At first glance, Strafe looks as if it’s resting on the laurels of the old-school, hyper-fast, and gory first-person shooters from the ’90s. Oftentimes, it actually does lean heavily on the likes of Doom and Quake, but working within those confines and introducing a roguelike structure, Strafe emerges as a uniquely thrilling shooter with plenty of charm in its own right. It teeters between being mindlessly fun and cautiously strategic to the backdrop of a perfectly executed electronic soundtrack, teaching you something new with each run.
You play as a space scrapper whose job is to go to the derelict ship Icarus and, well, collect scrap, as told through the game’s purposely cheesy FMV tutorial. Nothing else is said as you jump into the main quest; you’re simply sent off only to find out things went awfully wrong and hordes of deformed humanoids are now out for blood. But as you drop into the first level, it’s clear that you’re the one spilling blood, carefully measured in gallons by the game itself, as you shred enemies with your shotgun, railgun, or machine gun.
The game nails its core gameplay loop: blast foes and scavenge to survive the next fight. The pace at which you dash, jump, and strafe makes you nimble, and each fight is a violent dance that ends once the last enemy is downed. It’s also possible to sprint past enemies to reach a level’s end or hop over a mob to avoid getting cornered and create space to fire back.
You’re given the choice of a primary weapon at the start of a run, and kiosks are scattered through the game which provide free randomized upgrades, some more effective than others. Depending on your play-style, the changes to your main weapon’s primary and secondary fire can either be advantageous or a burden. The powerful grenade launcher upgrade for the shotgun, could be replaced by an inaccurate flak cannon. Barrels and explosive bugs can be used to your benefit, and additional weapons scatter the world, which are single-use and vary in effectiveness. While a rocket launcher or plasma rifle work well for hardened foes, a short range needle gun and sonic blaster aren’t particularly useful in most situations. It’s also disappointing that for a game that revolves around shooting, most of the guns lack impact; the machine gun and railgun feel downright piddly.
Mutated humans, turrets, spiders, and acid-tossing foes populate the world and require you to think fast and adapt to their respective, unique threats. The game isn’t just about withstanding sheer numbers or fending off waves of enemies. In Strafe, one misstep could spell disaster for your run, since damage comes swiftly and in large chunks. Forgetting to check your flanks and watch your back, or being too close to explosive projectiles can be your undoing. This makes critical mistakes deep into a run incredibly dejecting, but by the same token, it’s what creates the ever-increasing tension as you go further along. Like all rogue-style games, the threat of punishment is part of the enjoyment, but it induces a level of repetition that isn’t always inviting.
The scarcity of the game’s two currencies compels you to scan your environment closely, where you’ll find scrap for armor and ammo, and money for items at shops. You’re never given too much of either, so part of the tension in survival is spending these two currencies wisely. While the onus is on you to figure out the best use-case for items and upgrades, as it isn’t immediately clear what things do, such as the four primary weapon attribute pick-ups. However, experimentation and working with what you have is part of the fun.
As you mow down new enemies, a sense of wonder, excitement, and desperation is instilled by the infectious electronic rock track that you can’t stop humming or get out of your head.
The more you experiment with Strafe, the more Easter eggs and secrets begin to reveal themselves. Jump into the first level without choosing a gun, and a wrench will be your primary weapon. Play the Wolfenstein 3D clone arcade machine or the imitation Game Boy and upgrades are spit out. One particular highlight was finding the Superhot shotgun; the game itself turns into Superhot where time only advances when you move, up until the weapon runs out of ammo. Easter eggs like this instill the desire to find more secrets and go beyond simply finishing the final level. Even after 12 hours, there’s still more to discover.
Though the start and tail end of each level remains the same, large portions are procedurally generated, drawing from a handful of preset rooms rearranged in sequence and orientation. While this keeps you guessing to an extent with each run, familiarity eventually creeps in. A few later levels feature branching rooms as you search for power cells to open a door to advance, but you’re more or less funneled in a certain direction through familiar layouts. If there’s a fault here, it’s that Strafe fails to introduce truly unexpected challenges. Thankfully, the game’s redeeming qualities are enough to keep you hooked.
And one of the strongest hooks is the soundtrack. Sometimes, the urge to hop into the game just to listen to these songs hits, as if you ordered music with a side of gameplay. Level 3-2 is a dark and haunting place with music to match. The blaring synth melody over a catchy bassline coalesce with the up-tempo beat and industrial percussion that makes for a song that’s grimy, horrifying, and inspiring all at the same time. Level 2-1 is your first encounter with open air to relieve the claustrophobia of the first levels. As you mow down new enemies, a sense of wonder, excitement, and desperation is instilled by the infectious electronic rock track that you can’t stop humming or get out of your head. Moments of chaos are bookended with the tranquil, ethereal tracks in each exit room and shop. The music never loses its grip and never disappoints, and it becomes part of Strafe’s personality, adding a significant layer of enjoyment.
While the first levels of Icarus feel pulled straight from the original Doom with its tight corridors and dim lighting, you begin to see subsequent levels open up and tie together. The lo-fi retro aesthetic is colorful and clean, which makes for both silly and terrifying enemies that splatter excessive gore and literally paint the town red. Any semblance of story is told from environment alone, and it’s one of the aspects that make the game alluring. From the shop owners and scientists to the posters and laboratory vats, a typical story of experimentation gone wrong emerges, but only if you pay close attention to your surroundings. It results in quirky and varied set pieces for frantic shooting, and it’s enough to lead you along to the satisfying conclusion.
The lo-fi retro aesthetic is colorful and clean, which makes for both silly and terrifying enemies that splatter excessive gore and literally paint the town red.
However, the game isn’t without its technical issues. Enemies occasionally shoot at you through walls, most apparent in level 3-1, where those with projectile weapons gathered behind a locked door. Occasionally, an actual enemy character model would glitch out and zip across a room and disappear entirely or sneak up behind you to cause unfair damage. Later levels had a few inexplicable frame drops, given the modest system requirements. Thankfully, these issues are rare enough as to not entirely ruin an otherwise refined experience.
As unforgiving, repetitive, and frustrating as it can be, the urge to jump back into the game and take out that frustration on hordes of enemies to the tune of the most-proper soundtrack with a toy box of guns is hard to resist. Strafe wears its influences on its sleeve but stands on its own as a fun, intense, and fast-paced shooter with distinguishable charm.