This probably isn't a surprise, but play Strange Brigade on your own and it will be a lonely and repetitive experience. The whole idea is to play as one of several explorers who form the titular grouping, a jolly team of archaeology-loving stereotypes who traverse the world looking for treasure and blowing away swathes of undead. You almost feel sympathetic for the angry zombies: imagine you'd been dead for several millenia and some posh moustachioed twerp liberates your relics. No wonder they're cross.
Essentially a wave shooter, Strange Brigade is all about the co-op. The single player experience is fine for learning the basics, but too much and the game becomes rinse-and-repeat in a manner that, with other players involved, never seems to happen. You make your way through a very scenic Egpyt infested with reanimated corpses and mythological beasts, tugged along by a romping adventure plot littered with movie tropes, and occasionally solve simple logic puzzles along the way.
The stages are linear with the odd branching pathway, which usually contains secret chests filled with gold or relics, so you're mostly moving from point A to point B and shooting at everything that moves. Corridors inevitably lead to open areas or cavernous rooms with their own hordes, where you have to defend a central point or wait until a timer ticks down.
So far, so simple, and there's nothing wrong with that. I say that Strange Brigade gets repetitive in singleplayer because it's true, but there's really no reason to play it like that: every time you find a team, the whole thing shudders into life. The character archetypes see everyone guided into a role: someone lingering on the edges with a rifle, a brutish northern lass as your shotgun-toting tank, a mid-range DPS role and so on. These roles aren't restrictive, because any character can choose any weapon, sidearm, throwable and magical amulet ability. The shot feedback on the weapons is great, and the bass of the explosions almost as satisfying as the flying gibbets.
In addition to your personal armoury, each level is also stuffed with traps – spikes raising from the floor, sharp pendulums or spinning blades – all of which can be activated by shooting a glowing orb near the trap itself (after which it will go on cooldown for a while).
As a tactical team shooter Strange Brigade is moreish. The campaign sees you loading up on gold, which unlocks new weapons, while collectables like relics reward you with skill points that can be spent on new amulet powers. One ability, for example, allows you to kick a zombie into a crowd of shuffling followers, whereupon it will explode. Another lets your character snap their fingers and cause everything in sight to combust. These special moves have large cooldowns, but are also charged up with each enemy you kill, and the range has a flexibility that's particularly welcome in the Score Attack and Horde modes.
Score Attack puts your team in a short level where totting up points is what matters. Kill streaks reward multipliers, and surviving while taking no damage earns a point boost (as will achieving certain milestones). That ‘one more turn’ mindset rules here, largely in my case because of the frequent outlandish moments where a stark exclamation is splashed up on-screen: “Savage. 8 enemies sliced up!”
These exhortations are also found in Horde mode, which drops everyone in a large arena where the team has to survive for as long as possible. This is where the fun really starts (and where playing solo is not a serious option), and a lot of good ideas have been half-inched from Call of Duty's various Nazi Zombie modes. The starting waves rarely trouble you, lucky as you start with only a pistol. Gold accrued from each kill is spent in the 30-second breaks between rounds. The base camp moves around the map to keep you on your toes, but you can also find all guns that are available to buy there. Special chests cost gold to open and reward you with limited ammo guns that pack a huge punch, perfect for taking out super-strong enemies like Minotaurs. There are also doors which require gold to unlock, and doing so usually reveals tombs filled with weaponry or health potions.
These two multiplayer modes are where the real fun is in Strange Brigade: solo play soon palls, while any half-decent multiplayer team will blast through the campaign fairly swiftly. You can change difficulty here and push the enemy rate up to maximum, of course, but we left this kind of fiddling for the other modes. My main reservation about Strange Brigade is that the charm was more surface-level than I expected: the characters and some of the lines are amusing for sure, but I was yearning for something to tie it all together a little more effectively. With that said, there aren't many other games with a good northern lass like Gracie.
Strange Brigade only clicks with other people, but that's not an enormous criticism. In that kind of setting this does throw up unexpected situations, memorable last-minute saves, crashing kabooms and all that lovely loot at the end. It does feel like this might have flown under the radar somewhat although, and I feel a bit mean for mentioning this, that could be something to do with the price. Strange Brigade is £39.99 on Steam, and fair enough, but that does mean that if you and three mates fancy trying it out you'd be looking at £160. One of the problems of a game like this is gaining enough of a playerbase to support online co-op, and the price feels like a large barrier to entry.
That's not really reflective of Strange Brigade's quality, so much as how business models have changed so dramatically over the last years. This seems to have found a niche for itself somewhere between Left 4 Dead and Orcs Must Die, a title that can be played for many hours by buddies who just want to rather mindlessly blow through enemies and have fun doing it. Rebellion has announced plenty of upcoming DLC for the game, so it looks like the developer is in it for the long haul. But if it wants players to come along too, it might have to meet them halfway.