The only enemies that makes a sound when they creep up on you, as they are wont to do in Strafe, the new retro-inspired FPS that aims to be one part Quake one part brutally difficult rogue-like, are the ones that fall from the ceiling. So without as much as the sound of a footstep from everything else, there are moments where enemies will spawn or come up behind you and get a few cheap shots in before you figure out what’s happening. Because, well, they’re silent.
Being difficult shouldn’t be a detriment to how a game like Strafe is ultimately perceived. Especially for a FPS that aims to capture the look and feel of the ‘90s – something which the marketing campaign for the game latched onto in creative ways. But there are times where Strafe’s difficulty veers off into the realm of the frustrating due to what feel like poor choices in design. Or simply, an incomplete game released too soon.
Then there are the conscious design choices that initially feel at odds with the style of game you’re playing. A style that is very much communicated via the ‘90s aesthetic and the pacing that implies an experience where what you need to be doing is running, jumping, shooting, and yes, strafing. Sadly, the early parts of the game are best played cautiously, where items should be used strategically, and preparing for an ambush is par for the course. So less Quake, and more, well, something else.
Then there’s the default machine gun, which comes equipped with a hit box that mimics modern shooters in how wildly inaccurate it becomes at any sort of reasonable distance. Enemies that catch wind of your location and simply make a beeline for you, the player. Which results in a play-style that often results in you simply funnelling enemies into corridors to take them out one at a time.
The scarcity of ammunition, health, and the initially obscene prices for trading bits of scrap you collect for a tiny bit of armour or a few more clips for your gun of choice also feels like an odd design choice. And one that plays into the notion that your first hour with the game will be one of failure and progression that ends after a level or two. Or about five minutes. Then there’s the overall feel of the weapons themselves, an important part of any shooter. In Strafe the weapons are mostly underwhelming, and they feel a little off. That is of course until you manage to obtain a few upgrades or get a limited-use rail-gun from a dead monster that just happens to be noticeably better than the vanilla rail-gun you can choose to play with.
Okay, so perhaps this might read a little bit like ‘here’s a list of everything wrong with Strafe’. But the main take away should be that looks can be deceiving, as Strafe is a lot more modern in its design choices than the visuals would have you believe. Without the option to select a difficulty mode, you are expected to keep dying until you get a feel for the game and in turn can make it far enough to unlock a few upgrades. Which will then help you get a little bit further, perhaps even to the next visually distinct world and set of levels. And it’s here where things like procedurally generated levels, hidden secrets, both in-session and permanent upgrades, start to make sense.
Given enough time the potential in Strafe begins to make itself apparent. It’s just unfortunate that a lot of it feels unbalanced and unfinished, where the frustration can come from odd design choices and things like silent enemies, as opposed to the difficulty or challenge. That being said, the Quake meets Half-Life visuals do add a lot to the game’s appeal and atmosphere. And the way in which the gore acts as a place-marker to ensure that you won’t get lost in a level is worth praising. Which makes us feel that Strafe could have used more time in development, or at the very least be the sort of the game that would have benefitted from an Early Access style model, where issues are raised and the product reaps the benefits. As it stands it’s still a few meaningful patches from becoming something that we’d recommend.