So those mischievous developers over at Pixel Titans had us all hoodwinked when they released Strafe a couple of weeks ago. This very successful KickStarter project promised a procedurally generated 90’s style FPS experience, but actually delivered something quite different once you peel away the crispy-polygon coating, and personally I’m pretty thrilled about that. As regular readers will be aware, I have mixed feelings about the procedural tidal wave that we had been seeing in recent years; so-much-so that my first post was on this very subject and even hypothesised the shortfalls of a procedural-Doom… which is essentially what Strafe initially promised to be (well, more procedural Quake really). True enough, if you examine Strafe as a ‘Procedurally generated 90’s FPS’, you’ll more than likely be disappointed that it doesn’t show the intelligent level design of the original Doom, or the crafted architecture of Quake.
Why it’s not a 90’s FPS
Whilst the gun combat in Strafe is often fast and furious, the player doesn’t actually want that to be the case if they are planning to progress in this permadeath outing. Sure you need lightning reflexes and a firm grasp on that high-footspeed movement that went hand in hand with the grunting space-marines of the time, but if you leap into combat with the same mindset you’ll bow out before leaving the first world. Those 90’s classics were designed for the player to guide combat around the arenas and levels, evaluating not only the enemy behavior, but the space in which play was occurring, in order to bounce from health-kit to health-kit. With its lack of pickups, tight combat spaces, and slow moving projectiles, Strafe demands a more measured approach where progress is made in small steps often allowing the action to come to the player; progress can be so slow that I’ve often been a surprised at how short the levels really are when, after picking my way to the exit over 10 mins, I stroll back through the aftermath to realise that the exit was only a few rooms away from the entrance.
Next on the list of non-90’s traits is resource management; health, ammo, and shields are all scarce and if they want to move forward, the player will need to keep this in mind every step of the way. The guns not only feature a reload button, but bullets are actually scrapped if you reload before the end of a clip, couple this with RPG elements such as levelling up & modding weapons, two different forms of currency, and shops and it becomes clear that Strafe has moved quite a way from its advertised FPS roots.
What Strafe is…
I’m kicking myself for not putting this post together about a week ago, because others have now jumped on what is incredibly obvious … normally I’d try to rethink how to phrase something, but in this case the following statement, whilst not original, is nevertheless perfect:
Strafe is FPS Spelunky
Everything about it feels like those epic forays into the underground caverns that Spelunky gave to us. On setting out for each Strafe outing you must pick up one weapon, jump through a teleporter, and begin battling through the four different worlds, each with three levels… one life, no saves. These trips are punctuated by shops for splashing out on upgrades and the brief respite that each level end room provides. Teleporters (analogous to Spelunky’s tunnels) allow a shortcut to the later worlds, but don’t let that fool you, these are next to useless; firstly they require several trips carrying different pieces to activate, and secondly teleporting to a later stage provides little more than training to better understand enemies. In short you need to play each run from the start to slowly gather the upgrades and resources that make the latter stages survivable.
Each run is a monumental effort, and can be made or broken at any moment by a nasty procedural twist that could scupper an otherwise promising outing. I’ve made it to the final boss twice, each time falling at that hurdle, but the journey there was over 90 minutes of tension. There are enemy types that you will come to dread for their strong attacks, some you will quickly eliminate as they will annoyingly chip away at health, and others that seem to fly under the radar and swarm you. Each of the basic guns offers a different playstyle for taking on these foes: machinegun, shotgun, and railgun play like a best of set-list, and the non-reloadable pickup weapons add just a little flavour, or some much needed strength, when things get tough.
From a procedural generation point of view Strafe succeeds in making each romp a unique experience: map layout, enemies, secrets, and pickups are all generated as you step through that teleporter; this doesn’t interfere with the notion of building a ‘game rhythm’ however. Whilst the overall map is different, the layouts of each room type start to become familiar and elements remain unchanged through each foray. For example the starting section of each level is always the same; world 1-3 features a T-junction: Go one way, find a key, go the other way, find a key, go the third and find an exit. Level 2 of each world always features a shop towards the end, world 2-2 begins with an eerily quiet section, world 2-1 always has a destructible wall before the level end… to give just a few examples. These consistent elements help tie the experience together between runs and give the player something to guide them through the challenge.
I also have to pat the developers on the back for the learning curve they have created; my early attempts failed miserably, but slowly, very slowly I began to understand the game, to anticipate, to form plans, and to more wisely use resources until I made it to the second world… there I fell … again and again, but each time understanding it a little better, and then there was a ‘hump’ some feeling that I was getting it, and the game became easier. I breezed through the third world, and not because it was easier, but because I ‘got’ the playstyle, I got how Strafe worked. Strafe is deliberately obtuse, it features a wonderfully 90’s tutorial which barely explains anything, and then tells you to ‘go get ’em’. From this moment the player is learning, “What do those little bars under my health mean?”, “How do the upgrade stations work?”, “Wait, how did I unlock that secret?”, as with all ‘roguelike’ games, progression is not about how far you get in the game, but about how much you learn for your next attempt… even if all you learn is not to stand in one place and let that big basalt monster pummel you.
Finally Strafe wraps it all up in a stylish & fun package; the 90’s aesthetic won’t appeal to everyone, but for those of us who remember it is spot on even down to the Doom style melting transition from the title screen. The soundtrack is excellent to the point that I’m humming along (particularly in world 3 – The Burbs) and the ingame settings are quirky and unique. The developers have also added a healthy dose of mystery, not just from the actual mechanics of the game, but from all the secrets, carefully hidden… and yet obvious; I’ve found a good number of mini-games (many of which I can’t complete) and several things that I know are secrets, I just don’t quite know what to do with them yet.
So it’s not a 90’s FPS… it’s a 90’s FPS themed game, and I think it’s much stronger because of it. The only downside is that it’s unlikely to appeal widely, the negative reviews are already showing that it has baffled those who wanted a pure 90’s FPS experience… but to those of us willing to give it the time, it’s challenging and engaging… and I will beat it!
Strafe is available on Steam now!