Infinite Levels, Zero Fun
Strafe landed on my radar a few years ago courtesy of one very tongue-in-cheek trailer. It promised a cross between two of my favorite genres - roguelikes and shooters - and poked fun at the 90s with its over the top baditude. I put the game on my to-do list, then checked out for a few years, distracted by a mountain of responsibilities. Imagine my surprise when, several years later, I logged into the PlayStation Network and found Strafe's nameless protagonist staring, blood-soaked, back at me. I quickly snapped the game up and put it through its paces on two of my nights off. Sadly, I don't think I'll be going back for a third.
Just like its debut trailer, Strafe excels most at presentation. The tutorial kicks off with a cheesy FMV cutscene setting up the game's paper-thin premise: You are basically a junk collector sent to grab resources in space, and if things get nasty (they will) you've got a big arsenal to blow up baddies with in pursuit of more materials. There are a few jokes, which mostly hit, and then you're thrust into learning the game's mechanics.
I never got quite that far, though, because the tutorial unfortunately bugged out on me and forced a restart. So instead, I jumped straight into combat and picked things up the old-fashioned way. And old-fashioned is about as good a way to describe Strafe as any. The game is heavily inspired by DOOM and its 90s-era ilk. Movement is lightning-quick a la Quake, and levels are littered with secret doors and traps.
Unfortunately that means the shooting is also rather blasé. The recent DOOM reboot (sequel? seq-boot?) showed us exactly how to blend new mechanics and oldschool shooting in a way that felt fresh without losing the spirit of the old days. Shooting in Strafe just feels limp by comparison. You can blast enemy limbs off, but there's little to no reaction from enemies when you do so, and it can be hard to gauge whether or not you've hit your target in a crowded hall.
Quibbles aside, the game's no-frills shooting is perfectly functional. It's quick, simple and bloody. If that's the type of thing you're looking for, Strafe can deliver.
Beyond that, there's sadly little to dig your teeth into here. Strafe claims to blend the randomization of roguelikes with the speed of oldschool shooters, and while levels are technically randomized, at times you'd be hard-pressed to tell. When you enter each level, you'll be thrown into the same room you always are. From there, the level branches out in a few unique ways, but really all you're doing is shooting guys in vaguely differently-configured hallways. Sometimes there will be an acid pit over here or an elevator over there, but it barely makes a difference. In the end, all you're doing is going down hallways and shooting dudes. Rinse and repeat.
The game is so lacking in its roguelike randomization that it might as well have been a pre-generated game. At least then the levels would have had some character to them. As is, you get one drab hallway after another, each filled with the same three enemy types found on this particular level. As far as special rooms, in-game shops or other random events go, there are none so far as I could see. You can purchase armor or ammo from kiosks using the scrap you collect, and you can loot weapons here and there, but that's it. Strafe is missing the crazy weapons of Enter the Gungeon and the persistent progression of Rogue Legacy. Worse, the game's random levels ultimately hobble it. It feels like someone thought the randomization would be a great idea at first, but didn't know how to flesh it out properly during development.
Speaking of scrap kiosks, that's about all Strafe ever does with the mining concept that's drilled home so hard in the tutorial. Unless there's a late-game mechanic that I missed out of sheer boredom (I got through the first subset of levels, then put the game down), it doesn't seem like there's any way to actually mine or utilize the resources you have in any way other than trading them for ammo or armor.
As if that weren't enough, the game is riddled with technical issues. I mentioned earlier that the tutorial seized on me, but the game is full of significant framerate drops, too - I'm talking sub-"PowerPoint slideshow" level of jerkiness. Luckily it only happened to me once during combat, but in the pre-game room where you choose your weapons the game runs abysmally. One minute I'm looking at my gun selection, then the game hitches for a solid three seconds, then I'm looking at the floor. It even chokes up at the main menu, which seems... odd.
Oh, and the load times are pretty darn long, too.
Here might be a good place to note I played the PS4 version. Obviously that should have no bearing on the performance of a game that looks in many ways ripped out of 2000, but it may. I also have to mention the controls here. Yes, I know - PC master race and all that. And of course this is a game better suited the the PC, where I tend to play most of my shooters. But the fact remains that this game is commercially available on PS4, and the analog controls are just a little squirrely for my liking.
Strafe isn't a total failure, but it is a major missed opportunity. Yes, it delivers on the oldschool vibe, and the humor is mostly alright. But when the intro cutscene of the tutorial overshadows the actual gameplay, you know something didn't quite come together right. Strafe could've been a beautiful melding of shooter and roguelike, but instead it merely reminds us what makes the greats of those genres so much better.