Yahtzee reviews Strafe.
So E3 is over with, the summer now stretches out before us like the intestinal tract of a beached tuberculotic whale, which is the perfect opportunity to slam the door in summer's face. Fuck you, summer. All too hot and no games, and don't think I've forgotten about all that David Berkowitz business. I'm gonna talk about a game that came out last month, in spring, before everything got fucked up. Strafe, a roguelite.
Indie gaming has been beating the roguelite drum like it's a dusty carpet with the face of a cabinet minister these last few years. There doesn't seem to be any genre on God's green earth that someone hasn't thought of enhancing with procedural generation and permadeath. We've got Roguelike dungeon crawlers, we've got roguelike space sims, we've got whatever the fuck the Binding of Isaac is. We've got Roguelike Castlevania-style platformers, Roguelike Megaman-style platformers, Roguelike straight platformer on the rocks, I hear there's even a Roguelike investigative Lovecraftian horror adventure game by some jolly talented indie developer who certainly isn't rubbing himself through his trouser pocket as he types this. No, I don't mean Darkest Dungeon, shut up!
Strafe is a Roguelike shooter that evokes 90s FPSes like Quake and Unreal and everything else that was low-poly and brown like a very disappointing Rubik's cube. It's a deliberate evocation of retro-style gameplay with a subtext of nudge-wink self-aware irony, and it's published by Devolver Digital, because of course it is. Even if it had tried to get published by someone else, Devolver Digital would have burst in the window dressed like a highwayman and kidnapped it, 'cause this is very much Devolver Digital's shit. Devolver Digital breakfast every morning on a big bowl of pixels and a tall glass of the piss that it took out of something.
There is a plot, in the same way that my cutlery drawer has a grapefruit spoon in it somewhere that I could probably find given an hour and some earthmoving equipment. It's something like, you're a space salvager type person and you've beamed down to some planet space station-thing in a distant corner of the universe to find materials, and something's happened to the place and its occupants roughly equivalent to what happened to Sunderland after they started selling Diamond White in two litre bottles. But honestly, what the game's about is what all those Quake-likes were about: here's you, here's the level exit, and here's five hundred grunting primates in Warhammer cosplay who are determined that never the twain shall meet. Fortunately you have a shoulder-mounted murder stiffy with which to blow off all their arms and legs.
I don't mind telling you, listener: Strafe has become my new unwindy game. A game that I can just sit down to at the end of a long, three-hour work day and mindlessly play while I listen to a podcast or maybe some music that young people don't like. Which I hasten to add, doesn't necessarily recommend a game. I mean, Euro Truck Simulator has been one of my unwindy games in the past and it wouldn't be my fucking BAFTA nom. Strafe's just a nice, nostalgic, comfortable place for me, takes me right back to my youth playing games like Quake and Duke Nukem 3D and Who Can Masturbate To Climax In The School Showers Without Mr. Trevers Noticing. Straightforward point and shoot action, no fucking stealth, no fucking minimap, and definitely no fucking preanimated takedown moves.
You see, you never kill only one thing in Strafe. Kill one thing and there's about seventeen more things just around the corner who are all triggered by the sound of triggers being pulled, ironically. But if the intention was to evoke the mindless rocket-jumping fun of Quake then that and the whole Roguelike element combine like samosas and liquorice. In Quake, self-preservation was always fairly low on the list of priorities, it went under "killing the enemies", "exploring the level" and "using rocket explosions to hurl yourself onto the tops of doorways". And that's because, in Quake, health packs are lying around like it's Christmas morning at the old folk's home, but in Strafe, you can only restore health from the occasional sandwich dispenser that's as generous with its contents as an emetophobe on a desert island and self-preservation is paramount.
I think a more accurate name for Strafe would have been Backpedal. 'Cos that's what you have to do every single time you alert anything. Most of the enemies are only programmed to make a beeline for you and start thwacking at your undercarriage and the rest shoot slow-moving bullets, so the smartest thing to do is create distance, wait behind a doorway that can bottleneck them and pick them off like a disgruntled Walmart greeter. For all the enemies you reduce to clouds of objects that look like they were removed from a sink trap in a kebab shop, it's hard to get a sense of abandon. Especially when you have to be twitchily looking over your shoulder constantly, either for acid spitting traps mounted to walls above the door you just came through, or for one of the inevitable monster closets that randomly open behind your juicy arse.
Funnily enough though, the hardest part of the game is probably the first part, when you're on tight corridor safari on board the USS Blind Corner. Get past that and you're probably in for a long run, as from then on, the environments get more open and chances are good you picked up nine rocket launchers on the way that you forgot about. Unless of course you used a teleporter. See, a handy thing for a Roguelike to have is some kind of permanent upgrade to work towards for the benefit of all future playthroughs. Fun as it is to bang your head against a wall, it only gets that little extra spice after the permanent brain damage. In Strafe, you can assemble a teleporter for each level past the first that lets you start on that level rather than the default. So I went out of my way to complete the slightly esoteric steps required and successfully finished the teleporter to level 2, only to try it out next run and swiftly get my balls pulped, because I was trying to beat level 2 enemies with starting equipment. I was plinking away at one of them rock monsters like a lion tamer with a water pistol.
So if you are looking for a bellend to the grindstone action power fantasy along the lines of Doom or indeed Deum you might be put off from Strafe, where the starting enemies will mob you like you're a kindergarten teacher with Pokémon cards glued to your ankles. But I'm somewhat into it as a Roguelike. There's something very zen about losing everything you've been working towards because of a few careless mistakes and having to start anew from scratch, it's the same reason I set myself on fire every weekend.
And what really makes Strafe for me is the little details. The scrappy visual design, the slightly dodgy gameplay choices, the elaborate secrets like the hidden Wolfenstein 3D pastiche and the bunny-hopping level, that's what evokes the freer, more experimental early days of 3D game development in the 90s, more so than any amount of rocket-jumping. That's what gives Strafe the edge, the fact that it seems like it was crafted by flawed human beings with a vision in mind, rather than a genetically engineered boxcar full of human skin with an overfunded marketing department.
- Hurtling down corridors: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- If David Berkowitz was coerced into killing by the barking of his neighbour's dog does that mean he was in-dog-trinated
- If it looks like a roguelike and quakes like a roguelike