Reviewed on: PC. Copy supplied by publisher.
Capturing the vibe of classic video games while implementing the benefits of modern technology is a tricky thing to pull off, with last year’s DOOM being a rare exception. But where id Software’s sequel was a modern looking shooter with classic influences, Strafe by Pixel Titans strives to achieve the opposite: to bring that retro FPS feel kicking and screaming back into the modern landscape. And on that front it succeeds, but sadly it stumbles in other ways.
From the moment you boot up Strafe, it’s clear the game wears its influences on its sleeve. Publisher Devolver Digital’s introductory logo appears in a super pixelated fashion, leading on to present the game’s title adorning the catchphrase: “bleeding edge graphics and gameplay ©1996”. From there, a tutorial video in the same vein as those horrendously written and performed live action cutscenes from games of the mid 90s plays, only this time we know/hope it’s intentional.
The woman in the video explains that players are taking on the role of a Scrapper, someone who must face bunches of monsters and collect scrap metal in one of the games four areas. If you’re wondering why anyone would be wanting to do that, you’re already overthinking the premise. You’re here to shoot bad guys and collect scrap metal, and this joke already doesn’t work but why are you even still here, go shoot some bad guys already.
Strafe’s gameplay certainly channels the likes of classic Quake but with a roguelike dungeon crawling twist. Players choose their starting weapon of choice before jumping headlong into the game, where they must run-n-gun their way through hordes of varying enemy types in randomly generated levels to reach the exit to the next stage. Cover based shooting this ain’t, as true to the mid-90s style and titular foreshadowing, strafing is vital in order to survive the bloodshed. As is customary with rougelike games, death is a severe punishment, in this case resulting in you needing to start the entire run all over again.
The game really nails the 90s visual aesthetic, while also improving on it thanks to the aid of modern technology. Blasting enemies in the face results in pixelated blood splattering all over the walls; lights flicker ominously; all set to a pumping 90s soundtrack.
The highly sought after scrap is collected by opening chests, and killing enemies for some reason, and can be used at stations found throughout levels to craft ammo and armour, as well as being cashed in between certain levels to buy upgrades for your character. On top of that, there are booths scattered about the place containing robots who will upgrade your array of guns to have new firing modes. My personal favourite is having the laser rifle upgraded to ricochet off walls and shoot around corners.
Now on paper, the premise of a randomly generated, Quake style dungeon crawler sounds like a lot of fun, and I certainly found it to be at first. The feel of strafing around large groups of enemies, jumping up and over them while targeting your shots at the same time like a never stopping killing machine is just as great now as it was 20 years ago. But for me personally, the roguelike, permadeath aspect of the game is its greatest downfall.
Once I’d failed to make much progress beyond the first couple of levels after at least a dozen runs, repeatedly traversing the admittedly different but still very samey randomly generated layouts, I was struggling to find the will to push on. I did for the sake of this review, but it was a while before I managed to best the sharp difficulty spike beyond the opening few levels and make any real progress in the game. I acknowledge there’s an element of “git gud” here, but even Dark Souls grants you a more frequent sense of progression than Strafe does. There are no save points at the end of levels, moreover you can spend your scrap to repair teleports that allow you to skip ahead to later areas. But the journey to get to that first teleporter is an arduous one if you aren’t already a classic shooter wizard.
Seriously, the opening level feels like a nice introduction to the concept, and then the second level comes along and beats you into bloody submission unless you start flexing your mid-90s shooter muscles right quick.
The high difficulty isn’t helped by the fact that the random map generator is not kind when it comes to health stations or crafting machines. Health stations are incredibly rare, and aren’t placed with any discernible amount of logic, so recovering from a fight you won by the skin of your teeth isn’t often an option, moreover you’ll just die upon the next encounter and have to start all over again. Health stations also aren’t marked on the map, meaning if you ran into one and didn’t need to use it, it’s pretty hard to remember where to backtrack to later.
And even if they were marked on the map, the map interface itself is so uncomfortable to use it would hardly help. The map is displayed upon pressing TAB, prompting the player’s view to lean to the left within their helmet and look at a mini display. At first it seems like a neat visual twist, but the result is it completely slants your view of the outside world, making walking around while looking at the map quickly nausea inducing. The original 1993 DOOM had a pretty obtuse map system as well, but Strafe’s is more of a step backwards than an improvement.
Strafe set out to be an homage to the shooters of old, and when it comes to its gameplay and visual aesthetic, it really nails it. But while throwing the randomly generated, brutally difficult dungeon crawling aspect into the mix is a novel idea, and will certainly appeal to some, for me it quickly became disheartening and tedious. Maybe if the lack of more traditional save progression was a difficulty setting rather than the norm, much like XCOM’s Ironman mode, I could recommend Strafe to less masochistic players, but at time of writing this is not the case. For the record the developers make a note in the game that they are open to suggestions for improving it, so my complaints may be changed in future, but as of right now I have to review what I’ve played.