Strafe feels like ballet with guns, but its shooting needs work

In case the unsubtle trailers have passed you by, Strafe is a forthcoming first-person shooter in the vein of early-to-mid ‘90s classics like Doom and Quake, only it’s a roguelike with procedurally generated levels. The blocky architecture and spiky polygonal enemy-models conjure the 1990s effortlessly, and the combat approach mostly does too: circle-strafe, shoot, and never stay still.

At least, that’s how it plays out most of the time. I played about 30 minutes of Strafe earlier this month, and while I had a bit of fun there were some issues. In the build I played, you’re able to spawn with either a railgun, shotgun or machine gun, with each bearing its own secondary abilities (the shotgun can emit a grenade, while the railgun can build up a BFG-like plasma projectile, for example). I’m normally the type to opt straight for the shotgun, but I ended up maining the railgun in the end – I’ll get to why later.

The level design in the early game is heavily reminiscent of the Mars-based levels in the original Doom, mixed with some of the advanced lighting of Quake. I mean, graphics are hardly the talking point of Strafe, but Pixel Titans has successfully evoked the austere, nonsensical layouts of old school FPS games. In other words, it’s nice to play FPS levels that are function over form: I miss levels that make absolutely no sense in the real world. In Strafe, unless you can bunnyhop with aplomb you’ve bugger all chance of traversing these labyrinths as a lowly Martian engineer.

Enemies range from raging hunchbacked men that bullrush you to death, through to caped assassins with slow moving projectiles, through to annoying little robots. No problem, except they’re hilariously abundant: I often had upwards of a dozen hunchbacks and assassins rushing at me at once, and picking them off one at a time as I pissbolted around the levels was exhilarating. Their corpses pile up too, and once a particular room’s fight is over the characterless steel environments are painted with blood and gibs. With each death, the game taunts you with stats: for example, during a miserly three minute run I “spilled 195 gallons of blood” and managed to murder 66 of “the bastards”.

Along the way you can collect scrap, which translates into better weapons, shields or ammo at crafting stations littered throughout the levels. The template is there: things to shoot, equipment and power-ups to aim for, and levels to progress through. My time spent with the game is a mere drop in the ocean compared to how long a person will generally spend playing a rogue-like, but I do have some concerns with the weaponry.

For starters, they just don’t feel great. A rep at the preview event I attended said weapon feedback was still being worked on, which is very good to hear. My problem mainly was that the railgun – a weapon usually associated with advanced and precise marksmanship – was far and away the best option for me, as a beginner. The shotgun felt a little underpowered, while with the railgun I was able to linger near corners and pick off enemies as they rushed me. It felt rather too easy, but also, like I had somehow bypassed the most thrilling aspect of the game: skating around very quickly while killing things. Hopefully it will be balanced before launch.

There’s also the small question of whether an FPS roguelike is even a good idea. I liked the aesthetic of Strafe, but its maps felt characterless after the novelty of what they evoked fell away. One could argue this is inevitable, but I never feel this way playing through, for example, Enter the Gungeon or Spelunky. And anyway, that’d be fine if the combat was fun – but so far, it really lacks the power that a ‘90s-inspired shooter really needs. Dial up the effect of that shotty, make the railgun more cumbersome, get more throttle in that machine gun, and it’d dance well with the movement. The latter feels really good already.

The FPS rogue-like is a challenging genre: Tower of Guns was okay, Paranautical Activity was a bit of a miss, and I’m sure there are others I haven’t played. Strafe feels like it could be the best of the bunch, so long as more attention is paid to perfecting what you’ll spend 90% of the time doing in the game. That is, shooting things to death.

Strafe releases March 28.

Shaun Prescott

Shaun Prescott is the Australian editor of PC Gamer. With over ten years experience covering the games industry, his work has appeared on GamesRadar+, TechRadar, The Guardian, PLAY Magazine, the Sydney Morning Herald, and more. Specific interests include indie games, obscure Metroidvanias, speedrunning, experimental games and FPSs. He thinks Lulu by Metallica and Lou Reed is an all-time classic that will receive its due critical reappraisal one day.