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STRAFE Review

Developer Pixel Titans launched a kickstarter campaign with the goal of creating a roguelike inspired by the shooters released in what many now fondly refer to as the golden age of PC shooters. It's very blatant in its references to such titans as Doom and Quake but under the low-poly pixelated gorefest lies a very different type of game from what many were expecting, so let's take a dive into how this particular fast-paced romp through hell played out.

STRAFE Review. Party like it's 1996, baby.

context

STRAFE is a first-person shooter heavily inspired by titles of old. As stated in their kickstarter page which specifically namedropped Doom and Quake, which no doubt raised the hopes of many potential readers and backers. Developed by a small studio by the name of Pixel Titans and published by Devolver Digital, STRAFE seeks to capture the thrill of fast-paced run 'n gun action with low-poly gore and blood littering the battlefields, but unlike the games of yore, it's a roguelike with no permanent progression for the base story mode.

STRAFE can be purchased for $19.96 on Steam.

STRAFE Review. One of the game's many secret rooms, albeit this one's easier to find.

gameplay

The elephant in the room is the previously mentioned genre of STRAFE. It's a roguelike with permanent character death and very little in the way of progression, as far as we can tell it's only done by completing teleporter pads. At the start, one chooses out of the three available weapons, a machine gun, railgun or shotgun which all come with an alternate fire. Once chosen, it will be the player's permanent primary weapon, with the other two choices becoming temporary pickups to use when found alongside the standard arsenal of power weapons to be equipped including staples like a rocket launcher and laser rifle alongside more odd entries like a slow firing machine gun and a laser-based rocket launcher of some kind.

The weapon sound effects themselves vary with the shotgun and railgun sounding fine and the rocket launcher's impacts being as meaty as to be expected, but some are a bit of letdown with the magnum-esque handgun and base machine gun being somewhat disappointing. However they might sound, they all make up for themselves in firepower however, hit effects in regards to knocking off armor and limbs as well as how quickly lesser enemies can be stopped in their tracks by one's standard gun do give a sense of weight and punch to the weapons that many dismissed in having only played the game for a short amount of time. By the end of the run we got our furthest in, our rapidly firing assault rifle was a joy to use as it mowed down crowds and splattered blood all over the low-poly levels.

STRAFE Review. A scenic vista, circa 1996 of course.
Enemy variety is somewhat lacking early on, however creatively hiding enemies up in the ceilings and some cheap spawns do keep one on their toes as every turn around a corner and every box destroyed to harvest its resources can easily lead to unnecessary damage and death. There's a certain point where STRAFE suddenly throws several more enemy types at the player and as a result, becomes much more interesting and somewhat more tense, as the gun-toting enemies become much more dangerous and armored mechs come to stomp the player into the ground. The level of difficulty doesn't let up entirely even with an absurd number of damage upgrades thanks to the variety found in the later levels as well as the nature of unlocking doors in the very end, which requires all enemies in an area to be slaughtered in glorious 1996 fashion.

STRAFE Review. Grenade launchers can be tricky, but the payoff and payload is very, very worth it.

presentation

The presentation of STRAFE is by and far away its biggest selling point. The low-poly style looks fantastic in every aspect, creative use of lighting and low-resolution textures really bring the environments to life in a way that's damn near impossible to properly describe in just words. There's something about seeing textures that'd be laughable when found in a typical AAA game being used in abundance with models we haven't seen since the N64 days that's both endearing and fun to explore.

This doesn't even come close to the work that is the soundtrack however, which nailed the aesthetic perfectly. Listening to the music during the writing of this review, it's hard to think of a way in which it could've been improved without compromising on that classic feel and tone. It creates an atmosphere with an allure that many titles with millions spent on fully orchestrated tracks could never reproduce, and it fits the game in every way possible, helping to fill the cracks where the gunplay and graphical style may fail at times. There's even the nice touch of most levels starting with a very understated piano or light instrument track while roaming the level, but as soon as the player takes a shot, it's game-time and the soundtrack kicks in full blast to remind one that speed and gore are the name of the game.

STRAFE Review. As each act progresses, the in-between loading screens also change, a nice touch.

the risks of kickstarting and advertising

Unfortunately, there's something much less glamorous about the title, and something that really isn't the fault of the developers. This is a title that found life on Kickstarter, where it received just a bit above the stated goal of $185K, closing out at a grand total of $207K. It stated that it would bring back the bleeding edge graphical style and gameplay of the games that many have revered for decades. Fast-paced gory action in a first-person shooter package is a formula that while proven to work, is something that many developers simply ignored for years, and STRAFE seeked to capitalize on both that as well as the trend of the aforementioned titles starting to make a bit of a resurgence lately with the release of 2016's DOOM and this year's Quake Champions.

However, having mentioned specific titles like those referenced above, it appears that many of the people who kickstarted the project or watched the trailers for the game without any further research got the wrong idea about it entirely. What was clearly stated to be a procedurally-generated roguelike with a focus on the run 'n gun style with a choice of one weapon alongside power weapon pickups, as well as several other factors in regards to the game ended up being the downfall, as many who supported it before and after release simply didn't actually look into the title they were buying.

STRAFE Review. Our best run, cut short by choking on the final boss.
Many were disappointed to find that this was not in fact a clone of older games, but a roguelike with very little progression. This sentiment was furthered along by the fact that the game did release, and continues to exist in a buggy state. On launch, texture issues weren't uncommon and things like falling through maps and framerate drops on more than capable hardware are still experienced as of the time of writing.

Combining the ignorance of what the game was attempting to achieve along with a troubled launch led to a disaster in both the Steam Forums and Steam Reviews as many are nailing the title to a cross for what was ultimately a combination of a lack of polish on the developers part and ignorance on the part of the buyer. While the bugs are inexcusable, especially ones that can end a run outright, it's important to bear in mind that the game is still incredibly fun to play and features a fantastic soundtrack with many hours of replayability in both the base game mode and the horde mode included, which actually does have a component of progression. It's just a shame that the release was marred by factors both in and out of the developer's control.

STRAFE Review. A jumping puzzle challenge that's literally just hell. Good luck with this one.

overall

Ultimately, that leads us to the conclusion. To put it simply, STRAFE  is without a doubt a very fun romp through classical gaming and an interesting look at a newer genre applied to a much older gameplay formula. The soundtrack is fantastic, the graphics are ugly in the best way possible and while it starts off a bit slow, it more than makes up for it with very fun gameplay as soon as one gets through the first one or two levels. As the upgrades pile on, so does the enjoyment of this unpolished and somewhat buggy FPS.

Secrets scattered randomly throughout maps breathe a bit of life into them as otherwise they'd be discovered once and listed on a guide somewhere, which is also still somewhat of an issue regardless, and the weapon and enemy variety as one progresses through the title give it legs to stand on. The downside being that those legs have been kicked out by those who purchased it being ignorant of what the title was. It seems both consumers and the developers are quickly learning that the phrase "caveat emptor" is still a very real mindset that one should keep in mind when purchasing titles and supporting them on Kickstarter.

Despite that, STRAFE is an easy recommendation. While the price is a bit steep in out opinion for what you get, there's no denying the fun we had in our time with the title. Considering how much many other games ask of you in cost for an experience with similar issues, offering nothing more than "hyper-realistic" graphics and an orchestral soundtrack, we believe it's a game worth playing for anyone who enjoyed both the classic shooters of old as well as the genre of roguelikes. If you only prefer one or the other, then look somewhere else, this probably isn't going to impress.

Pros Cons
 + A great soundtrack ties the game together and never stops, keeping the ball rolling the entire time.  – Secrets are welcome, but some of the hoops one has to jump through are absurd to find them.
 + Low-poly and low resolution textures give it more  visual style and personality than most AAA titles.  – Gunplay is somewhat lacking, while it picks up further in, the guns start off without weight or punch.
 + Gameplay picks up in pace and feels much more like a roguelike after the first few levels  – Somewhat buggy. At one point we managed to fall through the map, and framerate drops are common.
8
Great

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