I exit the elevator. There’s a narrow corridor in front of me that makes a bifurcation. Ahead, there’s a dead end and to the left, more baddies. I turn the corner, shotgun in hand and blast a grenade down the hall. It glues in the head of the first zombie. I blast him with regular shots. But he’s too close and I blow up my own grenade in my face. I die. F*ck. The game tells me how I stupidly caused my demise and that I spilled enough gallons of blood to start my own small donation bank.
Thus ended my third run of Strafe, the new game from Pixel Titans published by none other than Devolver Digital. Two years after a barely successful Kickstart, it was finally released in 2017, sailing out with the goal of bringing back the shooting from the good ol’ 90s. Does it succeed? TL;DR: Not entirely. Let this gentleman explain.
Strafe is a Roguelike first and a Shooter second, not the other way around. I think this is the most important thing I could tell you before I start this review properly. And if you don’t understand what I mean, here’s the breakdown. A Shooter (Old school shooting, with macho man, big guns and no chest high walls) involves fast paced movement, pickups for health and ammo (eventually shields), hidden secrets, weapons that are only as good as the player that wields them and last but not least, enemies that make using those weapons a pleasure as much as a necessity.
Unfortunately, the game lacks most of those elements and the ones it doesn’t are poorly executed. While movement feels right, a little bit more of movement speed would help avoid incoming damage; and bunnyhopping is not only possible but very satisfying to pull off, I quickly ran into problems regarding gunplay. Weapons lack feedback, both in the visual and sound department, even tough limbs and blood splatter everywhere, if a zombie doesn’t fly at least three meters when I blast his chest at point blank distance with a goddamn shotgun I might as well be punching it with my bare hands. And when every weapon makes limbs fly in similar ways (the obvious exception being the explosive ones) it makes the ones that should really make a mess feel like toys. The feeling of “I’m kicking your ass and there’s nothing you can do about it” is very much absent thanks to that.
The blood spilling is also mostly out of place and feels like a poor man’s Brutal Doom, but at the very least it works as a reminder of places you already visited, but more on why I think that’s a problem later.
Gunplay also has two extremely curious design decision: reloading and (get this) a magazine ammo system. The first is self-explanatory and is not a deal breaker, although some weapons could use a bigger magazine such as the Railgun. What is curious however is that the secondary fire of every weapon uses more than half of said magazine. Certainly, the intent was to avoid spamming however it mostly just gets in the way of the fun. Many times I had the need to blast a grenade from my shotgun but had to reload first. After that, I only had a few more shots before having to reload again, making me burn through ammo pretty fast.
At the beginning of each run, you have the choice of three weapons: a shotgun, a machine gun and a railgun, each with a secondary fire mode. The Railgun has a magazine too small to reliably clean the huge waves that will swarm you, the machine gun lacks damage requiring you to aim for the head and has spread when fired in full auto. The shotgun has a frag grenade launcher as its secondary and will one shot most things at point blank, and for that is my weapon of choice. All other guns must be collected during your run. But here Strafe commits a deadly sin: that weaponry is not that fun to use.
The first reason for that is their limited ammo. They have the equivalent of a single magazine and you can’t stack their ammo in case you find a duplicate, meaning that when they’re empty, say goodbye. Let me use the rocket launcher as an example: It was a fairly common weapon in my first couple of runs, with a 9 shot magazine and makes things explode, just the way God intended. “Great, I’ll save it for stronger enemies”, I said to myself. The problem is (and this is where I start talking about the level design) for the most part you’ll find the same type of enemy that can be dispatched just the same with your primary gun. Since enemies will just make a B-line towards you eleven outta ten times, chances are the rocket blast will just hurt you. Same was valid for non-explosive weapons as well, I just didn’t have the need to use them.
Speaking of blowing enemies to hell, you know how in other shooters they introduce new enemies with new movement and attack patterns as you go? Well, you have nothing of that in Strafe. From the get go you face every type of enemy present on the section you’re currently facing. Using the Icarus (the first level) as an example, there you face the basic zombie with a wrench, its armored version, a variant that hangs in the ceiling, a sentry bot that fires a projectile, a ventilation shaft (no joke) that spits acid that remains on the ground and the most humanoid of them, a security guard in full body armor that takes three shotgun blasts to the face in order to kill. And each and every single one of them will just rush you with the IQ of a newborn monkey, even the ones with guns! Considering that the first level is a cramped spaceship that seriously limits your ability to both dodge incoming damage and prioritize targets, and the whole game is procedurally generated, meaning you have no way of practicing a tricky section of just develop a plan in general, just makes the Icarus a horrible first impression. So repeat after me: Procedural Generation...
Kind of an obvious thing to state but since Strafe is trying to be an old school shooter -and this is the point the one thing that is similar throughout all of them; I feel obligated to say it. Think of the mines level of Unreal, E1M1 from Doom, Quake’s first castle. If you played them, chances are they are burned into your memory, either because of their visuals, secrets, that one enemy that keeps kicking your ass, or that super cool speedrunner strat you totally discovered before anyone else. Point is, they have something memorable, something consistent, something you can practice ad Infinium until you can surpass the challenge. Strafe’s procedural level generation means all of that is gone. The only consistent elements I found so far were the beginning section of each level (much to my displeasure, seriously f*ck that corridor at the start of Icarus 3) and the location of the perk shop.
Outside of that, the game generates a series of rooms for you to traverse, consisting of different combinations of pre-made rooms that I quickly started to recognize, eventually throwing in a keycard system a la Doom (Original) or take the correct head to the retinal scanner a la Doom (2016). Because of that, they all look the same, so I foud myself getting lost more times than I care to count. To make matters worse, the map you get is just awful, it’s a low-resolution imitation of the map in the Doom (2016), except you can’t rotate to have a better view of where you are. You can zoom in and out, but zooming out makes the arrow that represents you lose resolution and that means I have no idea which direction I’m facing. Oh and since you can’t move the map, if there’s a floor above you simply won’t see the arrow. This is such a terrible UI that I have to wonder how it got past playtesting.
There’s also no hidden doors that reward careful exploration (even tough there are monster closets), armor you buy from shops is far too expensive for what they’re worth, and the roguelike elements of the game are limited to pickups that increase your primary weapon stats (damage, clip capacity, reload speed and accuracy) and machines that give your primary a random upgrade that can be reversed if you so desire. Why would you want to do that? Well, let me tell you about the time the game turned my shotgun’s primary fire into a grenade launcher, instead of replacing the already existent frag nade secondary fire. I died pretty fast right after that fact because these nades bounce. Thanks, RNGesus...
The random items you find in the shop are not only expensive but nine outta ten times just plain useless -especially in the cramped environments of the Icarus. The only two that I found a use for were the protective shield and one that healed me for every dead enemy (but only till 50% health). They are even worse for using a different currency (Credits instead of Scrap) that is harder to come by and has a worse conversion rate than the Real to Dollar today. You’ll be lucky if you can buy the cheap, worthless 75 credit ones.
All of those elements make each level a struggle to reach the end with the biggest amount of health you can. Oh, and while I’m at it, the door at the end of each level takes 5 seconds to open. Every. Single. Time. Why? A dial-up connection joke. It’s entertaining at first, but since you’re expected to play it multiple times eventually it just becomes an annoyance.
Strafe is not a bad game but conflicting ideas and lackluster execution limited its potential. It’s neither a good shooter with roguelike elements or a roguelike with shooter elements, so if you’re looking for either I’m afraid your quest is not over yet. For what we got I give Strafe the recommendation level of a Baseball Cap: fun to use during the correct occasion but not much else. The game had a great marketing, the promises were awesome, was backed with the money of hard working people and ultimately failed to deliver what was promised. So basically this is the video game equivalent of a successful political campaign.
As it stands, Strafe isn’t worth ($)19,96. Nor will it quake the earth anytime soon.