Reviewed on: PC
Reviewer: Maiyannah Bishop
Review Play-Time: 8.5h
Developer: Pixel Titans
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Review Published: 2022-07-23
+ Fair variety of weapons and enemies
+ Procedural generated levels add a lot of
- Selection of weapons and enemies uninspired
- Enemy AI braindead
- Procedural generation erodes game quality
- Cluttered, intrusive secondary presentation
- Several bugs and technical flaws
- Lack of a proper save system
Editor's Note: Maiyannah's copy of Strafe was gifted to her by her partner Trish.
Strafe is a retro-inspired first-person shooter developed by Pixel Titans and published by Devolver Digital. Strafe was among the first of the retro first-person shooter trend that kicked off the retro revival trend we are now experiencing, but the question more than one person had of me was whether it holds up on its own merits, or if the praise it got was merely that of people starved for this kind of game. Unfortunately, I'm here to report that it is mostly a case of the latter: while there's some fun to be had here when the procedural generation isn't deciding to dump the entire contents of its smelly trews all over the experience, this is an average-at-best shooter, trending on the worse side of that statement than the better one. On a sale? Maybe it's worth it. Full price? Definitely not.
There are basically three types of weapons: one of three standard firearms you pick up at the start, upgraded versions of one of those three, and then special weapons, which are available as mission pickups exclusively. So essentially there are three “workaday” varieties of which you can choose one to begin with, and then a selection of other special weapons you can pick up during the course of play. The choices at the beginning are a pretty standard trifecta: a shotgun, a machine gun (more of an assault rifle), and a railgun. All of them are pretty much bog-standard FPS weaponry in their mechanics: the shotgun fires a spread with perhaps the weakest shotgun firing sound effect I think I have ever heard in a game, the machine gun plinks away at a decent clip with similar sound effect issues, and the railgun is pretty much a sniper rifle, and pretty much the only starting gun that “feels” powerful, if only because of the high damage.
Indeed, the lack of weapon feedback is a problem in Strafe. It's a problem that permeates all of the weapon designs, so we might as well cover it now lest I start repeating myself unto infinity: the enemies never even so much as flinch when they're struck, even in situations where they lose an arm or something like that, they will just keep coming at you. Combined with how much blood the game practically wants to drown you with, you have basically an issue of a sort of desensitization: you never feel any impact from a gun, they all just fountain various-colour blood whenever you so much as scathe them, which occurs whether it is a highly-damaging hit or basically the equivalent of a stern glare. This makes it very difficult to tell at a glance whether you are really having any effect, especially as you progress further and the enemies start getting tankier.
Weapon upgrades can do a lot to ameliorate this, but unfortunately, I did not find them something I even noticed. You have two means of upgrading the default weapons: you can upgrade the one you started with at various stations throughout the game to offer different effects, or you can grab upgraded standard weapons during play from randomly-generated corpses. The stations give you one of several vaguely-defined upgrades to which your only hint at what it does is a very pixellated icon that, while you will no doubt recognize them on subsequent playthroughs after having experimented with them the once, I have to believe no one on the face of the earth that is not stoned off their arse is going to really know what exactly they do the first time. Moreover, some upgrades are so gently-incremental, that you really aren't going to notice them. Moreover, if you are given a random corpse one then there is literally no knowing what bonus it has until you equip it, and even then the indicator takes the form of a small icon on the left of the screen that you - or at least I, in my infinite blondeness - could easily miss in the action of the moment. Once again, this traces back to a lack of feedback from the weapons - I did mention that was going to be a reoccurring theme in this review, didn't I?
The unique weapons seem to want to add some variety to the game but the kind of cookie-cutter progression they have fairly stymies that aim. Here's the list: a grenade launcher, a dartgun, a fusor, a heavy pistol, a plasma gun, a rocket launcher, a pulsar gun, a smart gun, a quad tracker (gun..?), an airbuster, and the gimmick gun that is the inflater. Now you may be reading that list and thinking: “but May, that sounds like quite a selection of weapons”, and normally you would be right to think so - I certainly had the impression it was at first. What you will realize however, is they follow the same mould as the first three: a CQB spread weapon, a mid-range automatic rifle, and a long-range slow-firing rifle. As an example, the grenade launcher is a spread weapon at mid-range, and basically becomes a temporary shotgun replacement weapon, and the rocket launcher is basically a direct improvement on that - in theory anyways. In reality, since you can hurt yourself with the splash damage and the enemies will bum-rush you almost constantly, the explosive weapons are more hinderance than help. As can be a problem in many games and not just Strafe, a situation where you kill the enemy and yourself both, is still a situation where you are at a loss. While the grenade launcher can be managed since detonation is usually delayed and the projectile has an arc, I would avoid the rocket launcher unless your idea of a fun time is emulating popular Doom streamer Coincident's favourite face-rocket tactics.
The continuum extend into the other three starting weapons as well; Carrying on from the machine gun you have the dartgun: a very-high rate of fire gun that has some spread, the plasma gun: basically the plasma gun from Doom if the sounds were more anemic, and the smart gun: basically a homing assault rifle. Likewise, the railgun continues on with the fusor: which is basically the railgun with penetration (oh my!), the heavy pistol which is a high damage pistol that is not nearly as effective as the wiki makes it out to be, and the pulsar gun which is a bit of a knock off of the BFG 9000, but you at least have a change in that you choosing when you activate the projectile to hit everything else, so I cannot call it a straight rip.
Even the last three exotic weapons keep the theme going, even if the effects are different. If you are getting the “uninspired” or “lazy” from the design here well then, I was hardly the only one then! All the same, continuing on you have the quad tracker: a gun that fires four beams to either side, and even the official Wiki calls largely useless so while I agree I fail to see why it is in here, then you have the airbuster: a slow high damage, theoretically-high accuracy shot - I say theoretically because any enemy that moves faster than a glacier will be able to avoid it; and the inflater which is like the Dobson gimmick weapon, and I will leave that thought as the single explanation of it, because it is worthy of nothing more. Any hopes for the exotic weapons to improve the weapon selection are dashed by all three of them being gimmicks that are pointless in most situations, and even the situations they are useful in will likely have better answers in the other selections you could be making.
There is a little bit of seasoning on this otherwise bland but serviceable weapon buffet: the ammo scarcity and what happens with the special weapons when the ammo is expended. Allow me to expand: your chosen weapon is going to be your workhouse during a “run”: it is the only weapon you will possess for which you are given any ammunition. Any other weapon you pick up is a momentary novelty: you get what's in the gun's magazine, and that's it. This means you cannot, for instance, hoard special ammo to be able to get through a specific difficult encounter such as the end boss, except in the very limited fashion that you could save a single one of each of the guns in such a way. In theory, this might make you be much more discerning about your weapon choices. In practice it means I only ever used them if I was in danger of dying, because the final boss is a big arena slugfest, and you need the guns and ammo to get you through it. This also has the knock-on effect of what they call "dead-man walking" syndrome in adventure gaming circles: you can use too much of the special weapons you have available during normal play, and be unable to complete the final boss encounter at all due to that usage of resources. In that way, this design is more detrimental than helpful to the gameplay.
In short, the gunplay in this shooter feels samey, staid, and unimpactful. I have certainly played worse and to say it's not fit for purpose would be incorrect, but it strives for … average, and achieves ... average. If anything, the ways in which Strafe tries to differentiate itself end up to the game's detriment. There's some fun to be had in the shooting, but not more fun than you could be having in many of its competitors. A running theme we'll explore more below: this is a game that wants to be very fast-paced, “run and gun”, and kinetic, but through its design beats, encourages the player to be conservative, slow, and risk-adverse. The ammunition system is but the first point where that comes out.
The enemy variety is about similar, though not all of them are frankly worth going into as much detail with as I did the weapons but we nonetheless will hit the important parts. You have slow-walking melee zombies (that progressively get faster through upgraded versions), fast zombies that cling to the roof and walls whom will leap at you if you are within a certain distance, grenade-lobbing mutant types that serve as suppressive fire of sorts, fireball-shooting droid things and their big brother plasma bolt-lobbing mutants, and jellyfish mutants that serve to bull-rush you. There's a few iterations on most of these, for example a bug thing that's basically the firebolt drone but flying, but with that exception they mostly follow a progression of running faster, hitting harder, being more aggressive, having more health, and detecting you from further.
And bull-rush, like I mentioned with the jellyfish enemies, is indeed the singular strategy these enemies have. The enemy AI leaves a lot to be desired: the mutants, zombies, robots, and aliens all share the same brain-dead tactic of making a bee-line directly towards the player, whether they can see you or not. In contrast, Doom would do line-of-sight checks to see if an enemy could see the player, and if not have them wander randomly and make presence noises. There is no such feedback given in Strafe - indeed, the first sign you'll have that enemies are nearby are when they're gleefully running into a wall their poor pathfinding cannot navigate, trying to get to you so they can chop your nipples off.
Many enemies will bleed absolute buckets when shot, even before they die, and it gets a bit excessive, to the point it gets a bit hilarious. One supposes the gratuitous blood is their replacement for meaningful feedback, but when its so completely gratuitous, it just becomes white noise. Of course, sometimes that noise is red, sometimes its yellow - but take some great caution if it's yellow, because that's an acid blood that will harm you!
Indeed, there is a considerable amount of visual clutter in the design. As you fire casings and magazines go everywheres, the gore and limbs from enemies paint the walls, and the blood basically goes everywheres. This is the kind of scenario of decoration overload which makes Brutal Doom look a little tame. While one can certainly get caught up in the spectacle of it, that very fact makes it rather detrimental - it becomes difficult to “read” the game at a glance. There were more than a few deaths I had where one couldn't see hazards through all the red and yellow.
On the topic of intrusive secondary presentation: the default HUD is very chunky, moreso than even Wolfenstein 3D's, I find - if not so then equally as much. Of course, you can reduce it down, but never to the minimal level you can in Doom or Doom 2. If you're wondering why there isn't much eye-candy in this review, it's because all this secondary presentation, as well as the chunky HUD, made it difficult to get a screenshot that would be at all usable in my boxout formats.
The procedural generation of the levels is what give this game a considerable amount of its wings, so to speak. The broad strokes of it are done well-enough: you have some set standard set-pieces that keep the different levels unique and provide landmarks, and the connective tissue through the levels between these points being what's procedurally-generated. This presents a fair bit of replayability, which is good, because for it's price point, a run of Strafe is something you can complete in one sitting if you are particularly-good and don't run afoul of it's tricks and traps.
The procedural generation lays some debris on the track of game development however: for instance, there were stretches of hazard floors where one “room” with a hazard floor merged with another “room” with a hazard floor in such a way that either individual room could be traversible with full health, but the two together could not. This kind of flaw suggests a game that needed a finer attention to detail, or at least a higher degree of quality control. While I know a fair few people are quick to hand-wave away this away as one of the common flaws of proc-gen, it is not a foregone conclusion that you will have these issues. No, this represents a lack of care in designing the procedure for said generation, and that lack of care shows on all the various touch points of the game: a shallow experience that needed more iteration, editing, and attention.
Enter the Complex
We continue on through the levels and start seeing more of that prop up in the actual level design itself: this game actually has quite a variety of different “rooms” it can end up stitching together, but you really wouldn't know it unless you paid careful attention during the runs, because everything starts bleeding together. The levels feel relatively “samey”, with rooms that seem to lack purpose both from the design and diagetic point of view, other than being filler connective tissue between the set-piece rooms. While this hardly is the end of the world, it does make things feel dull and monotonous in a game that desires energy and vibrancy. In retrospect, the large amount of visual clutter is likely attempting to distract from this. It also leads to situations where I was left confused on how to continue, which isn't a place you want your prospective player to be as a game designer, I should think. I mean, by my own admission, I can be “blonde af” at times, but speaking as someone who's completed Eternal Doom (no, not Doom Eternal, I know, it's confusing: I mean the infamous puzzle WAD), I feel somewhat qualified for this kind of thing, and well, I still ended up lost sometimes. Hell, there were a couple times in later runs where I knew what I had to do, but what I did not was where the procgen had placed the stuff I needed to progress. Poor show altogether, there. Of course, that's all luck of the draw so to speak, since it is pseduo-random, but to have dead runs like that with the toss of a coin was aggrivating.
The final point I'll make about levels is more one of personal preference, but nonetheless something I know I'm not the only one who finds this annoying: there is an over-reliance on monster closets. Now, I don't mind them very occasionally as it adds some variety to the gameplay, though I do prefer when they're at least made to look like some locked room or something that was unlocked with baddies inside, which isn't the case here. However, given what we already went over in with the game AI having perfect knowledge of where you are even from half-way across the map - or indeed the other side - this means you can have a monster closet open minutes away from your position and only notice when you get randomly blindsided by baddies some time later. Alone, is it a game-breaker? Naw. But the gripes are certainly piling up once again.
One thing that did bother me is the “retro” aesthetic, not the least of reasons why being: the style isn't really retro. In Strafe we have a game that's trying to evoke an old-school shooter feel with game graphics more comparable to Minecraft than Doom. Coupling chonky pixels with a CRT effect that makes things a mess and cannot be disabled, and the feeling I'm left is one of uncreative laziness: the designated “retro” design and shaders have been applied, let's call it a day. There is no demonstrated understanding of the limitations of those bygone days that inspired some creativity. For example, we have a pallette which vast outstrips the number of colours available in those times, while still being very grey-brown. Many early games, especially earlier into the EGA/CGA days, had very pointedly colourful graphics because they couldn't have anything else: you had the very limited palletes available to those cards and you dealt with it. Stripped of that restriction, we have ended up a game that doesn't have that limitation, so instead of being even better, it has become something generic in the most literal sense: its visual style has literally no unique element which might seperate it from its respective genre.
Further confounding matters is the visual style, just on its own merits. These are some chonky pixels - and it makes reading the game difficult, something only made worse by the bog-standard “retro CRT effect”. Bugs only pile on here: with some weird hall-of-mirrors effects in places, monster closests failing to trigger occasionally (not that I was complaining...), and most aggrivatingly, the acid blood some enemies spurt when they die doesn't render on the floors that have transparent pixels, so that led to a few particularly-annoying deaths. Technical bugs of this nature are neither frequent nor rare, and I had several times where I lost progress to crashing to the desktop.
Indeed, this further highlights another problem in Strafe's design: the lack of proper saves. Could I have been saving after sections like, you know, you could in old retro-shooters, even as far back as Wolfenstein 3D, these crashes and bugs would be annoying but not fatal. When they often mean that you have to restart at least sections of the game again and again, it quickly becomes terminal to any enjoyment one may derive from the game. The one time I didn't even get five seconds in before a crash seemed like a bad omen at the time I was first starting, and perhaps it was, but in retrospect I became grateful that not much progress was lost. In many ways this save system felt like it was padding out the length of the game, I feel like a competent player could complete this game in less than an hour if the game didn't crash and they could save properly. But, alas, we're stuck with a system which is basically checkpoints between levels wearing the skin-suit of a save system, and the game is significantly poorer for it as a result. I, for one, would much prefer a short, quality experience over the tortuously drawn-out experience that Strafe represents.