Retro shooters are the best. No one can deny the timelessness of quick-paced, run and gun first-person blood-fests where you madly dash through rooms collecting powerups and blow through hundreds of enemies with enough bullets to start a war. Pixel Titan’s Strafe remembers those days fondly, crafting a purposefully retro shooter full of alien bodies to destroy, old pixelated visuals that make you wonder if your running on integrated graphics, and good ol’ lighting-fast gameplay. But while it nails the aesthetic in every possible way, is this rogue-like shooter any fun?
Developed by Pixel Titans / Published by Devolver Digital
Available on the PC and PS4. Reviewed on the PC.
*Review code provided by Devolver Digital
Strafe’s plot is as basic as it gets, preferring a bare storyline that gets players right into the action with little time wasted. Players take on the role of a Scrapper, a new recruit taking on a job gathering up resources from an abandoned ship named Icarus, but the problem is, it’s full of deadly alien creatures that want to tear them apart. It’s a simple setup that recalls the earlier days of straightforward, no nonsense plots, and it does the job nicely.
The same goes for the game’s visuals, which absolutely nail the retro aesthetic. The game features old-school polygonal visuals, bringing back memories of 90’s shooters like Doom, Quake and Unreal, and plenty of pixelated gore to paint levels red as you tear through enemy after enemy. The game even lets you make the game look worse, allowing players to toggle a pixelated look to travel even further back in time.
The gameplay is where Strafe both succeeds and fails however. The game plays like your typical classic first-person shooter, with blazing fast running and gunning as players explore the alien planet and shoot through hundreds of its inhabitants. Players initially get to choose their first weapon – such as a rifle, shotgun and railgun – and collect additional tools of mass destruction as they explore the world. Ammo is limited, but players collect scrap from fallen foes, which can be used to create more ammo, improve weapons, buy new stuff from in-game merchants and more, as well as find perks that’ll improve their abilities. The game controls excellently, and feels just like old-school shooters, with plenty of flying bullets, quick running, and of course, strafing, allowing players to run from side to side to avoid incoming fire.
Enemies are varied, but also extremely repetitive, with most creatures just running at the player in straight lines, swarming in masses. There’s tons of them, varying from evil goblins, deadly bots, cyber spider creatures that cling to walls, grey-clothed shooters, rock creatures and more, but they mostly devolve to following the same pattern of rushing the player and crushing them whenever they have a chance. This is all fine and dandy when players have tons of space to navigate and run circles around them, but it can also lead to quick deaths in corridors as they can trap you (and there’s no indicator to tell you when they hit you from behind), as well as cheap tactics to clear them out my causing them to run and get stuck into walls, where they walk forward like mindless zombies.
The game is a procedurally-generated rogue-like, which means that stages are never the same thing twice. Players will travel through various stages as they climb deeper into Icarus, and while the stage design will be the same, the rooms contained within will be switched in and out to create new experiences. This is good, because you’ll never know what to expect and it adds challenge to the game by constantly surprising players with enemy placements, but also leads to levels feeling a bit bland and lifeless, as they’re all feel pretty similar, despite some taking place in cramped interiors and others in rocky caverns. There’s tons of cool secrets to find however, so careful exploration and observation can lead to some nifty stuff.
Once players die, they’ll also start from scratch, which is a bummer but also part of the appeal. The game features a couple of levels to explore, but if players aren’t careful, they’re going to get mauled and sent back to the starting hub. This might turn off players looking for a causal shooter experience, but hardcore fans will enjoy this aspect.
The game also features arenas where players can engage in the destruction of waves of enemies and see how long they can last. It’s more of what you already do in the main experience, but players looking to just unwind and blast away foes will be able to challenge themselves here.
At the end of the day, Strafe is an enjoyable roguelike first-person shooter that successfully recalls the 90’s FPS, but it’s not perfect. While the gameplay is fun, the repetitive and dumb enemies, similar stage layouts, and lack of gameplay modes detract from the experience. Hardcore fans of the genre will love the difficulty though, so if you’re looking for a unique retro experience, you might want to give Strafe a try.