Nostaglia was certainly a driving factor in the funding campaign for Strafe – a first-person shooter from Pixel Titans. After all, it bills itself as having cutting edge innovation in graphics from 1996. On paper and in screenshots, it’s easy to be charmed by its homage to early 3D shooters. As another game that takes the overly used Rogue-Lite elements that seem to be trending in 2017, it seems something of a shame that Strafe doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
A lot of the game’s schtick is to do with the fact it knows it looks like Quake, which in real terms means the game looks like something that crawled out of the black lagoon. Enemies are certainly distinct, so you can tell what they look like, but when a game’s options menu actively has an option to “Make Strafe Look Worse”, you know that this is a joke that runs its course very quickly. To top it off, the music wasn’t my cup of tea, sounding like an apocalyptic rave.
All that said though, credit where credit is due, Strafe knows how terribly low-fi it is and runs with it. Even the tutorial cuts between gameplay and an FMV of a scientist that wouldn’t look too out of place in a cheesy 90s game. For me, the tutorial was missing a vital punchline if you click “Continue in Training Mode”, but otherwise hit the nail on the head with covering the basics.
However, part of the problem with Strafe is there is no tangible way of knowing for certain what the perks collected from chests do. They have icons with a skull, ammunition, a target, and some sideways ammunition, all with a plus on the side, but really there is no feedback to tell you what they do. Perks tick up as you obtain them, so perhaps there’s something that dying repeatedly means I’ve not seen yet. It’s weird because shops sell skills for money that do explain what they do, so there’s literally no reason why this can’t be the case.
That’s the thing with Strafe, as a Rogue-Lite it’s the most punishing one I’ve ever played. At least with some I’ve been extended an olive branch, such as the recent Flinthook where you could buy perks to bolster your character before the game even begins, or even similar shooters like Ziggurat which allowed for multiple weapons and didn’t bombard you too badly with enemies from the get-go. Strafe would rather beat you to death with said olive branch given the opportunity.
While it is possible to complete the semi-randomly generated levels by playing them like a proper FPS, my best run was achieved by simply ignoring the enemies and running like crazy. This strategy has its ups and downs, mostly downs when stuck in a corner with dozens of enemies following behind you. Level design is generally well done, but the amount of enemies to get through is insurmountable at times. Having said that, on their own the enemies are easy to kill and dumb at best.
Weapons do crop up occasionally, but generally speaking you’ll have a choice of shotgun, machinegun, or railgun. Each one of these can be upgraded using certain pods to have different primary and alternate fire, while other weapons feature more destructive properties such as rocket launchers and revolvers.
The gunplay is solid, but health pickups are too scarce and while armour can be purchased from scrap deposited by killing enemies/blowing things up, the amount given is far too little to compensate for the amount of damage you’ll take. It’s primarily because of this that Strafe just felt like hard work and graft, rather than a nostalgic trip to 1996.
Where it does show some character is in a number of the secrets that occasionally pop up. Without giving too much away, one pays homage to one of the early shooters, while another turned the screen incredibly blurry and hid my HUD away as I was able to blast magic at foes. Touches like this do give the game charm, though you’ll rarely see these through normal gameplay.
Like a few other Rogue-Lites out there, Strafe offers three other modes – a Daily Challenge mode, a Weekly Speed Run mode, and a survival arena. All act pretty much as you’d expect, special mention of the Weekly Speed Run mode only consisting of one level, but it’s worth looking at it at least once just to appreciate the menu. It certainly got a giggle out of me.
I really tried with Strafe, spending a good six hours with it and getting only as far as the fourth level before dying. I liked the overall tone, and the gunplay is solid fun, but really this is one of the more punishing Rogue-Lites out there, with a high skill ceiling that sets you right back to the beginning once you die without any meaningful progression unless you somehow find the key to a teleporter. A lot to admire, but for most it’ll seem utterly impenetrable.
Version Tested: PC