DEVELOPER Pixel Titans / PUBLISHER Devolver Digital / WEBSITE www.STRAFE1996.com
STRAFE is a classic example of a game sidestepping before it can walk. This fast-paced, gleefully gory FPS is inspired by the hallmark shooters of the 1990s – Doom, Quake, Half-Life and so on. It appears to have it all: chunky visuals, mazy levels, scores of enemies and enough blood to fill a whole decade’s worth of shooters. But tragically, it makes a basic and crucial error – its guns are utterly dreadful.
Although STRAFE may look like it stepped out of a time machine from 1996, it’s structurally surprisingly modern. STRAFE is designed as a mashup between a straightforward shooter and a roguelike, which means its levels are randomly generated each time you play, and if you die, you go right back to the start.
Visually, STRAFE looks superb. Pixel Titans has done a great job of turning the blocky, angular look of mid1990s shooters into a deliberate style, infusing levels with bold colours and deliberately overblown effects. What’s more, each of its four stages is a homage to a specific shooter. The first stage, the spaceship Icarus, is a love letter to Doom, while the underground neighbourhood of the Burbs is a direct reference to Half-Life. It’s a guided tour through FPS history.
The random generation of levels keeps you on your toes, and most levels still look impressively like they were designed by hand. However, STRAFE suffers from serious balancing issues. The first stage is ridiculously hard, with hordes of enemies clustered into very tight spaces, and only a smattering of health drops across its three levels. Once you get into the second stage, however, it becomes considerably easier. The levels are more open and enemies spawn in smaller numbers. It’s unfortunate, as it means you spend a large portion of time in the game’s least interesting area.
Frankly, STRAFE’s punishing difficulty curve wouldn’t be such a problem if the game felt satisfying to play, but sadly that isn’t the case. The main problem is that the guns feel and sound lightweight and weak. The shotgun and machine gun feel seriously underpowered, and even though enemies seem to have arteries-under-firehose levels of pressure, the game’s ballistics lack substance, so shooting opponents carries no satisfaction. Some weapons, such as the plasma gun, are better than others, but many of STRAFE’s more interesting guns are disposable pickups.
While STRAFE is keen to ape the classic shooters of yore, it fails to learn the most important lessons from them; the precisely engineered weaponry; the carefully paced difficulty curves; and the delicately structured level design. Doom and Quake may have appeared loud and obnoxious, but beneath the blood and noise, they were subtle and ingenious. STRAFE is neither, and it shows.