing mix of rapidly-building chaos, strategic planning, and puzzles that give you time to collect your thoughts just when you need it most. “when you’re right on the edge, when there’s almost too much to deal with and you’re spinning those plates, that’s when the game really kind of emerges into its own thing”, says Fisher. And you know what? I couldn’t agree more. Because in a game like Strange Brigade, who the hell wants peace and quiet?