PAX: Strafe is ‘Quake’ as an Endlessly Replayable Shooter

When all is said and done, one can always trust publisher Devolver Digital to have an eye for cool games. They have released so many gems like Enter the Gungeon and Hotline Miami that buying one of their games site unseen is always a safe bet. Still, Pixel Titans’ Strafe didn’t exactly appeal to me on paper. A shooter with a look that is intentionally reminiscent of the early days of the third dimension in games brought to mind muddy graphics and blocky character models. I love it when I’m wrong.

Yes, the graphics are indeed what the developers would call “bleeding edge…for 1996,” but they skipped on the fuzzy textures and crappy draw in. The look of the title is brimming with a strong, old school style that tops the original Quake. Part of the success of the appearance centers around smart character design. The limits of what could be done was obviously set before hand and the art was meticulously created around them. This leads to creatures like the thorny bone bug thing found in the caves, toothsome foes leaping from the walls, and other unsavory critters to pulp with firearms.

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Those firearms are fun, too. The player starts off with a choice of three weapons, an assault rifle, shotgun, or a railgun. These act exactly as one would expect, but with a bit of a stronger kick. The on screen feedback witnessed when an enemy takes a snout full of buckshot would need to be seen to understand how well the visual feedback works. As the game goes on, a large variety of weapons can be found, each with their own special traits. Part of the strange appeal of Strafe is that there is no reloading. Ammo can be found for the starting weapon, but once found weapons are expended, they have only one use left. What that final use happens to be depends on the weapon. For example, one particular pulse rifle could be thrown like a grenade when it is empty, leaving behind a poisonous cloud of gas. The system seems odd at first, but it encourages experimentation and keeps the variety of play ever changing.

The other major component of Strafe is its rogue-like sensibilities. It is intended to be challenging. The player will die. With that, every run will be different, as the map and enemy layouts are procedurally generated. This feature was smartly implemented, though, ensuring that the difficulty ramp remains how it should. For example, the horrible acid spewing enemies will only be present in a specific limited number during the early stages. Similar to Spelunky, there are four zones with four levels a piece that need to be cleared to complete the game. At the beginning of each zone is a shortcut that can be unlocked via specific means. The intent is to keep players from constantly restarting at a zone for which they don’t have the skill level. Previous zones will need to be cleared a few times to gather the required resources to unlock the portal.

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Another hurdle that procedurally generated titles have to overcome is the map placement. Too often, in other games that utilize this feature, are the maps laid out in a moronic fashion. Pixel Titans has made sure that this isn’t the cased here. No matter what the layout is, there is no real way of getting lost. The path forward is well lit, leading the player to the correct place. One simple, but cool trick are the two sided reflectors found in the second zone, similar to that found at the side of a road. When facing the correct direction for the path forward, it’s green. When going the wrong way, it’s red. These signs are not intrusive, and make sense in the environment. Plus, the level exit will never be immediately next to the entrance.

Of course, it’s not exactly difficult to figure out when an area has already been explored. If the player was in a room, they killed something, and that something bled like a character out of a horror anime. Claret covers everything, and it sticks around. Not only does it provide a handy marker, it’s useful for gameplay. Pixel Titans have this thing for acid and enemies who squirt it. Like the blood, it will stick to the surfaces permanently, and damage any player possessing the diminished capacity required to touch it.  In Strafe, the stuff is yellow, bringing this writer to question if it’s really “acid” at all. Since enemies love to coat required pathways with the caustic substance, players can shoot corpses to spread blood over it, rendering it inert. It’s a minor detail, but a fun feature to play with, nonetheless.

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That’s the thing with Strafe. To pull out the well worn trope, it really is a title that must be seen to be understood. Based on solely on explanation, it sounds like a cute idea missing a truly standout hook. Seeing it in action sells it so much better than my clumsy wordsmithing ever could. The way the upcoming title handles shows that the folks at Pixel Titans are scary smart with their design. The end result of their work, of course, will need to be reviewed in full when it releases early 2017, but the way Strafe looks now, it could be the game to finally knock Quake off the throne of retro first-person shooters.