At a time when anyone who loves top down ARPG loot-fests can say they are being well fed/served at the moment (what with a little game called Diablo 4 being a big deal this particular summer), the prospect of a game like Novarama’s Killsquad fully releasing on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 when it did is interesting.
Though originally released via early access back in 2019, launching fully on console in the midst of the Diablo 4 craze presents interesting counter-programming, especially during the timeframe of Diablo 4‘s first season. The big question is: does the game provide enough to serve people looking for an alternative within that genre in case they are feeling a little tired of their Diablo 4 escapades?
After a good 6-8 hours of playtime, barely scratching the surface of what seems like an extensive game ahead of me, the answer to that question is…maybe? Kind of? Killsquad has all the trappings of what could eventually make a really good ARPG, yet there are some slight looter fundamental elements missing, and an emphasis on coop play over any solo play threatens to derail things a bit.
Like mentioned above, Killsquad is a top-down ARPG with a bit of a colorful sci-fi slant clearly looking to appeal to those who love top-down ARPGs, mixing both traditional hack and slash and twin stick shooter mechanics with a loot grind spread within its five distinct character classes. You’ve got your gunslinger, you’ve got your medic, you’ve got your heavy dude with a giant hammer, you’ve got your “magician” with a big staff, and you’ve got a techie engineer reliant on their drones. From a varied class perspective, Novarama really manages to nail a different feel for each character who all serve each other well in the field of battle.
From an actual moment to moment thing, the basic gameplay loop for Killsquad requires to choose these bite-sized “Contract” missions that are fairly reminiscent to the strikes from Destiny, taking only a few minutes to complete. Within said missions, you can get either a basic objective of just running all the way to your final boss as you slaughter the alien enemies in your way, or, sometimes, a few objectives like a Horde-mode style “defend this area” objective, escort some vehicles to the end of the level, make it through some level shielding yourself from some toxic gas, etc. Some of these missions can be super brief, while some others can last a few minutes longer.
The basic combat fundamentals of Killsquad are pretty solid. If you enjoy the hack and slash feel of a top-down ARPG and the old school twin stick shooting of games like Total Carnage or, more recently, HellDivers or Dead Nation, you’ll find that, from a basic playability standpoint, Killsquad got the feel of combat right. Where they didn’t quite get the feel right is the time to kill it sometimes takes to defeat rank and file enemies with your basic weaponry, a feeling that doesn’t even abate after acquiring higher level gear in the levels I’ve tested. It definitely pushes you to use more of your character abilities which sometimes are on super fast cooldowns with others taking a bit more time.
To me, a perfect balance is feeling like your basic attacks can feel viable as you wait for ultimate abilities to recharge, and it feels like the balance is a bit off. Maybe later in the game the weaponry will get to the point that it feels stronger (and the loot you also get does start to show some interesting perk combinations that maybe lead to that), but, in the early missions, it could be better.
Or maybe the time to kill feels like it does because the game really lives up to its title. With a name like Killsquad, it’s pretty clear that Novarama’s design intent with this game is that, no matter what, it is imperative for you to play with AT LEAST one more person (a fact made clear given the only way to play any of the levels past the tutorial has three options: Join Game, Set Public Party, and Set Private Party). If you want to play any of the missions solo, you certainly can via a Private Party. But the missions past the third one you unlock are clearly built for squad play, with sometimes pretty spongy enemies getting to overwhelm you pretty often, and, coupled with a very slow time to kill, it’s just not a pleasant experience on your own unless you are an absolute lover of overcoming an insurmountable challenge.
Playing with another player who picked the medic class to support my gunslinger class, I absolutely felt how the game becomes so much better and more fun with an actual squad. The game, to its credit, does provide matchmaking to provide that experience, though my early hours trying that also saw the game suffering quite a lot from both rubber banding and disconnects through the basic matchmaking, enough that I preferred to just wait for actual friends to play it with. So if you have any inclination to play this game, definitely make sure you have some buddies to play it with as it’s pretty vital to how they have balanced the levels on the game. I’m feeling some of the challenge in the early tiers, and I can’t imagine when I unlock the next two tier of missions in the Contract menu.
I mentioned the loot you acquire earlier, and this is the one area that both shows great potential the further you get in while also having an element that is missing which could have made their attempted loot loop better had it been there. Like any good loot game, you always want your loot to feel desirable and to have interesting perk combinations that could allow for great build diversity. While you get decent build diversity out of the wildly different skills from the 5 different character classes, I see great potential just based on some of the perk combos for the weapons you get, like double elemental effects from one weapon that synergizes well with the missions that recommend a specific type of elemental affinity for better success. I usually don’t like when a looter imposes requirements that make you succeed only by using specific required things that can hurt things like build diversity, but, that said, weapons can roll with two types of affinity, speaking well for build diversity that won’t force you to one specific style.
While the loot system in Killsquad nails the fundamentals that make for a good looter, it saddens me that the one element that is missing is not being able to actually find it in normal play. The way to acquire loot in this game is either end of level rewards or purchasing through the in-game shop in between levels. While many looters do have their end of level rewards and shops to acquire, they also emphasize the importance of being able to acquire the loot just by playing the game via either enemy kills or exploring off the beaten paths.
The only rewards you get exploring off the beaten path in Killsquad are chests that give you materials and currency to either upgrade your current gear or to buy more loot. A satisfying looter knows to provide all avenues in which to acquire loot as that’s the point of the game. Making the ways you acquire loot in the game, which are tied to a gear score to survive later levels, drop either on level completion or just buying from a store hurts the loop slightly as it prevents the dopamine rush of finding a new piece on your own that is so vital to the genre.
It really is worth re-emphasizing that this is all based on just the first 6-8 hours I have dedicated to the game, and maybe there is hidden depth further in that helps alleviate some complaints (not to mention maybe a future patch that adds things like the loot you find by just playing). From a fundamentals perspective, Killsquad does have the the right mindset of what makes this kind of game sing, and it’s just missing a few fundamental things (actual legit fun solo play and better loot drop systems) that could help elevate it from where it currently is. As of now, due to its co-op nature, it’s definitely a fun diversion to play with friends when everything is in sync, but it’s not one that I’ll stick to leisurely outside of that perspective.