NGBDos version 1.832
Developer: Pixel Titans
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Reviewed on: PC (Review code provided)
It seems unfeasible that the FPS genre’s original rise to popularity was over 25 years ago, with the likes of early 90’s pioneers such as Doom and Quake forging the path. What is a little less surprising is the host of games continually trying to recapture that pure senseless insanity of those old-school shooters and Pixel Titan’s Strafe is the latest in the genre, jovially advertising ‘bleeding edge graphics and gameplay’.
Of course, this is only tongue-in-cheek. It’s Strafe’s way of invoking nostalgia that seems to come at you from every angle including blocky textures, pulsing soundtrack and primitive character models. The difference here compared to most similar attempts is that Strafe doesn’t loosen that retro-grip at any point. Initiating game modes as if you were running a DOS executable expertly brought back some unfavourable memories, whilst the sheer speed of Strafe’s ‘keep moving or die’ gameplay evoked the spirit of the genre’s origins effectively.
The detail and commitment to drive the player back into their childhood ends up feeling quite impressive. Sound design and the energy of background music dragged me back to my youth quite effortlessly and there seems to be an underlying charm that often escapes these types of games. Even outside of the main mode, you’ll find humour in Strafe’s live action FMV tutorial that feels like an outtake from an early episode of Red Dwarf. The awkward exuberance is captured quite brilliantly and I’d have happily watched similar renditions in between levels if they were there, akin to games like Wing Commander, minus the seriousness.
The roguelike shooter with procedurally generated levels does well to keep things interesting with vertical level design and some smooth and high-paced handling. It’s easy when looking back to think that shooters felt like this back in the day, but in truth Strafe feels and runs a lot better. Upgrade stations, health cabinets and material vendors available throughout levels offer some rest bite during the onslaught and the ability to throw exploding barrels and discover some cool little secrets on your travels all add something to the experience.
The gunplay itself can be a bit of a mixed bag. Spawning in, you’ll be presented with the choice of three weapons. The machine gun fires as you’d expect and can also fire out a grenade; other guns offer similar dual fire modes. I found, for the most part, that the balance between weapons didn’t feel quite right, especially some of the slower firing weapons that negated some of the fast pacing to the game. I’d often revert to slow-playing and peaking round corners trying to get a pick, rather than get caught in the madness of zipping around levels that the game so desperately wanted me to embrace. I found myself wishing the guns had a little more impact to them, too. Whilst killing enemies is ultimately satisfying, there was something missing from the shooting and gun handling between each weapon that whilst they all fired differently, some felt too similar when equipped, regardless of size or power.
The saving grace is that there’s plenty more weapons to find throughout the levels, thirty odd in total, some of which felt more effective than others. Enemies aren’t quite as flush in numbers but there’s still plenty of variety from the spikey bald men that want to club you to death, to cloaked enemies and little robots who both ping projectiles at you. You’ll also find some traps such as acid and turrets to navigate which can be hazardous if you’re not paying attention. Dealing with the most dangerous enemies first is paramount to survival and when you are dashing around a level avoiding incoming fire and trying to manage your surroundings, that’s when the game is at its finest.
On release, you’ll be able to shoot through a campaign mode and a mode called Murderzone, with two more modes, Speedzone and Strafezone, coming in a free update further down the line. I managed to get a go at all through in the review build and they all offer something slightly different, albeit essentially being different ways to compete on leader-boards against others. Murderzone presents a horde mode challenge with a progression system. I played more of this than the main campaign thanks to a progression system that dangled the carrot of better unlocks the further in you managed to go.
Strafezone is a daily challenge and Speedzone will be a weekly generation that gamers can competitively speed run. I can see a lot of mileage in all the modes thanks to the general game design. It’s perfect for both pick-up-and-play as well as those who wish to dedicate themselves to hitting great times and scores – Strafe is certainly good enough to warrant long term attention in that respect.
The art style and music are what you might expect from a game attempting to recreate another era, but Strafe goes further than most into that deep nostalgia shaped hole and does well to keep itself there without falter. I worry a lot of the charm will be lost on a newer generation of gamers, but fortunately, strip the game of its production and you still have a pretty solid retro-shooter underneath.