Strange Brigade review (PS4): ‘Nelson’s Ghost!’

Inspired by the pulp adventures of the early 20th century, Strange Brigade is a curious thing. It’s one part puzzle-riddle archaeology adventure game and one part co-op focused horde shooter, wrapped up in the campy presentation of a 1930s B-movie serial. That mix of influences could easily collapse in on itself, but Strange Brigade makes it work.

Four thousand years ago, the barbaric Egyptian queen Seteki was overthrown and entombed until 1930, when an archaeological expedition released her upon the world. Enter the Strange Brigade: a ragtag band of heroes that the British Secret Service calls in for more…  supernatural operations.

They’re an eclectic bunch, the Strange Brigade. There’s Gracie Braithewaite, a foul-mouthed factory worker from Lancashire who calls to mind Rosie the Riveter; Nalangu Rushida, a demon hunter from Kenya who joined the brigade to sharpen her skills; Archimedes de Quincy, an Oxford-educated archaeologist who’s dedicated his life to keeping ancient evils sealed away; and Frank Fairburne, a stoic military marksman “with the coldest eyes in the Empire”.

Playing as one of those four, either alone or with friends, Strange Brigade pits you against Seteki’s hordes of undead minions, trap-filled tombs, and plentiful puzzles that stand between you and victory. Sometimes you’ll be searching the environment for codes to input into a locked door (by shooting glowing hieroglyphs, naturally); other times you’ll be feeding beams of light through a series of magical crystals or trying to find ways to lower bridges.

There’s nothing in Strange Brigade‘s puzzle design that you won’t have seen before, but they’re satisfying to solve all the same and they help sell the sense of pulpy adventure. Though broadly linear, each level has multiple routes that feed into one another, with plenty of treasures and secrets to find, making exploration a delight.

All the while, zombies, skeletons, mummies, and other such ghouls are trying to hunt you down, and you’ll regularly find yourself locked into big arenas until you can kill wave after wave of foe. You’ve got the expected array of period-appropriate firearms, but those alone won’t be enough to keep yourself safe; you’ll also need to use the environment to your advantage, and turn the myriad traps against your enemies.

It’s this that makes Strange Brigade so much more enjoyable than your typical horde shooter. Gunplay alone is never enough to deal with the sheer numbers thrown at you, so being able to herd groups into traps before activating them (by shooting glowing orbs nearby) is the key to evening the odds. Each trap takes a while to recharge before you can use it again, so you need to be constantly on the move to find another and to avoid getting overwhelmed. In a time when shooters have become so static (thanks, cover system), this focus on movement is a welcome direction indeed.

As new enemies get introduced, that emphasis on mobility only increases. Initially, you’ve only got the slow, shuffling zombies to deal with, but later levels have demons teleporting around, ancient assassins darting around the map, minotaurs that charge forward in a line until they hit something, and plenty of others besides. With each new level, the stakes increase and the dynamics of the horde battles change up. It’s dynamic, it’s intense, and it’s exhilarating.

That said, the encounters sometimes seem to drag on longer than they need to, especially when you’re playing solo. Wave after wave of enemies come at you, but the first couple are usually enough to “solve” a particular arena, and it can feel like you’re just going through the motions as you deal with the leftovers.

That’s especially true in boss fights, which combine regular hordes of enemies with the sort of pattern recognition more typical of action adventure games. Bosses themselves can’t typically be hurt except by targeting specific weak points, requiring you to avoid their attacks and wait for (or create) such a point to come into line of sight. That’s fine in itself, but when you’re constantly having to fend off regular enemies as well, the narrow openings become a nuisance. Again, this is more of a problem when you’re playing solo, but still makes what should be the most exciting moments in the game into some of the more tedious.

While all of this gunplay and puzzling is going on, Strange Brigade constantly treats you to the sort of narration typical of those old adventure film serials: silly wordplay and quaint turns of phrase, all delivered in an overly-excited British accent. It’d be very easy for this sort of style to just be cringeworthy, but Strange Brigade strikes just the right balance of earnestness and camp to work.

“A suspiciously sinister valley? Leading to a mysterious mountain temple? A day at the races, for the Strange Brigade!”

“And what’s this! Yet more undead corpses rising to the occasion! And the blighters are wearing armour! How jolly unsporting of them!”

“Ludicrous lengths of laser light later, the way forward is finally revealed!”

This sort of narration isn’t just for cutscenes, either; almost every action you take comes with some sort of comment, whether it’s shooting your way through a puzzle (“As I always say, there’s not many problems that can’t be solved by shooting something!”) or finding a treasure (“Oh I say, how much do you think this goes for down the jumble?”). Sometimes, the narrator even kindly breaks the fourth wall—for instance, to remind you that there’s a pause button if you stand idle for too long.

Strange Brigade‘s pulp style carries through in everything from its black-and-white end of level cutscenes—complete with “Next time on… the Strange Brigade!” cliffhangers—to title cards looking like something out of a Hammer horror film to introduce each new enemy. Again, this is a style that’s hard to get right, but Strange Brigade nails it, with very humorous results.

That all makes for a very enjoyable, entertaining game indeed. It’s clearly designed for co-op and it’s best played that way, but playing alone is almost as much fun (balance issues notwithstanding). Either way, Strange Brigade has plenty of action and plenty of laughs to offer, approached with the self-aware charm of a classic pulp adventure, and sometimes that’s just what you need.

Score: 4 stars
Strange Brigade
Genre: Action Adventure / Third-person Shooter
Developer: Rebellion Entertainments
Publisher: Rebellion Entertainments
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 28 August 2018
The publisher supplied a copy of the game for this review.

Matthew Codd

Matthew is a writer based in Wellington. He loves all things pop culture, and is fascinated by its place in history and the wider social context.