Late last year I grabbed myself a copy of “Enter the Gungeon”, a poppy fun schmup rogue-like game that I’ve spent over 35 hours playing and yet I’ve never actually beat it. Rogue-likes have a lot of different elements to them but the elements Gungeon uses in particular are randomized dungeons and unlocking different shopkeepers that you can pay with collectible currency to boost your runs through the game. The game is five levels deep, with each level increasing in depth and difficulty and a boss at the end of each level. Bosses are pooled from a set of potential picks for each layer of the gungeon. This info is relevant because Gungeon is absolutely engaging and has designs that should eventually help the player beat the game with enough time in it. The odds are heavily against your favor, which can be frustrating and debilitating except for the fact that the game is only five levels long and each level can be cleared in about 8 minutes. This turns Enter the Gungeon into an incredibly good, quick, and digestible rompus of fun. Never having beaten it isn’t really bugging me because every play is something that heightens my ability and knowledge required to finish the game. The elements the game takes from rogue-likes isn’t quite perfect. There’s problems with the odds being stacked against your favor too easily in the first two dungeons without a decent roll in the player’s favor to give them stronger weaponry to beat later levels. You have to be really good at collecting the in-dungeon currency to grab very important unlocks or weapons if they show up. And yet, I don’t care at all. This game is a blast, I love it, it’s a great style and funny approach. Look at this charming piece of work.
Those are your primary enemies in this game. They’re bullets. You shoot lots of guns. There’s even a gun that shoots guns that spin towards their destination and shoot out small bullets at the bullet enemies in the process. This game is unabashedly fun and exciting and manages to be challenging without being too frustrating that I’m happy to waste an hour watching some videos and playing the game for a few quick attempts before leaving for work. It’s digestible and wonderful and simply put: A blast. And that’s why I’ve easily wasted 36 hours playing Enter the Gungeon. A very similarly designed rhythm game also came out in 2016 called “Crypt of the Necrodancer” that I’m really looking forward to trying out and possibly never beating as well.
And then there’s “STRAFE”, a first-person shooter taking design elements from rogue-likes as well that I do not want to keep playing despite my incredibly-close push for the finish line because it seems to have missed the target on taking rogue-like designs and implementing them into a fast-paced action game that is meant to be replayed over and over again. It’s agonizingly sad to see a game with the heart and love put into it (and actively being worked on still) that Pixel Titans have and know that the game just…didn’t work out in the ways that “Enter the Gungeon” and “Crypt of the Necrodancer” have. It’s a game with a lot of exciting and wild things it wants to do, but fails at a few too many things that are too rudimentary and fundamental.
“STRAFE” sets off to be a retro-90s era first-person shooter at heart, a game that would’ve existed in 1998 if the technology for it existed back then. It takes cues from Quake, DOOM, and Half-Life 1 with all the respect it can muster. Movement is fast and fun. The enemies are a mixture of zombie-like workers, Strogg-like aliens, antlions from Half-Life 2, particle-spewing wall-barnacles, and the exploding monsters from Dead Space. Set in an unknown time, you’re the lonely grunt soldier hired by a company to jump into a teleporter and be whisked off to what appears to be a space station gone very wrong. As you progress, you realize this space station has crash landed on an alien planet and that the alien invasion is already taking place on earth and it’s your job to get back to the source of the invasion and kill everything along the way before putting an end to things. This game is a fast-paced blood bath shooter that has all the glee and color of its hyper-violence and alien world clashed in stark contrast against the grey backdrop of its future science corporation. And STRAFE owes most of its good bits to getting the 90s-shooter “feel” just right with its technical achievements and aesthetic. Movement is fast and feels fluid as you’ll spend a lot of time running around rooms, jumping across platforms and gaps, and sometimes even jumping out of crowds to shotgun your enemies in the face like the good ol’ days you might remember or wanted to be able to remember. Shotguns, beam rifles, and machine guns take the cake in the arsenal while players can also hurl explosive barrels at crowds. Kinetically, everything feels great. And it’s not an eyesore.
I’ve seen arguments that STRAFE doesn’t quite hit the same aesthetic notes that Quake, DOOM, and Half-Life 1 did back in those days. Those arguments are entirely valid but I think miss the point that STRAFE is moreso a game that wants to exist next to Quake, DOOM, and Half-Life as an alternative. It’s more colorful and fun in ways and dips its hyper-violence in commercialism that boasts it. Coming out as an homage to those games means it is shed of the cultural criticism that concerned parents and Jack Thompson brought to the table in days gone by. But it does feel like the game that wants to make a mockery out of the potential picture being painted by critics of violence in video games at the time through over-saturating the blood elements with its brighter, cheery music. And it does this with a blood particle system that at least deserves some wondrous recognition.
Too many games are busy showing STRAFE’s movement and blood to bother taking a moment to show the unique and over-the-top and comedic way the liquids in this game splatter, spew, and paint the walls in a 3D environment. Bodies with missing limbs spraying blood will fall onto gravity lifts, sending the corpse up into the air gently while the blood goes up and up the walls before trickling down in streams. Orange acidic goop explodes and paints floor tiles and hurts the player to step on them but a layer of blood on top of it will actually keep the player safe. It’s ludicrous, right? But make no mistake, this is the particle system that belongs right alongside F.E.A.R.’s (at the time) incredible graphics engine and masterful A.I. It’s just so unfortunate that nothing else in the game feels as original or unique. As a game that strives to stand next to the 90s shooters that have been praised over and over again, STRAFE has only a few fresh things in its world design and aesthetics. The rock monsters are interesting. The grunts are always fun to dispatch. And the places the game takes you are certainly good eye-candy as you progress, even if it doesn’t quite add up in your head.
Unfortunately, the very design decisions that created STRAFE and all its lovely feeling gameplay might be the same ones that caused the points of grief surrounding it. As a game taking points from the creations of the past, it might have forgotten to look at successors to learn from them. It might have been too late into STRAFE’s development to take notes from the new DOOM and implement a health system that supports the player actively getting “in” the fight and being reckless. But there seems to be no valid reason for having such a weak amount of health drops in the early stages (also like Gungeon). STRAFE seems to be four major stages in length with 3–4 levels in each stage. Health drops are deposited on walls and (SEEMINGLY) in canisters you can open throughout each level. But for every time I pick up an item and see a little health icon in the top left of my cool helmet UI, I don’t gain health. The only health I’ve ever seen myself gain is from the wall outlets that deposit it (which are few and do not provide much health in the first stage) and through a StimPack perk I push myself to pick up because it gives me a little health with every kill. Stage 2 takes place on the alien planet and every level ends inside a bunker of sorts with an ammo and armor dispenser (you pay for more) and a wall health dispenser with at least 2–4 health packs to boost your health by 20–40 points. Why this sort of level-end support doesn’t have a way to exist in the entire game is baffling to me. Why we don’t get to visit the shopkeeper every other level to get more perks and upgrades also baffles me. Maybe it’s because the game doesn’t drop enough in-game currency for the players to get too many upgrades unless they survive the onslaught of enemies and kill every last monster on the map before getting to the finish line of the level. But the game also has a timer in it and pushes speed without the ability for the player to support themselves.
And this is where the great picture STRAFE paints with its buckets of blood starts to drip down the walls and instead just becomes a mess that needs some cleaning up. Unfortunately STRAFE’s failing points of weak early player support, the very thing that fails in Enter the Gungeon, fails harder here. Because STRAFE’s permanently-unlocked abilities are just one: Stage teleporters. And unlocking them is just as frustrating and unexplained and demanding as the tinker from Gungeon who also lets you skip ahead in the game. Apparently throughout STRAFE you can collect or purchase teleporter parts with the more expensive currency. The chance a part is available for purchase can’t be very high as I only got one teleporter part in the numerous times I’ve been blown up, blown myself up, or got eaten trudging through this game. If you have enough parts, you can repair damaged teleporters in any of the game’s multiple stages (if they’re randomly generated into the map this time) and in doing so teleport back to the main game hub and permanently unlock your ability to start the game at stage 2 or 3. There’s doors in the game hub showing these doorways. I had hoped that maybe just getting far enough in the game would warrant me just being able to start at that stage fresh after death but instead STRAFE borrows elements from rogue-likes. You have to earn every last scrap of reward in the most challenging way possible: By getting it in some sort of a holy perfect run in a game whose systems wind up working against that.
And I haven’t even gotten to the saddest bits yet. The practically useless teleporters mean players are going to have to either waste dozens if not hundreds of attempts to find the teleporter parts and make easier progress by skipping stages or they’ll be forced to play the game over and over from stage 1. And that wouldn’t be a problem except for that lack-of-health issue mentioned above and the other problems below. STRAFE’s 90s-era fast paced exciting gameplay leads players into having fun and shooting everything while running around dangerous maps and getting themselves easily hurt or blown up. The fun of the gameplay actually pushes players into harm’s way more often than not, even if they’re strafing around a lot. This lead to me realizing that the best way for me to make monumental progress in STRAFE was in fact by playing it in the most boring way possible: I played it slow. And safe. I used cover. I didn’t go into rooms. I instead pulled enemies through doorways and hallways because the close range power of the shotgun and the safety of the cleared rooms behind me meant I would actually be able to clear and control the large crowds of enemies in front of me more easily and without losing as much health by simply…running backwards, and dodging left and right a little bit to avoid particles. This could be also be a weakness of the game’s enemy variety. Most enemies are melee focused and rush the player down, which means your best defense is by running or making sure they don’t get too close. The few enemies that do use particle attacks mostly use particles that you simply dodge left and right to avoid. Or on the off chance that you’re dodging some slow particles you just line up behind some sort of a wall or cover so that the particles get hooked on something else and don’t hit you in the process.
There’s so many other ways these problems could have been avoided. DOOM uses the glory kill system to reward players with health and a secondary system to instantly get more ammo if need be. Enter the Gungeon has a dodge-roll that uses invincibility frames so that players can cheat death. It also has consumable stun tools that are useful but limited. Gungeon also has tables you can flip and use as movable, but destructible, cover. It has the random items that give players extra abilities (such as the ability to roll into enemies to do damage to them or the ability to stun all enemies in the room if you flip a table). But taking hints from these games isn’t a requirement. Pixel Titans could have taken notes from their own second stage, which gives plenty of health in between each level at wall outlets in a safe room and has an ammo and armor box in the same room. They could have been gracious and given players a full health and armor boost at the end of every stage while giving a little less health at the end of each level. They could’ve ignored the teleporter concept and simply let players unlock stages when they’re completed. They also could’ve included a codex and a more thorough explanation for certain utilities and abilities in the game. In fact lacking context for items and pickups is the problem that felt glaringly bad and overlooked instead of “too few design choices too late”.
Throughout the game players run into upgrade stations that modify their weapons in unique ways. Players won’t know those modifications until they try them out. Luckily these upgrades are free and players can remember what these modifications do based off the logos on the stations and then testing the changes. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the numerous items that can be purchased and added to your inventory as well as the odd weapon mods you just…pick up as you play. I still have barely a clue as to what these weapon mods do. There’s an indicator when you check your inventory (once you figure out you have to HOLD the inventory button to check it unlike the map button) of how many mods of each mod type (crosshair, skull, multiple rockets, and…multiple bullets?) you have picked up. But there’s never an explanation of what these mods do. I assume the crosshair mod makes your gun more accurate and the three multiple bullets mean your gun’s max magazine capacity is increased. But the rockets mod never made my weapon start shooting rockets? Even after I had figured out how to LOOK at my inventory it still took me a few more plays to realize that holding down the inventory button and moving your mouse will highlight the different player upgrades you have purchased so you can see what those upgrades do with the description above. But that just begs the question of why there isn’t a way to read what everything else in the player’s arsenal does. I hate to keep pointing to something that has done this better, but Enter the Gungeon had a neat little storybook with every item, weapon, and enemy type you had encountered yet. There was a description, a plain-as-text explanation of how the thing worked, and then a funny lore bit beneath it.
STRAFE has a tutorial, but after giving you the basics the game doesn’t go to lengths to explain how its deeper components or designs work (the mods, how to look at your inventory, etc.). Instead the tutorial suggests that you seem to be a player who’s more willing to just jump right in and figure things out. And I do like to figure things out as I play in a lot of ways. But most people would agree that having convoluted ways of figuring out basic mechanics and player capabilities is typically antagonistic towards the player. One could argue that there’s plenty of games right now that are mean or don’t care about the player and have these same convoluted methods. But these convoluted methods are still often looked at as faults pending on the context in which they are used. Dark Souls 1’s “Blade of the Darkmoon” covenant is an odd, weird, convoluted thing to try and get involved in. And that is a flaw, but it comes out of a game that is in a lot of ways about convolution and the loss of self and history to time and inevitable decay. The community un-convolutes those games and creates a unique culture out of this through messaging systems, forums, and YouTube lore/info videos. STRAFE isn’t a game trying to be that. STRAFE is a directly fun shooter that is burried in indirect methods of adding complexity to the game’s value. It’s unnecessary in a game whose simplistic graphics and gameplay have a chance to show that we don’t need all this unnecessary convolution and fog in our shooters. And that does rob it of the experience it tries to hold.
I really want to enjoy STRAFE. And for the record, it’s aesthetic, core gameplay loop, and first several dozen bouts you’ll push into it really are enjoyable. But if you’re like me and you start to look for ways to make a dent in the progress wall you might soon realize this game is doing things it doesn’t need to or shouldn’t have in the first place. I have no understanding of why STRAFE was chosen to use procedurally generated maps and adopt rogue-like designs that require players to either strive to unlock one permanent bonus or do a perfect run to beat it. My biggest concern is that more and more independent developers are feeling a need to create some sort of an endless replay value or a game length that can compete with today’s modern blockbuster release. Those same releases are ones that I’m horribly tired of playing because they are filled with filler core gameplay loops that offer little redeeming value unless you like achievements and little depth. This is a massive tangent from the review itself but aren’t independent developers looking for ways to be self expressive in their video games without feeling tied down by the common expected ratio of how much time you get out of a game to a dollar? I’m not saying Pixel Titans are in any way feeling obligated to meet that ridiculous market expectation. They might just love rogue-likes and shooters. And that’s great! But it feels odd when three unique games with wonderful core mechanical concepts surface and you really want to play them, but they all seem to be using the same methods of generating content without as much focus towards enriching the moment to moment experience? Isn’t that exactly the type of stuff people are getting horribly tired of in the world of big “AAA” video games? Batman, Assassin’s Creed, GTA, Far Cry, sandboxes and sandboxes of content brimming with four of five skinner box tasks copied and pasted across a 2–5 mile map radius so you can say that you got your money’s worth by climbing 20 radio towers and collected 50 idol dolls.
Ultimately, this review is more a concern of mine that was brought about through my experience with STRAFE that started out with me being excited and having a blast before I realized it was a lot more of a hollow experience than I thought it would be. If it’s intentionally trying to be hard, it’s actively being debilitating in the process. If it’s intentionally trying to give you more time for your money, Pixel Titans found a much more unrewarding way to do so. If it’s trying to be fun…then Pixel Titans did it. STRAFE’s fun, but if you’re going to play it the fun way get ready to sharpen those skills a lot to enjoy variety. And get ready to see the same first three levels over and over again. I’m glad I backed the game, Pixel Titans had won me over with what the game contains and I’m interested in funding their future endeavours. But I’m not exactly sure it’s worth every shooter fan’s time and money.