Video Games Review: STRAFE (PC, 2017) is a loving ode to Quake, but creaks under the weight of its ambition

Strafe is a bloody-minded combination of FPS and rogue-like that seeks to place you firmly in a time machine and return you to mid 90’s, the era when Quake was the new king of the burgeoning genre. Strafe recalls an era when shooters were breathless, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants experiences. You were always moving, always shooting, never resting. Where 2016’s excellent DOOM reboot showed just how great certain old shooter tropes could be when updated for a modern era, Strafe goes the other way, wanting to feel as close as it can to the id Software shooters of your childhood.

That was a bit of a glowing lead par, so let me dial it back a bit. My first couple of hours with Strafe frustrated the life out of me. This wasn’t necessarily the game’s fault, it was more than I hadn’t used the muscles required to play a game like Strafe in about fifteen years. For those who prefer to use a controller, even in their PC shooters, I can’t recommend using the keys and mouse here because with the speed Strafe operates at, your controller will be woefully ineffective.

The game first allows you to pick a starter weapon from a machine gun, shotgun or rail gun (any answer other than shotgun is clearly, monstrously incorrect) and then you are dropped into a high octane 90’s shooter where all of the levels are procedurally generated.

You are aboard the Icarus, a space station that currently finds itself under siege from a torrent of aliens that straight up want you dead. Every single level, no matter what shape or layout it takes, is filled to bursting with hundreds and hundreds of these jerks. Some of them take the melee approach, others stand back with blasters. Playing Strafe for any extended period means getting used to taking damage 100% of the time.

It’s at this point you will know if Strafe is for you or not. To succeed, you mustn’t ever lose your cool, you can’t ever stop moving even for a second and you must always be looking for opportunities to sneak in a tactical reload.

Those who fondly remember the explosive, geyser-like torrents of alien and demon blood from DOOM and Quake will be well served by Strafe‘s endless torrent of pixelated gore. Like Hotline Miami, it gets absolutely everywhere. This actually ends up working in your favour because, despite the availability of a map, the easiest way to know if you’ve been somewhere before is whether or not it is caked from floor to ceiling in the blood of your enemies.

As much fun as it is running roughshod over the enemies in each level, they do leave a lot to be desired in terms of AI. They go from being serviceable to down right brainless. It is laughably easy to trick an army of these bunglers into running over a ledge and into a steaming acid vat below. I mean, it helps — exploiting the AI like this is the closest I ever got to a break while playing — but it certainly doesn’t feel satisfying.

Beyond the campaign, there’s three extra online modes including Strafezone which drops a weekly challenge, Speedzone which is all about competitive speedruns and Murderzone which is your garden variety horde mode pitting you against 10 waves of enemies across 10 different rooms. These were actually quite fun, particularly the Speedzone mode, which recalls the days of trying to beat the clock and unlock cheat codes in GoldenEye 007.

Whichever weapon you chose at the beginning of the game is fully upgradeable using scrap metal you pick up off the bodies of defeated foes. Upgrading means finding an upgrade bench, which also doubles as a little shop for shields which prove extremely useful in the fray. This is where the procedurally generated levels can work against you because, at least in my experience, these benches would often turn up in the very last place you would think to look for them. The game’s relentless pace doesn’t really lend itself to exploration, and so these benches frequently go undiscovered as you hurtle by on your way to the exit.

On top of this, health pick ups, represented as boxes of food, are also surprisingly rare for a game where you are almost constantly taking damage. This only serves to make the proceedings feel more difficult which is really saying something.

Strafe works hard to recapture the vibe of the 90’s shooters its creators clearly adore but it can’t quite hold onto the energy that its forebears did. While it certainly grabs you from the jump, it’s grasp weakens the longer it goes on and by the sixth hour I was ready to hang it up. It’s possible that I’ve become accustomed to a certain standard of living as far as modern shooters go — winding my own internal design clock back several decades for this review certainly took a bit of work — or maybe I’ve finally become the miserable old crank I always knew I would. Your time with Strafe may be over quickly but you’ll have a pretty good time while it lasts.

Score: 6.5 out of 10
Highlights: Cool soundtrack; Gibs aplenty; Flawless apes the visuals of its forebears while trying something new
Lowlights: Painfully difficult; Honeymoon period ends quickly; Pro-gen maps a good idea on paper but hamper upgrade mechanics
Developer: Pixel Titans
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Windows PC, Mac OS
Available: 
Now

Reviewed on Windows PC.