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You would be forgiven for getting tired of procedurally generated and “roguelike” video games. Too often, these types of games rely on the gimmick of random content, as opposed to finely crafted, enjoyable experiences. Math and procedural trickery don’t make up for a game whose difficulty or boredom doesn’t come with a payoff.
You’d also be forgiven for looking at new game Strafe‘s list of qualities and insta-vomming. It started as a Kickstarter, made by a developer nobody has heard of, with a reliance on dated visuals, cheesy advertising, and… wait for it… procedurally generated levels. Honestly, that list of gimmicks reads like prime fodder for Ars Technica’s e-mail spam filter.
And yet, here I am, determined to convince you that this recipe for disaster turned out well. I’ve had a full week to play through so many bloody, ’90s throwback levels of Strafe‘s first-person running-and-gunning, and I’ve had pretty much nothing but fun. The game wears its biggest issues on its blocky, voxel sleeves, almost as a badge of pride, and, as a result, it’s not for everyone.
But no game in recent memory has done as good of a job letting players slide into their favorite memories of mid-’90s shooters—while livening up their pace and tension.
Robo-spider-monkey things, bloodthirsty lemur-men
Need a plot? Eff you! You only get a cheesy VHS-styled tutorial, complete with a real-life actress doing a solid Brenda Walsh impression. She explains that you’ve been hired to explore abandoned spaceships and collect valuable scrap for a corporation. The Weyland-Yutani vibe is immediate, intense, and shameless—and then that’s it. Time to kill.
Every time you boot the game, you get to pick from one of three default weapons: machine gun, railgun, or single-barrel shotgun. These should feel instantly familiar to anybody who has played Quake II, which had all three, and they have obvious strengths and weaknesses in terms of firing rate, effective range, magazine sizes, and so on. Unlike Quake II, these weapons must be reloaded when their clips run out, and, if you reload while using a half-full clip, you lose those bullets. They also each have their own unique grenade launcher, which uses up over half a mag’s bullets per shot.
The Weyland-Yutani vibe is immediate, intense, and shameless.
You only get to hold one default weapon throughout the game, and your gun of choice can be powered up with boosts that you find along the way (magazine size, strength, accuracy, grenade power, etc.). Other guns, including beefier versions of the ones you didn’t choose, will appear as pick-ups, usually with roughly 10-20 bullets loaded and no way to get more ammo. You’ll also eventually find interesting boosts outside of your weaponry, including assistant drones and ways to boost your health or armor mid-run. Once you die, all of these boosts are lost, and you start from the beginning.
Each of Strafe‘s levels always starts and ends in the same way. Every other element is always freshly generated. In Strafe‘s case, that means different ’90s-looking corridors, stairwells, hallways, elevators, bridges, caverns, and more are continuously remixed and rearranged. The beauty isn’t just that these remixed levels always look slightly different; I really don’t recall seeing giant stretches that looked identical between sessions. What Strafe nails so incredibly well is how its monster populations fill these spaces out—and how the geometry always makes the most of these dumb-as-a-rock enemies.
In some cases, you’ll think that there’s nothing brilliant going on. Throw a grenade into one big room, and eight dumb peons—which all look like bipedal, hammer-wielding sloths—run directly at you down a big hallway. Pick ’em off through this funneled path, and that’s it. Enemies are dead. Whew. What’s this I hear about the game being so hard, anyway?
That’s when the hazards pile up. Laser-shooting robots join the mix, and some of these are good at dodging. Acid-spitting turrets appear on high points of walls, slathering the level in permanent, painful pools of orange acid until you take them out. Robo-spider-monkey things dot the ceilings, hoping to punish you for not picking them off when you might have had a vantage point earlier. That list just describes the first few levels, and it doesn’t even account for monster closets. Not only do monster closets appear when you least want them to, but they’re usually positioned in a way that their monsters can flank you from two or three angles if you’re not careful.
All these monsters pack a serious punch, so your games will end quickly if you’re not careful. Health and armor are typically scarce, with occasional bonuses appearing out of nowhere, and you’ll often find yourself losing 20-30 percent of your total health+armor tally just by not accounting for a single bad guy in your blind spot. The damage you incur in one level feels exponentially worse in the next one, as you cling to your last few points of health and begin creeping with your best, low-ammo weapon ready in case a random monster closet bursts open.
This brutal difficulty is made up for by weapons that feel very powerful between their damage rates and audio-visual punch. Strafe‘s blocky, Unreal 1-era monsters gib and bleed all over the place, and their cardboard-robot designs pop with giddy dismemberment with all of your weapons. And power-ups and bonuses appear at a nice clip; for example, when you’re about to drown in despair, maybe that’s when you stumble upon a second barrel for your shotgun. What’s more, the tuning of your every action—your jumps, your default run speed, your firing rates, the pop and impact of weapons—just feels right, much like how Super Mario‘s running, jumping, and descending all feel instantly controllable. Almost immediately, Strafe makes clear that you can be a badass. You know, before pummeling you to death.
No to gamepads—or people with high blood pressure
While Strafe doesn’t look as dreary and dismal as Quake, it certainly keeps its color palette limited and its textures downright crappy. You can run the game at 4K resolution if you want (we did), but Strafe intentionally looks dated and pixellated. I found these visuals were ultimately easy to read, thanks to bright blasts of lighting and hazards like acid baths, and I could make my way around levels by tracking where I’d left big piles of dead bodies. However, I could see players getting lost in these randomly generated levels thanks to a lot of repeating brown and gray textures and walls. (An optional mini-map doesn’t really help.)
Be advised: a gamepad is a terrible idea here, because Strafe demands plenty of rapid movement and twitchy reactions. I tried adjusting and changing gamepad settings to make the game work, and I am happy playing some first-person shooters with an Xbox-styled pad. But not this one.
Strafe severely lacks enemy variety per “world.” This becomes glaring as you try, and try, and try again to beat the first world, which is made up of three levels. Getting used to Strafe‘s challenge spikes and monster-placement flow just takes a while, and you’re going to see those robots and lemur-people again and again along the way.
But I still think the enemy variety is enough to propel players forward, mostly because of how Strafe‘s combination of powers, levels, and foes makes players feel simultaneously powerful and weak. Every day during my review period, I enjoyed booting into Strafe, having a few 20- or 30-minute runs that each felt equal parts nostalgic and fresh, and moving on to other stuff.
I don’t necessarily have the urge to reload Quake‘s E1M5 on a regular basis. (And Gloom Keep is badass, I admit.) I do love the idea of that Quake-like first-time feeling, of wondering what monster or secret was around every corner. Strafe‘s hodgepodge of randomly generated delights and consistent, time-tested FPS power gets me there every time.
- Random level generation system is solid, and monster appearances make each run feel unique
- Finely tuned FPS systems mean players are constantly walking the line between feeling badass and vulnerable
- Retro aesthetic sells blocky gore and dismemberment
- Daily and weekly challenges, plus an endless-waves-of-foes mode, keep things fresh
- Monster variety is pretty thin, which becomes apparent as players repeat tough opening section over and over and over
- No, seriously, it’s hard as hell, and if you’re not smitten within your first playthrough, Strafe‘s high difficulty won’t change your mind over time
- This is a pain to play on a gamepad. Sorry, PS4 owners
- Those moments when you get lost finding your way around a very brown-and-gray level
Verdict: A must-play for FPS addicts of old and a gleeful return to solo FPS action for modern teens who missed the ’90s.
Listing image by Devolver Digital