Before Call of Duty and Halo, there was Doom. Before the term “first-person shooter” was blaring from the PR boombox that is the GameStop sound system, there was the descriptor of “Doom clone.” And now, years later, it seems like I can’t go two weeks without hearing about how this or that game’s shooting mechanics compare to Doom.
Sometimes, every now and again, I get to learn about how contemporary level design could learn a little lesson from a classic game known as, you guessed it, Doom. So when I loaded up Strafe for the first time, I experienced a little bit of dread. An independent shooting game in a procedurally-generated world? A game that’s all about fast-paced shooting in tight corridors? I thought I was in the running for more Doom.
Thankfully, against the odds and by pure grace, Strafe isn’t just another game that is following in the vein of the well-made, but well-trod, footsteps of that classic game. While definitely rooted in some of the physics and level design maneuvers of Quake, another classic id Software game, it is clear after a couple hours of play that Strafe is its own project. And, in a surprise to me, I really enjoy it.
I’m a fan of first-person shooters. I’ve reviewed more than a handful of them, I’ve written longform criticism and made videos about them, and I’ve thought harder than anyone maybe should about how they tell stories and what the stakes of those stories are. I am all about the package of the contemporary first-person shooter, and what that means in practice is that I’m less enamored by things like mechanical simplicity or elegance in level design. My weariness around hearing about Doom comes from that in a way; I think that first-person shooters do something very interesting as a genre, but I rarely think that has much to do with the shooting itself. The vast majority of the Doom fandom seems to disagree.
Strafe is a shooter that is pared down to its bare mechanics. It is a game that lives and dies on its shooting, its jumping, and (yes) its strafing. If those things do not grab a player, then that player might not have a great time with the game. Those basic mechanics are what give life to the game’s procedurally-generated levels; the latter can’t be successful, and they can’t grab you, if the player isn’t excited about shooting, jumping and strafing their way around new and exciting environments. My hesitancy around the genre comes from my general lack of enjoyment of another game doing similar things, Tower of Guns. That game felt sluggish and unexciting to me. I didn’t want to jump and shoot my way through weirder and wilder places. I dropped it early.
While I can’t say that I’m good at Strafe, and though I have made very little progress through the procedurally generated sequence of levels that takes you from general location to general location, I can say that it’s some of the most exciting arcade shooting I have done in a long time. A horde of enemies can be tracking me, and I can jump over them while firing a grenade. It turns them all into wet red splats on the walls of the world, and I get a boost to fly over them. I immediately turn around and begin to fire at the back row, whittling down the two dozen enemies that are following me around the level to hit me, shoot me and generally make my navigational life a living hell. If enough start following me, I might be on the lookout for a rocket or grenade launcher. Explosions are a viable way out of any situation in Strafe.
Brilliantly, the game has personality outside of its mechanical identity as a fast and violent shooting game. The game’s narrative puts you in the role of a scrapper who is grabbing all the scrap they can from some rarified region outside of known space. The VHS-eque tutorial explains that it’s a dangerous mission, but it is surely one that is full of opportunity and excitement. You should be happy to be gathering all this crud from the dead bodies of your enemies.
I think back to the tongue in cheek video as I hammer on the interact key and wait for the doors to open and the end of the level. A horde of enemies follows me, and the door opens in a painfully slow manner. I hold down the left mouse button. My assault rifle fires as fast as it can. My heart races as fast as it can. What an opportunity, I think, and most of the time I end up dead there in the little hallway that could have connected me to the freedom, or at least to the next level.
My expectations of indie FPS games are, for whatever reason, relatively low. I often fear that they’re overly derivative or that they’re not going to be addressing the things that I, personally, find the most interesting about the genre. That’s not on them, of course, but it does mean that I am often disappointed. And, to my happy surprise, Strafe is doing something I never expected. As I shoot robot enemies and monsters who want to slice me up, I am delighted. The screen goes red every time. I hit the restart button with a smile on my face.
Strafe was developed by Pixel Titans and published by Devolver Digital. Our review is based on the PC version. It is also available for PlayStation 4 and Mac.
Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released last year. It’s available on Steam.