General game information
Game name: STRAFE
Release date: May 9, 2017
Price: US$ 19.96
Available on: Steam
Genre: Roguelike first person shooter
Developer: Pixel Titans
Publisher: Devolver Digital
STRAFE is a roguelike first person shooter that shares many things with Doom, Quake and the Serious Sam series. Hordes of crazed enemies will try to overwhelm us as we attempt to explore the abandoned starship Icarus, and the only thing that stands between their bloody paws and our frail skin will be our skill with the wide variety of weapons that can be acquired as we journey into the unknown. If we die, we’ll have to restart from the beginning (there are some useful shortcuts but they require extra work on the player’s part) and believe me, the game never shies away from a chance to kill us.
Right from the start, STRAFE presents itself as a love letter to the classic shooters of the late 1990s. The player character’s movement speed is at least as fast as the iconic Doom Marine’s, and both the environment and enemy models are rendered in a blocky aesthetic that reminded me of Quake 2. This doesn’t mean that Pixel Titans‘ debut shooter doesn’t have a few tricks up its sleeve though, since the game constantly mixes old school elements with modern sensibilities.
As expected from a title that pays homage to the pioneers of the FPS genre, STRAFE never bothers with a traditional story, instead choosing to let players piece together the plot on their own. Every new run starts the same way, presenting us with a display case which contains three different weapons, a shotgun, a submachinegun and a laser carbine. Whichever gun we choose will be our primary murder tool for this journey, and while we can acquire dozens of other creative weapons along the way, we can’t refill their ammunition. After picking up our weapon of choice (or walking away from the display case) we’ll be able to enter a teleporter and set foot on Icarus, a derelict ship full of trigger happy robots and bloodthirsty maniacs waiting for a new victim.
From that moment onwards, the game procedurally generates every level, stitching together rooms in order to alleviate the hefty punishment carried by every death (having to replay the same level over and over again would get boring quite fast). This approach doesn’t always work as well as traditional hand crafted maps, but I never encountered unbeatable levels or overly crazy layouts. Performing certain actions will let us access secret areas which contain useful rewards, or even play minigames such as a gloriously retro Wolfenstein 3D clone. Every stage contains a terminal that can be used to purchase armor or ammunition using scrap dropped by dead enemies. Some maps also feature robots that will upgrade our main weapon, sometimes changing its function entirely (for good or ill) and other times, changing only the secondary fire mode. If we happen to dislike the upgraded gun, taking it back to a scrap terminal will let us roll back the change, a welcome addition that will undoubtedly make many players’ life easier than it would be otherwise. Both the weapon upgrade robot and the scrap terminal will leave us vulnerable for a few seconds while they complete their job, a neat touch that adds a strategic layer to the game.
Speaking about weapons, while STRAFE‘s primary murder tool must always be either a shotgun, a submachinegun, a laser carbine or the player’s trusty fists, we’ll be able to find dozens of other useful guns (including some cameos from other games) which will become useless after emptying their magazines, but can luckily be stored in our inventory so we won’t be caught empty handed when the situation becomes dire. Strangely enough, even though STRAFE takes a lot of cues from classic shooters, the game’s guns feel a bit underpowered thanks to their weak sound effects. Shooting enemies is visually rewarded by blood spurts and dismemberment, but our ears never get the same love (with the exception of the soundtrack, which is downright exceptional and features a number of tunes that should remain in our memory for a good amount of time after we beat the game and move on).
Having a well populated arsenal may amount to the difference between life and death once we get to the game’s later levels, as both the amount and the variety of the enemies being thrown our way increases rapidly, forcing us to adapt or die. Thankfully, all of the game’s enemies are instantly recognizable, so we’ll always be able to tell who’s who and focus on the most important targets at the beginning of each encounter. Another thing that I particularly liked is that melee enemies won’t instantly take away our health or shields, and must attack with a short animation instead. Sadly, even though the implementation of melee based enemy forces was handled correctly, it’s hard to tell when we are being attacked from behind by a close range foe if we don’t pay attention to our health meter because only ranged shots have clear tells.
The AI for most enemies isn’t particularly good, but the amount of mutants and robots assaulting us at all times more than makes up for it, with hordes of melee warriors forcing us to run backwards in a way that reminded me of Serious Sam, and ranged assailants requiring constant dancing and strafing around them. Other enemy combatants will spew an acid substance that must be covered with blood in order to avoid being hurt by it (a mechanic that works really well thanks to the over the top gore system but wouldn’t actually work in a real 1996 release).
Since STRAFE is a roguelike, we’ll be able to find all sorts of interesting perks that will help us in our journey through the Icarus (but will be lost on death) Aside from the normal movement abilities (run and jump) we can also enhance our mobility with extra items that can be purchased from a special shop that appears from time to time. A lucky run may let the player become a sort of overpowered badass, sporting accuracy enhancing perks, acid resistant suit coating and Mario style enemy stomping boots which also add a dash move, for example. The downside of the use of procedurally generated levels and randomized item spawns is that not all runs will let the player grow their power as they advance, since that element mostly depends on luck, so they may have to play carefully, something that doesn’t really fit with the game’s general aesthetic and fast paced gameplay.
Of course, the developers wouldn’t have used procedurally generated maps if there wasn’t any advantage to them, and the major upside of this decision is that we can play all day without seeing the same level twice. Gamers who wish to spice up things even more can also check out the MURDERZONE mode, a series of ten rooms that must be drained of enemies (and covered in blood) in order to unlock persistent rewards that can be used for further adventures.
Graphically, STRAFE looks like a title straight out of the late 1990s, but it requires far beefier hardware than Quake 2 did, for example, since it not only creates entirely new maps every time we get to a level transition, but it also features a highly detailed gore system which lets players dismember enemies and paint the floor and walls with their blood. Sadly, as I said before, weapon sounds are underwhelming and they leave us with the impression that the guns themselves aren’t as powerful as they really are. Thankfully, the soundtrack is excellent, to a point where I mostly forgot about the less than satisfactory weapon sounds when the most memorable tracks were playing.
To conclude, STRAFE is a punishing roguelike first person shooter that will attract players with its 90s inspired aesthetic and keep them hooked thanks to its finely tuned gameplay.
8.5/10 – Great.