Sliding moderately askew.
For all of its promotional gasconade, Strafe is a notably dull affair. It’s meant to be a throwback to the first-person progenitors that most of us still remember fondly. Games like Doom, Quake, and Unreal. Strafe shows off low poly models, fast-paced action, and over the top violence…holding these tenants as self-evident greatness. It stands loud and proud, announcing itself as the return of true entertainment from nearly two decades ago. It’s an amorphous conglomerate of games from this specific genre and era.
Strafe also flaunted a clever marketing campaign, one that mimicked the style of older video game advertisements, but pushed to an “Xtreme” that connected strongly with the quintessential 90’s baby. All of the pieces are here to build a nostalgia-pumping action game of yesteryear; it’s too bad that it doesn’t construct anything out of those pieces, it just sort of points to them and says, “Yeah, that’s the 90’s.”
Strafe’s first misstep on the oily metal floor is its decision to build its levels via algorithm. That’s right, all of the levels in Strafe are procedurally generated, because the game plays less like an old-school FPS proper, and much more like a modern indie rogue-lite…which it is, but that’s also the biggest issue here. These randomly constructed killing fields have no personality to them, they’re featureless hallways glued to open rooms and even more hallways. There are a few landmarks of interest to be found, but after only a couple of runs it’ll have lost any sense of meaning, or place.
Even games of the old guard like Doom had more thoughtful map design, lauded even! At least each hellish bunker felt unique and interesting, like someone had placed each monster closet with the utmost care. Because someone had done that. Playing Strafe is a fight against your own memory, because nothing you remember from previous levels will matter, yet you’ll see the same generic future base again and again.
And oh, will you grow to hate these places. Like any rogue-lite worth its salt, Strafe prides itself on being shamefully difficult. Permadeath, highly limited resources, and unknowable mystery items are all the order of the day. It’s all very bog standard, depressingly so for a game that originally brimmed with so much charm and creativity in its advertising.
You’ll begin each run by choosing between three gravely unimpressive weapons: a shotgun, an assault rifle, and a rail gun. To be fair the shotgun feels like it has some UMPF to it, and is generally my go-to armament of choice. But these other guns feel like they’re coughing up high-velocity spitballs—piddily, occasionally lethal, spitballs. A majority of the weapons in the game have no impact to them, and you’ll be hard put to tell whether or not you’re hitting anything until it’s already lying in a pool of its own marinara sauce. Hardly anything is satisfying to shoot, and the experience is made worse by the strictness by which the game holds back its weapons.
Carrying around any number of weapons is no problem, but if you want to refill those weapons with precious ammo, then well, you’re out of luck. Only the one gun you choose at the beginning can ever be restocked with ammunition, while any extraneous weapons you find lying around are essentially just there to give you a handful of shots before tossing them away. I hope you enjoy using one of those three starter guns, that’s a majority of what you’ll be using the whole game.
Sometimes it feels like Strafe is trying to be anathema to fun.
The enemy design is just as uninspired as everything else here. There are four or five enemy types that I’ve seen so far: bald men with sticks, spider-bots, those knife things from The Suffering, and alien that runs around like a ninja (I don’t mean quickly, I mean like that kid from high school you knew). This mish-mash of Party City villains have no real endgame; you see their sole strategy is to charge you head on with no regard for their own well-being. Sure, a couple of them have guns, but why kill your foe from a distance, when you can get up close and personal, and then shoot them.
I ridicule their tactics, but they work preposterously well. Your character might as well be the script for the Star Wars prequels, because by the end, he’s going to be filled with holes. Topical I know.
Everything you do causes tremendous damage to yourself, such as: falling more than two feet, touching one of the hundreds of rampant bonfires, and getting smacked in the face by your own projectiles, and floor acid. Sometimes keys will spawn inside environmental hazards, forcing you to sacrifice life for progress. There are RARELY any health pickups, and the only way to juice your defenses back up to standard is to spend acquired scrap at designated scrap stations. Here you’ll get a pittance in return for what you put in, and it’s not cheap. Especially since you’ll also have to use scrap if you want ammunition for that one gun of yours.
The end result of all this perennial damage that you’re taking, is that you end up tip-toeing around the place and huddling in narrow corridors, hoping you can funnel the enemy without being overwhelmed. There’s nothing that says “action” like cowardice. Enemies have no higher brain function than to just charge you in massive conga lines anyway, so there’s no downside to standing still or sliding backward and holding your left mouse button as the waddle to their much-anticipated doom.
Even so, you’ll still take damage from every stray shot and every weasily hobo that sneaks up behind you and gives you a good shanking. You simply aren’t given enough resources to deal with all of the hostility thrown at you, despite how predictable your foes can be. Unlike most rogue-lites today, there’s no permanent progression, so your character doesn’t improve over the course of many attempts; rather, you’re starting from zero every time you boot up the game, ripping and tearing away any sense of accomplishment from a particularly efficient run.
I wish I liked the game more than I do, which is hardly at all. There are little, clever nuggets of design here. I like being able to throw my empty guns at bad guys, and see it explode on their stupid faces. I like having to find the correct scientist’s head, yank it off their corpse, and scan it to get into restricted doors. I’m a fan of the gallons of jelly that burst from enemy’s after you eviscerate them with bullets. Some of the attention to detail fits with the tone that I imagine they wanted to set.
Unfortunately, everything else in the game just betrays itself in that regard. Strafe is an exciting concept wrapped in mediocrity. There’s no alacrity and little humor. There’s only creeping through hallways, praying that you can find a scrap machine before—too late, you slipped off the stairs. Try again?
Written by R.C. Simcoe