Blazing fast, challenging, and gory as all get-out, Strafe is a love letter to the shooters of the late 90s. From its deliberately retro looks, overflowing with low-poly foes and deliciously nostalgic fake computer interfaces, to the plentiful secrets hidden within its blood-soaked corridors, the folks at developer Pixel Titans have made a game that evokes the shooters of the era with panache. However, Strafe also makes concessions for the modern age, borrowing heavily from current trends (read: roguelikes), resulting in a final product that feels more than a little at-odds with itself.
It makes a hell of a first impression, though. After completing a very well-done FMV tutorial sequence, players find themselves aboard their own spacecraft, presented with a choice between three weapons: a shotgun, a machine gun, and a railgun. These base weapons each cater to a different playstyle and have their own upgrade paths, so players’ first few runs will likely be spent experimenting with each (though most will probably settle on the shotgun due to its versatility and familiarity). Once a weapon is selected, Strafe wastes no time and drops you into the thick of things, putting you up against an overwhelming number of enemies and asking you to shoot, explore, and *ahem* strafe your way to an exit located somewhere in the level. At some point you’ll die, end up back on your starter ship, and get to start the whole thing over again- hopefully a little wiser than the time before. There’s good fun to be had during these early hours as you adapt to the rhythm of Strafe’s combat, mess around with the permanent blood and gore system, and discover new items and secrets, but unfortunately it doesn’t last nearly as long as it should.
The starting area, an abandoned spacecraft called the Icarus, is where Strafe’s troubles begin- though sadly, not where they end. Roguelikes are all about repetition, which is why it’s so unfortunate that this ship, the least interesting area in terms of enemies, aesthetics and layout, is also the place where players will spend most of their time. Strafe becomes a much more compelling game the longer your run lasts thanks to the open, colorful designs of later zones and the wealth of options that opens up once you’ve amassed a few upgrades, but surviving long enough to actually reach that point is a challenge.
Strafe is a buggy mess, too. I’ve experienced far too many random fps drops and hard crashes, and had two separate instances where the game broke for me in the third zone, causing me to lose over an hour of progress each time: first when I fell through the world at the beginning of a level, then again when I encountered an infinite loading screen and had to quit. In a game where a single run can easily go over an hour and there is no way to save progress, it’s incredibly frustrating and disheartening to deal with these kinds of technical issues, and if not for my need to write this review, I might not have kept playing after my best run ever (at the time) was shut down by a nasty bug rather than enemies.
As a roguelike, Strafe isn’t quite up to snuff either. The random level generation is fine (you’ll begin to recognize prefab rooms after a few runs, but most are decent combat arenas), but the way items and upgrades work is messy. Stat-boosting powerups can be found on dead enemies and in crates, but the game gives no explanation of what they actually do, so players must rely on wikis or other outside sources to understand which of their stats have actually been improved. Character-altering items, such as double-jumping rocket boots or a tool for kill-based health regen, are exclusively sold in shops at the end of specific levels. These are easily the most enjoyable upgrades in the game, as many of them will radically alter your tactics and/or movement, but there aren’t actually that many of them in the game (probably a little under two dozen), and the levels where shops appear are few and far between.
You can also upgrade your character by way of weapon upgrade booths, which spawn on preset levels with a random improvement to your weapon’s primary or secondary attack. Some of these machines turned my basic shotgun into a double-barrelled killing machine, while others transformed it into a three-canister grenade launcher. These powerups in particular feel a little off, as the specific upgrade you get is completely random, and some are game-breakingly powerful (I beat the game the first time I acquired the grenade launcher I mentioned. In comparison, my next best run without the upgrade ended on level 2-2, less than halfway through the game). Because of how incredibly effective a small handful of items are, the effect of luck in Strafe is severe, more than any other roguelike I’ve played. Health and armor are also incredibly rare, so the elusive items for health regain and regeneration are a virtual necessity for success.
This heavy reliance on RNG would be crippling if not for how fun Strafe’s moment to moment gameplay is. The shooting steals the show: certain weapons don’t pack as much punch as they probably should, but there’s an undeniable satisfaction that comes from seeing enemy limbs fly off in bloody arcs after a well-placed shot. Combat also has an extremely fast pace thanks to speedy enemies and an even speedier player character, and when coupled with any of the available movement-enhancing upgrades, many interesting new possibilities open up. Enemies become springboards, cliffs become escape routes, and acid-soaked ground becomes just another empty space for you to lead your train of foes as you backpedal and pour buckshot into the crowd. The quality of combat doesn’t excuse the game’s other numerous flaws, but it was good enough to keep me playing despite them, so that counts for something.
Also to its benefit, Strafe’s roguelike campaign mode isn’t the only included in the package. A few side modes are also included, but one in particular stands out from the rest: an arena survival mode oh-so-subtly titled MURDERZONE. While it initially seems like little more than a throwaway minigame, this wave-based challenge has a lot packed into it, and ultimately became my favorite way to play Strafe. Items are much more common (making it a great place to learn how they work before delving into the main mode) and there’s a much tighter focus on combat rather than caution and resource management. It also features a fully fledged progression system (something the roguelike mode lacks), that permanently enables certain features (like weapon pickups, upgrades, etc.) the more you play. It also respects players’ time a lot more, with 10-15 minutes rounds that offer tangible rewards as opposed to the 90+ minutes that your average winning run will take in the main game.
I really wish I liked Strafe more than I do. It has a charming, over-the-top style that really speaks to my nostalgia for the FPS of days gone, and on paper a roguelike with Doom’s mechanics sounds like it should be a fun time. Unfortunately, Strafe is just too bogged down by its roguelike inspirations. Luck doesn’t just make runs easier or harder- it makes them possible or impossible, depending on how the coin lands, and some unnecessarily obtuse mechanics only add to the frustration. There’s a good shooter buried beneath all the mess, and thanks to some unexpectedly involved side content, those willing to look past some issues will definitely enjoy themselves, but Strafe is decidedly mediocre otherwise.