Strafe wears its inspirations proudly on its sleeve. The visuals, sounds and setting all echo the games of yesteryear. But Strafe leans so hard on these inspirations that it forgets to innovate. Sadly, this once promising FPS-roguelike turns out to be “just another one of those.”
When I first locked eyes with Strafe, I fell in love. Its marketing campaign was a brain-child of 90’s cool-kid nostalgia. It gave us throwback trailers of over-the-top nonsense and a gif-laden website ripped straight from my 1996 browser history. In my mind, it had it all. Yet, come the morning after the first date, I peeled back the covers to discover that my goo-goo eyes got the better of me.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of fun to be had with Strafe. I always find games of this ilk to be enjoyable. But it leans on retro-cool a little too hard and tries to evoke nostalgia it hasn’t earned. It fumbles with its own identity, offering an awkward mix of the humour from the trailers and some weird, dry shooter. You’ll find hints of personality throughout but they feel few and far between. I often found myself wondering when I’d see the same Strafe portrayed in the trailers.
You start off on your ship, overlooking the planet below. Your mission is to teleport to a crashed vessel, where you’ll fight through hordes and with any luck, make it to the end. There are four zones in total, with three stages in each. You have a choice between three starting weapons – a shotgun, assault rifle, or sniper rifle. They’re all effective out of the box, but can be modified by randomly placed upgrade stations. In typical rogue-like fashion, the upgrades are potluck, but you can always be removed. Additionally, you’ll find disposable weapons laying alongside failed combatants. They range from pea-shooters to rocket launchers and all add welcomed variety.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Strafe, if you’re a sadist (which apparently I am) is the level of gore. With every kill comes a fountain of blood and flying limbs. Things get messy, real messy, and it’s always fun to see the end result of a huge battle. That’s complemented by the fact that the gunplay is incredibly fun. A well placed shot causes enemies to ragdoll in satisfying ways, and even though they range from fun to bland, they’re fun to kill regardless. This level of gore is most impressive when fighting large groups of Gluttons early on. Yet, it seems to taper off as it exchanges these mobs for tougher enemies.
Looking at any screenshot it’s easy to see that the visuals do indeed hearken back to the days of early 3D. Mosaic-like textures wrap themselves around low-poly models while simple shapes replace real effects. It all looks rather nice at a glance. Sadly, after repeated plays, they don’t hold up and become an uninteresting mush of greys and browns. This is further hindered by a lack of variation in its randomly generated rooms. After a few runs I found myself bored of the environments and turned my blinkers onto enemies and doorways. Later levels are better, I’d admit, but the first zone is pretty dull.
At first glance, Strafe is a fast and frantic game so you’d assume the environments don’t matter all that much. You’ll be blazing through at breakneck speed with no time or desire to stare at the walls, right? Well, that’s not always the case. There are plenty open spaces, especially later on. But there’s also tight corridors, low ceilings and environmental hazards. Enemies will swarm on your position, filling up smaller spaces, and all you can do is backpedal and herd. The controls are tight and responsive, but I never felt like I was always able to move with the grace of a 90’s shooter.
I am more than acquainted with the likes of Unreal Tournament and Quake. I grew up with these kinds of shooters. My mantra is that if you’re standing still then you’re doing it wrong. Strafe should be one of those games, but its roguelike tendencies don’t allow for that kind of bold approach. This is, in part, because health packs are pretty uncommon. After taking a few hits it kills that gung-ho mindset and forces you to take it slow and pick enemies off at a distance.
Another glaring misstep, at least at the time of writing this, is that Strafe lacks a save function of any kind. A single playthrough can easily shoot over the one hour mark, and having to step away means that you’ll lose all progress. It’s quite bewildering, especially when each stage ends with a safe room – the perfect place to auto save. I can recall times that I’ve had to abandon good runs because the clutches of real life have taken hold. Including the first time that I made it to the third level. Gutted.
This is somewhat negated by the teleporters found in each zone. Repairing them by buying and finding parts creates permanent shortcuts to later levels. This doesn’t negate the fact that you’d have to trudge through the earlier levels many times before you make this happen, though.
I’m definitely going to continue playing Strafe on the odd occasion. Pixel Titans have certainly crafted an entertaining game. It’s just a shame to see it fall into mediocrity when it’s marketing lifted it head and shoulders above the competition. On the surface, it looks like a clever parody of an older time. But what we have is a straightforward roguelike that opts to play it safe rather than push this overcrowded genre forward.