STRAFE is the by-product of two different gaming eras coming together as one. Blend modern-day rogue-likes with the visual design of emerging first-person shooters in the 90’s and the resulting concoction would be that of Pixel Titans’ latest offering. This love letter to iconic titles, such as DOOM, that guided an entire genre in its infancy brings forth a unique package that is brimming with nostalgia and style, but neither can carry an entire game alone. In many ways, that which STRAFE nails head-on almost always seems to have a counterpoint attached, as the game often jumps back and forth across the line separating fun and frustration.
STRAFE opens up with the most cheesy, retro FMV tutorial that genuinely left me laughing. Things were off to a good start, but it became clear that no one is going to buy this game for the narrative. As a scrapper, it is your job to scavenge scrap (as if your appointed title hadn’t already given that away) from a ship known as Icarus. Upon arrival, it is made immediately clear that all has gone to Hell and “indiscriminate killing” has been added to your job description. This paper-thin story rests atop the game, providing just enough to add a sense of justification for the mass murder of alien threats that is to about to ensue.
Following a brief overview of movement, pick-ups, and weapon use, any and all hand-holding is stripped away. The comedic tones of the tutorial give way to brutal and fast-paced gunplay as you attempt to learn on the go and stay alive, having just been ruthlessly thrown to the wolves. The only companion you can rely on is one of three starting guns: a machine gun, shotgun, or railgun. The decision is simpler than it initially seems, as you can quickly throw the machine gun out of the mix. It’s low accuracy and mediocre damage make it easy to ignore. The shotgun makes quick work of enemies that charge up close and has a useful secondary for the attackers that keep to a reasonable distance. The railgun was definitely the standout starter for me, although it took me longer than it should have to realize this. Its considerable range and one-shot capability make it devastating once properly learned. However, its crowd control can be rather lacking when facing a mob.
And there are mobs galore waiting around every corner to push your back into a wall with nowhere to go. Icarus is a narrow container of claustrophobic hallways and dead ends, and the enemies can quickly get the upper hand here. The randomly-generated levels sometimes create paths in your favor while other times dealing you a losing hand from the beginning. So is the way of many rogue-likes. At least later levels open up a bit more and offer greater room for maneuverability as well as better enemy spacing. While the levels may be ever-changing, the enemies come in recognizable forms after spending some time dying and restarting. You’ll be able to quickly pinpoint the distinctive characteristics of the melee-only mutants and the orb-blasting walking turrets. New enemies do appear once you’ve battled your way through the introductory stages, but their attack patterns are also quickly learned. Being able to form strategies on the move is extremely important given how fast you’re moving throughout each level.
The best strategies can still go awry if you happen to be on the receiving end of a poorly-generated level layout that will inevitably leave you trying to hop over masses of enemies to backtrack. The more infuriating moments come from issues that are completely out of your control. It’s one thing to take a wrong turn and pay the price. It’s another to have the stealthy melee-centric mutants start hitting you from behind without so much as a sound, as if they appeared from nowhere. Worse yet is when you descend an elevator only to start taking damage from swarming enemies before you’ve even fully touched down. A handful of patches have started to chip away at the list of bugs detracting from the overall experience. So it might be safe to say that your chances of running into a progress-impeding unresponsive door or enemies that shoot through walls is significantly less now than it was weeks ago.
With health and armor so limited, these issues can quickly pile on and turn a skill-based shooter into an unfair nightmare that favors dumb luck. Every single enemy is capable of taking down your scrapper with relative ease, so they don’t need extra help from broken encounters to whittle down those precious vitality points. Furthermore, each stage is comprised of three levels and a death along the way will set you back to the beginning. Progress is hard-earned and full of trial and error, regardless of any run-ins with unintentional issues.
Scrap conversion stations resupply ammo and armor if enough scrap has been collected, while food stations sit waiting on walls to resupply health. These two will become a primary focus. Remembering the path back to one is crucial when a fight has gone south and a retreat is necessary. Weapon upgrade stations also appear midway through levels, although their changes aren’t always for the best. One upgrade did turn the machine gun into a more viable option by granting the weapon the ability two fire to projectiles simultaneously. Lastly, there are weapon pick-ups and power-ups scattered across the floors and hidden in containers. Any weapons found, which range from sub machine guns to rocket launchers, can be added to your existing arsenal instead of replacing it. This makes them extremely useful for managing encounters where the odds are not in your favor. Power-ups work as you might expect, although their effects were never really explained much outside of an icon that pops up on the HUD, leaving me to research their benefits outside of the game.
I must touch upon the soundtrack briefly. The electronic beats that play during the frantic gunfights are excellent. The catchy, fast-paced music definitely stuck in my head for a bit, yet it seemed off. Despite its great quality, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t all that fitting for STRAFE. Pixel Titans have built a game aesthetically reminiscent of DOOM, which definitely comes out in the gory carnage you’ll soon litter the environments with. This led me to expect a heavy metal/rock-oriented melody would accompany the fights. Once I noticed how displaced the music seemed to be, other sounds also became noticeably without impact. That is to say that the guns don’t fire with audible force. It’s always rewarding to shoot off a limb and put down a pestering hostile, but the joy is lessened by the fact that the visual damage and gunshot sounds don’t match up.
STRAFE brings back the past with a modern-day twist and it does so somewhat competently. Reducing enemies to gibby chunks coated in beautiful nostalgic design help elevate this game just above its shortcomings, of which there are a notable few. The never-the-same-yet-somehow-repetitive playthroughs of the randomly-generated levels are further burdened by cheap enemy shots and glitches. Those aside, STRAFE is going to be a love it or hate it affair for many, sometimes changing between the two within the same play session. It can evoke that “one more run mentality” only to make you regret it moments later. For those seeking a skill-based shooter with little forgiveness and a love for all things 90’s, you might very well find a special treat awaiting you in STRAFE.
STRAFE will certainly attract a very specific crowd, likely one filled with gluttons for punishment. The core game provides a solid offering, but nostalgia and gory gunplay need a bit more to make this game rise above the monotony and frustration that settle in over time.
6.5 Unavoidable Deaths Out Of 10
Release Date: May 9th, 2017
Developer: Pixel Titans
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Available Platforms: PC, PS4
Disclosure: STRAFE Was Provided To Us By The Publisher For Coverage Purposes