Devolver had a great E3. I’ve already written about Absolver, which was an unexpected delight, but there’s more to tell. Let’s sidestep into the world of Strafe [official site], a game which was unlikely to surprise me, having been a known quantity for a good while. It’s a first-person shooter with a retro feel and some roguelite qualities. I knew what kind of game to expect but I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love with it quite so quickly.
Strafe is a beautiful game. The surface is retro - within its developer’s own fiction, it’s the greatest game of 1996 - but every element has been finely tuned rather than simply replicated. Levels are randomised but strongly themed, but in what I saw and played the pool of ‘blocks’ that makes up a level has been designed with care, so that there’s a sense of cohesion rather than a confusion of corridors and rooms. You can choose from one of three guns at the beginning of each playthrough but the shotgun feels so good that I can’t imagine not grabbing it immediately.
There are other weapons but they come with limited ammo and are disposable. Fire off every round/rocket and then ditch them, switching back to your main piece, which can be upgraded provided you find the necessary locations. There are several items within the environment that you can interact with, from explosive barrels that can be picked up and lobbd to workbenches that provide health, armour and more at a price.
Mostly, you’ll be trying to find the exit and killing everything that stands, crawls or slithers. Enemies come in various shapes and sizes, and they all bleed. Some of them bleed acid because that’s what aliens do. All of the lovely particle effect spatter has a purpose - it stains and runs down walls, drips from the ceiling and pools on the floor.
“It’s a guidance system. We don’t want you to spend all of your time looking at a map so the blood tells you where you’ve been,” lead designer Thom Glunt explains. It’s a gory version of the breadcrumb trail and watching the blood drip and dribble doesn’t seem even faintly morbid as I blast my way through the first area the enemies are caught halfway between cartoon creatures and lo-fi abstraction, and the gore is both signpost and technological pleasantry rather than a horrorshow.
The use of the spurting and splattering blood as a functional element of the game rather than a cosmetic detail is telling. This is a game that initially might seem slight or even brazenly dumb, but it’s full of devilish details. That acid blood burns, for instance, but you might be able to wash it away if you applied another liquid to the surface it spilled across. There’s a great deal more interaction than initially appears to be the case and the way that the visual design assists and occasionally tricks the player is careful and considered.
In the second area (there are three/four levels per themed area), an organic planet surface that has its own enemies and structural concerns, there are beacons planted in the ground leading you toward the exit. You’re likely to head off the beaten track though, searching for powerups and supplies to spend on health and armour, so the beacons have a simple visual trick to point you back in the right direction: if you see the green side, you’re pointed the right way, if you see red, you’re looking at the back of the beacon. Simplicity itself but such a necessary part of the design, ensuring that you’re never left nudging walls and skirting around chasms looking for a way forward.
In its own way, Strafe is just as much about urgent forward motion as new-DOOM. It’s been in development for a long time and Glunt jokingly curses that new-DOOM not only beat them to the digital shelves, but turned out so damn well. We’re talking in a motorhome parked on Devolver Digital’s E3 turf, a parking lot across the road from the convention centre where beers and street food are the order of the day.
Glunt and his two colleagues have installed a smoke machine beneath the table where the game has been set up and the release spurts of vapour (“it’s not actually a vape”, he says hastily) around the interior to create an intentionally tacky, dopey vibe that’s topped off nicely by the Strafe-branded shades the devs are wearing - for indoor use only, naturally.
This is Glunt’s first game, his previous career having been in the world of music and commercial videos. That shows in the live action shorts made to advertise the game and I’m happy to report that some of the humour carries across into Strafe itself, in the form of an FMV tutorial that has one line that made an undignified rattle of laughter-snorts tumble out of me. I won’t spoil it but I will say that it’s the sincerity of the delivery that sells it - Strafe isn’t parodying nineties gaming in the broad way that something like Kung Fury tackled eighties films; it’s 1996 FMV made by people who have watched a lot of FMV from the mid-nineties and tried to nail their own version rather than mocking what existed with a vague swipe.
The love of nineties FPS games is evident as well, as is a deep knowledge of their workings. Glunt can debate the qualities and flaws of just about any game whose influence you can see in Strafe, from Doom and Quake to Spelunky and Enter the Gungeon. And that’s one of the reasons that new-DOOM’s release and the recent resurrection of oldschool FPS games isn’t really a problem at all, and Glunt knows that. If anything, the revival of elements of nineties shooters prepares the ground nicely.
Doom, Quake and all the rest mean many things to many people, and 2016 DOOM takes a couple of aspects associated with the original and runs with them. It runs hard and it runs well. Strafe is borrowing other elements, mainly from Quake and even the interactivity of the Build engine games, and it’s running in a similar direction but on an entirely different course, with its brief playthroughs and randomised levels.
It’s shaping up beautifully and of all the games I played at E3, it’s the one that I wish I could spend the weekend playing right now. Short, smart and tough, it’s a fine interpretation of a period in PC gaming that many of us remember fondly, but it has enough tricks of its own to feel elegant and modern, despite its grungy graphics.