One of the joys of 2016’s Doom reboot was discovering remnants of the original game lodged beneath its crust: hidden areas mocked up to resemble id Tech 1 maps, with splintered wall textures, 2D sprites and flattened lighting. Strafe prompts similar emotions, at a glance. An accomplished Unity shooter from film-industry veterans Thom Glunt and Stephen Raney, it’s flamboyantly modelled on the projectile-dodging and vertical design of Doom’s younger sibling Quake, and saturated with gleeful references to the ’90s at large.
Practically every prop or effect is a piece of memorabilia. Certain exit doors grind apart to the peal of a dial-up modem. Crates pop open under fire to reveal N64 carts and floppy disks, buried in Styrofoam packing noodles. The weapons are boxy and brutish, encompassing chainguns, shotguns, rocket launchers and disc throwers (none of which permit aiming down the sights). The enemies are a familiar blend of swarming skirmishers and ranged attackers who spit projectiles at different velocities – the one designed to force you back, the other to keep you hopping sideways in a frenzied ballet that requires you to form a precise mental map of the terrain you can’t see.
However, Strafe does more than merely ape a few well-known layouts or tools of destruction. It is, in fact, one genre viewed through the lens of another, the Roguelike – its 12 stages, three per themed zone, procedurally generated from a library of pre-designed chambers, including canyons littered with spacecraft wreckage, L-shaped hallways lined with treacherous sliding partitions, and tasteful corporate hideouts that conjure up dim memories of GoldenEye.
The arsenal may evoke Quake’s adolescent excess – there isn’t a gun in this game that can’t rip something’s head clean off – but the campaign structure recalls
Spelunky’s balance of strategy, guesswork and the pressures of the moment, pitting randomised enemy and loot distribution against recurring opportunities like the dancing robot vendors who always appear in certain stages. If the terrain varies, each stage also adheres to its own broad script or theme. You might have to recover key cards and fight your way back to a door past waves of reinforcements, for example, or destroy obstructions using a reactor core that counts down to detonation on pick-up.
Strafe isn’t as ripe with potential for surprises and reversals as Spelunky, nor are its spliced-together layouts a match for the best Quake or Doom levels. But it does manage something quietly revolutionary: a credible automation of the thinking that gave us maps like Gloom Keep or The Door To Chthon, capable of thousands of variations. The components do become familiar after a few runs, but each layout creates a different challenge depending on how you move through it. You might have to climb a spiral staircase instead of descend it, for example, or dodge bullets along a narrow walkway rather than duelling in the arena below.
Certain enemy varieties shape the terrain chemistry still further. Among the more annoying specimens are ghouls who spray a lingering acid across a wide area when shot in the head, potentially making chokepoints impassable. You’ll also encounter juggernauts that lurk in disguise as clumps of stalagmites. As troublesome as these mid-game threats can be, however, you’ll die most often at the hands of Strafe’s rank and file – podgy, club-wielding grunts who advance almost noiselessly to clobber you from behind.
Enemy awareness ranges are easy enough to deduce with practice, but there are always a few enemies you can’t see – dangling from the ceiling above a health dispenser, tucked around a corner or loitering on the other side of a fake wall. In the first zone, a Stygian labyrinth of corridors and blind corners, this encourages defensive play to the point that Camp would seem a more appropriate title than Strafe. Over time, though, you learn to cut through the crowd, leaping over skirmishers and flicking through the arsenal with your mousewheel in the finest deathmatch tradition. You’ll pick a rifle, shotgun or rail gun as your primary weapon at the outset, which is upgraded in the course of a playthrough with stat buffs and esoteric firing modes – an underslung mine launcher, for example. One of the nastier surprises is that gun mods may be more bother than they’re worth, depending on what exactly the procedural generation coughs up. A rifle upgrade that trades range for damage may not avail you much in the third zone, with its longer sightlines and zombie sharpshooters.
There are additional, souped-up weapons to discover in the levels themselves. These are good for just one clip, though you can always smash the drained gun over an adversary’s skull before casting it aside. New abilities, meanwhile, are bought at the shops that pop up at preset intervals – the offerings include a flying drone escort, an extra overshield and shotgun heels that inflict splash damage when you jump – though you’ll probably want to reserve your credits for teleporter parts in the first instance: once assembled, these allow you to warp to the start of each zone from your shuttle.
Strafe styles itself as both “the future of videogames” and “the most action-packed game of 1996”, and there’s a ring of truth to both gags. In folding together and drilling into layers of FPS convention, Pixel Titans has created a game that is at once sentimental and sharply contemporary. It doesn’t so much take us back to ’96 as transport ’96 into the present, picking up threads left by Doom and Quake and weaving its own tapestry out of them, every time you play.
The campaign structure recalls Spelunky’s balance of strategy, guesswork and the pressures of the moment