If you go into Pixel Titans' Strafe expecting a first-person shooter straight out of 1996, you can’t be blamed. The game was advertised as a throwback to the days when low-poly 3D models and 320x200 resolution were bleeding edge. For the PC and Mac, the game was even priced at $19.96. The official website touted guns, gibs, and secrets. Everything suggested Quake.
Turns out, the game isn’t built like Quake or any other classic first-person shooter at all. You wonder why the developers marketed it as such. I was a little peeved by how misled I had been. I had expected the game to play like Quake with randomly generated levels.
Strafe, no throwback first-person shooter, is a roguelike first-person shooter. There is no saving or loading and you start the game over with each death. There is no difficulty setting – the game is very hard as is, with enemies hoarding around you, and your armor, health, and ammo depleting quickly without any regular pickups to replenish it. There is a choice for one weapon to start each game with and the option to pick up secondary guns or upgrades while playing. None of these traits are old-school FPS.
There are some old-school first-person shooter elements in Strafe: bunny hopping, strafe jumping, an exorbitant amount of blood and gore, and a great computer-y soundtrack. But these parts of the game are superficial. Strafe is no more a throwback to Quake as Spelunky was a throwback to Super Mario Bros. The game’s advertising has been shamelessly misleading.
Knowing what kind of a game Strafe is, though, you may enjoy it. I never got tired of blowing the heads off of the little grunt creatures and the pain of “permadeath” bears with it the pleasure of progressing ever further on each try. Maybe the next time you’ll make it one stage more. Maybe you’ll last more than one second on stage 1-3. Maybe you’ll build a teleporter. Each run offers a chance to progress and with randomly generated levels also offers different paths to jump, shoot, and be killed down. The entry areas to each level remain the same and the architecture is simple, so take the random generation for what you will. In the least, it helps stay the monotony.
As noted, Strafe is very difficult. Even after dozens of runs you may not develop a working strategy. I approached the levels by killing each enemy and pacing myself, but this strategy crashes down in the long run if you burn through too much ammo and get into too many close encounters. Speed-running and bunny-hopping your way through each level may destroy you in the long-run, too, as you’re ignoring any upgrades and are more likely to screw up. Killing each enemy or speed-running yielded success or failure equally in my experience, so there is no surefire strategy for Strafe.
In each run, you may choose to use weapon upgrade stations to give your gun a new firing mode. This upgrade may be better or worse and while the upgrade station’s cute little droid is upgrading your weapon enemies pile around you while you have nothing but your fists to defend yourself with. I usually avoided upgrading my weapon because even if I had cleared an area of all enemies and could afford the time without my gun, the resulting upgrade may not be an improvement.
You may also collect scrap – you are a scrapper, for crying out loud – and use this scrap to make ammo or armor at special recycling stations. Armor is vital, but so is ammo, and each goes quick. The lower-priced ammo and armor refills amount to very little, so you’ll be smart to save up for the bigger armor or ammo refills. Strafe is tight about pickups for health, armor, and ammo. There are food stations on the walls, one per level, that provide some health, and there are wooden and metal crates to shoot for some pickups, but collecting scrap to use at the recycling stations is vital for success.
Too bad scrap is hard to see. Most of the time I only heard the pickup noise associated with scrap without ever seeing it on the ground. I can identify scrap now, but only with much scrutiny. It would help if such a crucial pickup were more pronounced.
While struggling to find scrap and grappling with the game’s difficulty, you will enjoy a very nice soundtrack. No joke, Strafe’s music is computer-y, techno-bliss. Parts of it harken back to games like Doom or Terminal Velocity. The soundtrack kept me hypnotized and immersed in the experience more than any other part of the game.
The other part of Strafe that is both blissful and throwback is the amount of blood. I mean, it sprays. I surveyed corridors painted in red and covered in gibs and, while the computer-y music played, I felt, if just for a fleeting moment, to be bathing in the aura of old-school shooters. Not that Doom or Quake had this much blood, but blood and gibs were a part of those games - a part Strafe highlights to a ridiculously gleeful level.
The key point with Strafe is that only in its music and gibs can it harken back to old-school shooters, and then, only superficially. Strafe’s core gameplay can never throwback to games like Quake.
So why was it advertised as a throwback shooter? One wonders why the developers chose to market this game the way they did without ever mentioning, “Hey, this is a roguelike. Don’t let us make you expect Doom or Quake, because it’s not that!” Not getting at all what I expected from this game is a huge mark against it. If you’ve been sold orange juice but were told it was milk, it wouldn’t matter how good the orange juice was – you wanted milk!
So Strafe is good, but it’s not what we were led to believe it was. If you’re interested in a difficult roguelike first-person shooter, and enjoy game-y soundtracks and lots of blood and gibs, I can recommend it to you. But if you want a 1996-style Quake throwback, stay away. You won’t get that here. Part of me is still itching for that authentic throwback FPS and is disappointed by the kind of game Strafe actually is, fun though it may be.