Pixel Titans' Strafe caught our attention for a number of reasons, but mostly because it's a tongue-in-cheek reproduction of classic shooters like Quake, except with some extra flair, the most notable of which being its roguelike mechanics and the gallons of blood that gush from the wounds of the many enemies you kill. As Pixel Titans has said, the game is meant to be a fast-paced, action-packed shooter, but in practice, this isn't always the case.
The story of the game is minimal and pretty much unimportant, but you're on a mission to find scrap and you go to the edge of the galaxy to find it, or more specifically, to the spacecraft Icarus. Teleporting aboard the Icarus, you find it's full of homicidal monsters and robots, and your task then becomes to survive as well as to find scrap as you progress.
The levels are procedurally generated, so no two runs will ever be the same, and the variety is impressive. Sometimes you might find yourself in a room filled with toxic green goo, and other times you might find yourself in a much narrower corridor where you're spraying for your life. The visual style isn't quite as varied, however, and although there's a number of different levels to see, these are mostly decorated with dark, dull colours. On top of this, the doors and elevators often blend in with the walls, meaning at times it can be disorientating navigating your way around the Icarus.
What stops the game being as action-packed and free-flowing as the developers may have wanted is the distribution of the workbenches, and their cost. These workbenches allow you to exchange scrap for armour and ammo, but they're a little too rare, meaning that you'll often need to backtrack to ones you've already found instead of pushing on for a new one. The biggest issue, though, is that the cost of items is so high and you get so little that you can't just go in guns blazing because you can't buy enough resources to make up for your losses. With such sparse and expensive means of getting crucial supplies, this can reduce Strafe to a nervous crawl as you worry about getting a precious slither of health knocked off in every room.
The surprises that the game can so often throw at you make this even more of a struggle, as sometimes you might go up an elevator and be jumped by a horde of enemies with nowhere to go, losing a lot of health in the process. The same can be said when you're backed into a corner at the entrance to a stage, leaving you nowhere to run (this is where spraying comes into play).
The weapons you use to take these enemies down are extremely varied though, and can be upgraded as well. You start by choosing one of three base weapons, the Railgun, the Shotgun, and the SMG, all of which can be upgraded by finding upgrade stations in the levels. You can then find other weapons in-game which you can pick up and use, albeit with limited ammo, and you can even clobber enemies with them once you've run out of bullets. This keeps Strafe fresh and interesting, especially as each gun has its advantages and disadvantages. The Shotgun, for instance, is worse than useless at anything but close range, but the Railgun hasn't got the rate of fire to be any good if enemies gang up on you in tight corridors. While we'd like the guns to feel a bit more powerful when you fire them (as some can feel like peashooters), overall the weapons are fun to use, and there's something for everyone.
There are also various explosives in the game, including barrels that you can throw or shoot, and grenades, but we thought that these were unsatisfying. The explosions seemed to be pretty small, and sometimes enemies were next to them and still survived. Granted, if you hit an enemy directly they explode in a shower of gore, but it seems most could take a step back and be unharmed, which was annoying in a game as difficult as Strafe, since we could've used a big explosion or two to clear out some areas.
This difficulty is heightened all the more by level design, something we were very impressed by, as these levels are often so labyrinthian that it's not only easy to get lost, but also easy to get flanked by enemies you didn't know were in other corridors, on the ceiling or, even worse, in hidden rooms. This makes it very difficult to try to filter the enemies coming towards you, and you always need to be on your toes, although it has to be said that these open spaces do make running away a lot easier. While this part of Strafe was good, it still meant that it slowed the speed of the game right down.
In terms of the performance side of things, Strafe suffers, and we found clipping issues with monsters going through walls multiple times, but worse than that are the drops in frame-rate. These can be sporadic, although they occur frequently when you're exiting a stage into the stats screen, with dramatic drops that sometimes made us think that the game had crashed.
Its roguelike nature also means that Strafe won't be for everyone. Unlike similar games with soft progression, where you can use resources to upgrade once you get back to the start screen, here it's a hard reset, with all your scrap gone and you back to square one (unless you unlock later levels, which you can then skip to). This means, theoretically, someone who's played 50 hours is no better off in-game than someone who's just turned the game on. Some people might like the full reset, but we've recently seen another shooter with similar elements (Immortal Redneck) get this aspect spot on, and while we were incentivised to go back to that again and again, with Strafe we ultimately found ourselves losing heart every time we had to start again from scratch.
As much as the game intends to be difficult, though, we found it was at times obstinate, refusing us supplies unless we scoured the maps for workbenches and then paid an extortionate amount of scrap, slowing the pace of the game dramatically. That said, there's a lot of fun to be had shooting at and dancing around enemies, and Quake fans will no doubt like what the game's trying to do. We just wish it hadn't been let down by things like frame-rate drops, dull colours, and some cheap tactics.