Strafe cuts an extremely appealing outline — at least to me. Its marriage of "rogue-lite" permanent death and impermanent progression to Quake-like first-person death ballet seems like a textbook no-brainer. Maybe other developers have brewed up that blend before, but Strafe also benefits from being uniquely committed to the bit. It repeatedly claims to be a low-fi game from 1996 — both implicitly with its blocky character models and blurred textures, as well as explicitly in all of its marketing material.
While I find the hyper-violence and "extreme 'tude" of Strafe's trailers more than a little overbearing, "tutorial" that's more comedic than informative uses intentionally cornball live-action video to build great ceremony around basic concepts, like jumping. The soundtrack is a nearly nonstop guitar solo that is, actually, pretty much era-appropriate for the kind of games Strafe celebrates and at every turn.
The Quake and Unreal Tournament vibes hold up their end of Strafe's bargain, then. Unfortunately, it's the rogue-lite elements that come up short.
See, I can't play Strafe the way I think it wants me to. The screaming guitar, friction-defying movement, and nearly endless hordes of creatures to kill across the game's 10 main levels imply that I should play Strafe like Quake, or like 2016's astronomically good Doom reboot. Technically, I can. It's easy to leap over crowds of monsters, flip a 180 in mid-air, and turn my trusty shotgun on the lot of them in one smooth motion.
Unfortunately, it's the rogue-lite elements that come up short.
The problem is that I'm going to lose a lot of health and armor doing it, and that's simply not something you can afford to do in Strafe. The game is hard in a way that feels entirely at odds with its aesthetic. Health packs are scarce and barely recover more than a few hit points apiece. Ammo and armor are extremely expensive purchases from limited vending machines you may or may not find in a given level.
With resources in such short supply, and permanent checkpoints between the game's four zones few and far between, Strafe is a tightrope of caution and speed. You need to move quickly in order to avoid the rampaging hordes of enemies, but you also don’t want to waste a single sliver of useful materials.
Even if you are careful, that’s not easy. Enemies can box you into hallways — which is fine against fodder, but when meatier ranged opponents fire down these chokepoints it’s almost impossible to avoid projectiles even with the high movement speed. Then there are zones filled with damaging toxic waste, enemies that spawn infinite homing missiles which leave permanent pools of acid blood, and spider-like “clingers” that stick to walls and ceilings, only to drop behind the player and attack from all directions. And that’s just in the first level.
Even if you do find some place to trade currency, dropped when you kill certain enemies, it seems like the kiosks can only be used on whatever "basic" weapon you select at the start of a level. I say it "seems" that way, because I'm not entirely sure. I'm not sure about a lot of things in Strafe, actually.
There are, for instance, crates that sometimes hold… perks, I think. They’re these little capsules that produce icons in my inventory screen: a target reticule, three horizontal bullets, a skull, etc. I have no idea what they do, though, because the game never explains it (although I bet the one with the bullets symbol increases my rate of fire).
Uncertainty is anathema to a game like Strafe — where meticulous choices about how to move and act must be readjusted every few seconds.
That kind of uncertainty is, to me, anathema to a game like Strafe — where meticulous choices about how to move and act must be readjusted every few seconds. If I need to be this stringent with my health and ammo, I want to know what I’m capable of at all times. Strafe is maddeningly inconsistent in that regard.
Later kiosks sell upgrades with real descriptions, for instance, so the lack of information on those outliers feels more like an oversight than an intentional design choice. For as much as I chuckled at the mostly facetious tutorial, Strafe would be better served by some more comprehensive learning tools.
Then there’s the fact that you need to waste ammo, by shooting the crates, to get at the presumed perks in the first place. Strafe has an unarmed melee attack, which works just as well to crack open the cargo in question, but as far as I can tell it’s only available when you’re completely out of ammo. Admittedly, the one round needed to pop boxes never broke me. Yet knowing there’s a melee attack I can only use when Strafe wants me to is just one more little, niggling inconsistency that makes a game about mathematical management feel that much more “unfair.”
Maybe I’m asking for the “wrong” things from Strafe. Yet it seems like I just saw this brand of old-school, high-speed shooting and resource budgeting handled better in last year’s aforementioned Doom. In that game, health and ammo could be drilled out of enemies. It required you to get in close, and move from target to target while dodging fireballs, but that only heightened the sense of momentum. Strafe is capable of that kind of motion, but punishes me for it by demanding extreme precision.
If I had infinite time to spend with Strafe, that problem might go away. If I wasn’t so, so very bad at the game (which, I won’t lie, I am) maybe I could do all the jumping, sprinting, dodging, and, well, strafing I want to do without getting ground to paste in under five minutes, then having to start all over again.
Strafe is very open to that idea. It has daily and weekly challenges to keep me coming back and a wave-based survival mode to sharpen myself against. Which is a large part of why its promised mix of rogue-lite and Quake-like is so appealing to me. In theory, it should let me get a taste of that propulsive shooting forever. In practice, though, it just takes too much fastidious practice between me and that possible endpoint.
I just… don’t want to put that much work into it. Maybe that’s on me, but maybe instead I shouldn’t need to feel like it’s “too much work” to make Strafe into the game I want it to be.