Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4
Are you old enough to remember PC gaming in 1996? Specifically the shooters of that distant age, more than 20 years ago?
That was a time when games like Doom and Quake ruled the landscape. When graphics were hopelessly primitive by today's standards, when each new game brought with it major new innovations that would soon become part of FPS basics, and when shooters didn't concern themselves with hand-holding and explaining game mechanics.
This FPS nostalgia comes in heavy doses with STRAFE, a roguelike FPS that drew attention in the months leading up to its release for its flat-out fantastic trailers. Everything about the game's marketing and presentation is dedicated to the myth that the game really is releasing in 1996, somehow, and the fun even extends to the game's official website.
After spending time with the actual game, there's plenty that marks STRAFE as a modern creation, rather than an authentically 90s one. Taken all together, the game may end up appealing more to fans of punishing roguelikes than classic shooters.
Challenging and full of secrets
While I was playing STRAFE for this review, someone in the office watched a bit over my shoulder and asked me about the game's story. I just shook my head.
No. No story. That's not what this is about.
STRAFE is a roguelike FPS, which means levels are randomized and death is permanent. The game begins in a ruined space station called Icarus, packed with heavy references to Doom and similar titles. You start by picking one of three main weapons (a shotgun, assault rifle, or railgun) which will be your primary means of interacting with the world as you go forward. Along the way you'll pick up a wide variety of secondary weapons, which all provide additional power and utility but come with very limited ammunition.
There are four worlds in STRAFE, each consisting of a few levels, but since there is very little in the way of carried-over progress, other than your presumably improved skills, you'll be seeing the game's first levels a lot. There are no checkpoints STRAFE, and no extra lives. If you don't want to have to fight your way through the first stages again and again you'll need to hunt for and purchase parts of a teleportation device, which will eventually allow you to jump to later worlds from the game's hub. But like many things in STRAFE, this aspect of the game is never really explained to you.
It's a challenge to criticize a game like STRAFE, since so much of it has been purposely designed to be "old school," but I think the game would be more enjoyable with just a bit more in-game information about objectives, mechanics, and ways to succeed. Case in point: I didn't realize that reloading with bullets remaining in your clip wasted the remaining ammo, or that repeatedly shooting in-game chests, even after you've opened them, is critical to having enough resources to stay alive. Both of these were things I could have figured out eventually, and which some players did discover on their own, but after spending hours playing the game in a way that made it more difficult than it needed to be, I felt a lot more frustration than any tingles of nostalgia.
The actual shooting in STRAFE works well enough, and it's always exciting to pick up a new gun right before heading into a room full of enemies. Mastering one of the different core weapons is key to success, and using the game's randomized weapon upgrade stations can provide either a big boost or an aggravating nerf. You'll quickly learn which enemies are just cannon fodder and which are actual threats, and prioritizing which you kill first (and which you simply run past) is important if you want to stay alive.
Since there's not really anything to do in STRAFE aside from shoot, though, it can wear thin over hours and hours of gameplay. I found myself wishing there was more variety in the enemies and the movement options available to me, or more significant strategic choices. The game's semi-randomized shops do offer some important decisions to make, with items to buy that protect against certain types of foes or tweak gameplay in various ways, but you'll have to play through multiple levels of the same old stuff to get to make these choices (and you'll rarely have enough money to buy more than one thing, so many players will feel pressure to make the "safe" choices rather than to experiment and potentially lose progress).
An authentic old-school shooter?
Aside from the game's combat, which can be a serious challenge, the hardest thing about playing STRAFE can be finding your way around. There's an in-game map, kind of, but it's so primitive as to be little help if you ever actually get stuck in one of the randomized levels. This can be frustrating, since the speed with which you complete levels is part of the game's scoring system (you'll see a comparison to a level's "PAR TIME" when you reach the end of a stage).
STRAFE's roguelike elements are clearly a step away from what 1996-era shooters actually delivered, and the lack of multiplayer is another big change from what you might expect a retro-minded shooter to be. In place of any sort of deathmatch there's a mode called "MURDERZONE," which is a single-player wave mode. The MURDERZONE actually features more significant carried-over progress than the main game, as the more kills you rack up the more options and power-ups you will unlock.
STRAFE isn't trying to look like a modern game, so it's a bit silly to criticize its graphics, but there's a disappointing lack of visual variety both in terms of enemies and levels. Though each new world does bring a fresh injection of new foes and level elements, overall the game feels a bit too grey and orange for its own good (before you cover it in the game's persistent gore, that is). This issue is made worse by the need to repeat the game's opening levels again and again until you've managed to snag the proper teleporter pieces.
Many early reactions to STRAFE have criticized the game's gun sounds, which do seem a bit underwhelming for a game that's so focused on shooting. The music in the game is great, in comparison, offering fast-paced electronic accompaniment for your murder, but once again wears a bit thin when you are exposed to it over and over again.
STRAFE isn't a game for everyone, and with some additional in-game explanations of how things work, a few more enemy types, and an expanded visual palette it could probably have appealed to a wider audience. In the end, I think STRAFE is likely to find a dedicated fanbase of players who enjoy its challenge and roguelike elements. Discovering the secrets hiding in each level can be fun, and at its best the game delivers fast-pacing FPS action of a sort we don't often see these days. Racing through levels to beat par times, trying out new weapons, and progressing in the MURDERZONE all offer incentives to keep playing, and the game's dedication to the "1996" theme is both entertaining and impressive.