Party Likes it’s 1996!
Developer: Pixel Titans
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PS4, PC (reviewed)
Released:10th May, 2017
Copy received as part of Kickstarter backer reward.
STRAFE had some brilliant marketing behind it, especially it’s fantastic trailers. Heavily grounded in 90s nostalgia and culture, it promised a game invocative of Doom and Quake with some roguelite mixed in for good measure. Preview material focused on showing off how ultra-violent and action packed the game would be, and when the devs started calling all their backers “killers”, it was pretty clear what they were going for. It was looking like STRAFE would be an accurate tribute to classic shooters.
What we got was something not quite sure what it wants to be, refusing to commit to being a classic shooter or a proper roguelite. Playing the game quickly made it clear why details on the roguelite stuff was absent from previews.
If one thing is true about Pixel Titans, it’s that they’re committed to their aesthetic. STRAFE is endearingly ugly. The big gimmick is that STRAFE is supposed to look new… for 1996, it’s clear that inspiration was taken from early 3D shooters like Quake. STRAFE is low poly, it’s textures are blurry and any fluids is a rain of pixels. It looks marvelous. The options menu looks like an old Dosbox window, even the price isn’t safe from the gimmick, STRAFE being valued at $19.96.
The Colour pallette tends to let the rest of the visuals down, lots of browns and greys that, compared to Doom’s bright assortment of colours, look quite dull. Designs also feel rather bland, especially in the first area, the derelict ship feels uninspired. It gets better once you hit area two and onwards, but even then, environments fall a little on the generic side.
It’s worth noting the game stutters every now and then to load new levels, but at least that only happens in safe rooms between levels. It’s still concerning, considering there’s transitions that feels designed to mask a loading screen. Those screens occasionally glitch out as well, sometimes becoming a black void while the next level loads. Somewhat disconcerting.
The soundtrack is pretty damn awesome, you’ve got rocking guitars for a adrenaline rush, some darker, foreboding sequences for some added tone. Composer Toytree seemed to be going for something similar to the original Doom, to great success. A neat little detail that stood out to me was how the music stays quiet until you start shooting, the sudden crescendo is a perfect way to kick off the action.
While marveling at STRAFE’s appearance is all well and good, . Playing STRAFE boils down to charging around a map blowing apart legions of foes, it’s great. Shooting enemies gives you excellent feedback, in the form of an ultra violent mess. Enemies come apart at the seems, showering the place in crimson and gibs, it make the weapons feel viciously powerful. Its immensely satisfying to paint the walls red with a well aimed grenade. STRAFE nails the ultra violent, high speed action, it feels great to run around, blowing everything away in a shower of blood, it’s STRAFEs shining moment.
The Ideas is pinched off the classic shooters make up most of the positives, it’s the more modern ideas that start to show problems.
You begin the game with a choice of a single primary weapon, that will be your only permanent weapon throughout the game. This is an extreme departure from old school shooters, and not one I’m entirely comfortable with. Slowly becoming a walking arsenal offered a real feeling of progress, whereas only having the one gun runs the risk of stagnating the game. Upgrade stations are the only saving grace and to their credit, can wildy change how your chosen weapon behaves, offering you new strategies, tactics and ways of dismembering the hordes.
These stations tend to be the only significant way to modify your firepower, and are very few and far between, not that you’ll need more than two. There are, however, stat upgrades lying around here and there, but passive upgrades feel boring compared to the proper upgrades. The lack of tangible weapon variety and focus on passive upgrades highlights an underlying problem that plagues STRAFE.
While the shotgun and machine gun feel right at home in STRAFE, the railgun feels completely out of place. It’s a long range, slow and high damage weapon, in a game littered with weak mobs in tight corridors, see the issue there? It has no redeeming qualities unless you’re lucky enough to get rapid fire or piercing shots and even then, it’s not great. Remember that you’re saddled with your starting weapon from the start with only temporary pick ups as a backup. While game like Doom are designed around what weapons you’d have at the time, STRAFE isn’t.
Speaking of those weak mobs, it’s worth noting a lack of variety in enemy AI most just relentlessly charge you down, closing into melee range. Unfortunately, this encourages simply running backwards or bottlenecking enemies, which can quickly become tiresome. Throwing caution to the wind and getting amongst it may be more exciting, but that’s unsustainably dangerous, especially in a roguelite, where health is precious and hard to come by.
STRAFE attempts to replicate Doom’s par time system, incentivising speedrunning levels for minor rewards. These times seem to disregard the idea that procedurally generating the levels makes the length, and therefore completion times, unpredictable.It’s a perfect example that these design styles are incompatible. Pars worked in Doom because levels were handcrafted, completion times could be accurately estimated, it can’t work with procedural generation, level sizes are too random.
Procedural generation does not fit in this game, at all. It doesn’t really change much, but what it does change clashes with other mechanics, like the aforementioned Par times. Each level has a permanent opening and ending, with an obvious gimmick. For example level 1-2 will always have a door that needs a keycard, level 1-3 will always have two. The idea that the levels always change might have been a significant selling point, but obvious patterns begin emerging after a few runs. It’s easy to tell that the levels pre designed rooms stitched together, just shuffled around each new run, but what could you do in a game like this?
I Suppose there is an upside to this predictable generation, the game does give you reliable access to resources. Every level is guaranteed to have a workbench to exchange scrap, dropped by the dead, into ammo or armor. Always go with armor, I have almost never had ammo problems, but health is incredibly fickle. Armor is just another health ar by the way, and constantly buying more can mitigate the cost of playing aggressively.
There are two big things I look for in roguelites: permanent progression and variety. Let’s talk about permanent progression first. Beyond finishing a run, STRAFE doesn’t have much to work towards, not much at all. The campaign runs as you would expect one to in a permadeath game, die ands it’s back to the beginning for you, all progress is reset. But while other permadeaths offer you things like unlockables or permanent stat boosts, STRAFE doesn’t. All the campaign offers you is a level skip if you fix teleporters in each zone, allowing you to start from those later zones.
I wouldn’t recommend it though, those zones are balanced by assuming you’ve had a fair few stat upgrades. Skipping levels makes you feel underpowered. The whole thing seem a little pointless. The Murderzone is even worse, progression there just adds things found in the campaign. There’s not much motivating you to return for multiple runs, STRAFE is concerning bereft of replayability.
As for variety, it doesn’t look good either. You’ve got your starting weapon for the entire run, the minor stat upgrades and of course, the main weapon upgrades. There’s also a shop to be found on the second level of every zone, offering items for credits, another currency dropped. The items are very hit and miss, some are great enough to make new playstyle viable, others are useless.
STRAFE is let down by its attempts to be a roguelite, desperately encouraging you to play like it’s an old school shooter, while shackled by its roguelite elements. Take rocket jumping for example, a tactic pushed pretty hard in preview material, but unviable in game. Sacrificing health like this doesn’t work in a roguelite, it’s too precious a resource. The game is constantly encouraging a balls to the wall playstyle, but the roguelite mechanics force you to play cautiously and conservatively. It’s STRAFE’s biggest problem, I have no doubt it would have benefited from either dropping the rogulite stuff entirely, or giving the player enough variety to make it worthwhile
STRAFE nails its core gameplay loop, the run and gun gameplay is fantastic, but all extra bits drag it down. The lack of variety in items, weapons and maps is a glaring blight. The more I played, the clearer it became that getting better meant learning to ignore the roguelite elements and playing STRAFE more like a classic shooter. Despite all my complaints, the outstanding gameplay made playing STRAFE very fun, fun enough to recommend. If nothing else, STRAFE proves that Pixel Titans know how to make something that looks and feels like a classic.