Over the last couple of years we’ve seen the forefathers of the FPS genre—both Doom and Wolfenstein—reborn anew, their core sensibilities intact but doused in a modern coat of blood and guts. While id Software and MachineGames revitalized their respective aging franchises for a new generation, indie developer Pixel Titans is hedging their bets on the existence of an audience looking to take a step back in time rather than forward. Unabashedly touting a top-of-the-line look and feel circa 1996, Strafe aims for our nostalgia nerve but mostly fails to make contact.
Wearing its influences with pride, Strafe sends you down blood-soaked hallways in search of scrap and color-coded keycards, all while flooding the screen with mindless swarms of enemies who neither rouse your fear nor command your admiration for how they’ve been designed. The pixilated faces of the green-haired zombies featured in 1993’s Doom exhibit more emotion than any of the soulless adversaries you’ll run into here, and they were seemingly more intelligent too. Unless you’re facing enemies wielding projectile weapons, Strafe’s A.I. rarely forces the player to perform the titular action, as simply back-peddling and unloading your clip will often be enough to take down the hordes as they run at you, mindlessly, in single-file formation. Players who manage to make decent headway into the game will come across more formidable foes, but they lack characterization, which is a gripe that can be levied against most aspects of the game.
While the A.I. is neither clever nor memorable, the act of blowing them to bits is delightfully entertaining. Strafe features a wide assortment of tools with which players can dismember and disembowel their opposition, and the game certainly does a respectable job of upping the ante in the blood-and-gore departments. From the rail gun to the rocket launcher, the game’s arsenal of weaponry is pretty standard fare, and none of the guns carry a heft about them that would put them in the same tier as Doom’s Super Shotgun, but there’s no denying the joy of watching limbs fly every which way as shotgun blasts and particle beams rip and tear enemies to shreds.
Where Strafe sets itself apart from actual ’90s-era shooters is with its light sprinkling of procedurally generated elements. The beginning of each area is set in stone, but the adjacent rooms are an assortment pulled from a set pool of pre-designed zones. After a dozen or so runs, areas will begin to look more and more familiar, and it’s interesting to see how the game connects previously closed-off areas into one flowing environment, but the system is far from perfect. Often you’ll find yourself walking down hallways that serve no purpose and abruptly end with no items or secrets to be found—and as a result, levels are hit and miss, with none truly making a name for themselves.
The procedurally generated approach also causes a disconnect between the game’s intended pace and the end result. The Doom reboot is the perfect representation of a balls-to-the-wall shooter that pushes players to think on their feet and move at breakneck speeds, stringing kills together in a nonstop symphony of death and destruction. Strafe attempts to emulate that same experience, and succeeds in a way, as its frenetic movement and deadly weaponry allow you to cause havoc on a grand-scale level, but the game’s systems don’t necessarily incentivize a high-risk, high-reward style of play. As with any game relying on procedural generation, there’s a high reliance on luck. While each level is guaranteed to have a station where you can convert scrap into either ammo or armor, there’s no guarantee as to the amount of currency, ammo, health, and weapons that you’ll find during your escapades, and when a single death means reverting all the way back to the beginning, an overly cautious mindset is instilled, resulting in a game that oddly ends up distancing itself from the exact playstyle it seemingly wanted to achieve.