Video Game Review – Strider (2014) (Version Reviewed: PS4)

Strider, the 2014 update of the established series of the same name, is a largely unremarkable and unpolished exploration platformer in the vein of Super Metroid. It has several strong features, but at the same time they feel underdeveloped and are rarely used in ways which innovate the genre. Its short length in terms of initial exploration means that the open-world exploration comes surprisingly quickly, but by the same token it comes before the player has really had much opportunity to use or master any of their newly-acquired abilities. This is in part due to the reliance on long chases and linear level design; the progression of the story drives the player through numerous areas without much opportunity to explore. Rather than acquiring an item and then returning through the area to use it, often the game will throw the player into a new area they may only visit a small part of with their current suite of upgrades immediately after making a first trip through one.

This would be fine if the game’s map layout was logical, or if it had any kind of usable fast-travel or shortcut system. Instead the emphasis is on walking through lengthy areas with respawning enemies to try and reach shortcuts that are not clearly marked as going from one area to another (instead they are a blue or red warp point which the player must note down the end location of) and – in the game’s most severe layout fault – often items are missably placed within long gauntlet areas which must be done in their entirety each time one attempts to grab the item. Thus playing Strider is a frustrating process of remembering which similar-looking corridor goes where, with a map that is useful for noting locations within a zone, but not within providing a good sense of how zones interconnect. The locations are largely distinctive, if not exactly charming (a good number are simply grey-blue corridors with different military/SF themes, making the variety of a factory, lava-filled cave and ancient temple welcome), but are at the same time brought down by a lack of enemy variety. A game like Super Metroid had enemies that felt varied between areas, and at the least had a good variety of types. Strider has three regular enemy models – a flying drone, a marine and a large mech – supplemented by a few area-specific enemy types in turrets, a larger mech and a small crab. Bullet patterns change, but ultimately the lack of visual variety is telling.

Visually the game is curious; it has a cel-shaded aesthetic that does some interesting things (heavily outlined, 2D-anime esque smoke effects look very good) but suffers when depicting character models, looking like a sub-par imitation of Street Fighter IV – and this is exacerbated by the model viewer unlocked as a secret. The effect is reasonable from a distance, but poor close-up, where akward idle animations and generally inconsistent model quality are obvious. Ultimately its worst sin in aesthetics, however, is how hard it can be when the screen is full of particle effects to keep track of the player’s location. In boss fights, where screen-filling enemies and attacks are frequent, losing track of the player’s location generally results in a frustrating, undeserved death. This is compounded by the lack of easily-spotted feedback for damage; it is hard to tell from how the character model reacts how damaging an attack is, meaning the player must look to the health bar (distracting them from the precise positioning needed for the boss fights in question.) All told it is a messy system, of visuals so busy that they impede gameplay.

On top of this, the mechanics of the game itself are at best unremarkable and at worst actively punishing. The controls are loose and awkward, with precision platforming sections often marred by an over-aggressive wall or ceiling grab – or the opposite, where the character moves almost uncontrollably to jump into a trap because the input to move up a wall was not properly received. Some of the game’s optional puzzles require immensely difficult precision jumping with a wall-jump and air-dash combination that is unresponsive and awkward – going well past deserved difficulty into frustration. Similarly a series of Mario Galaxy-like microgravity sections have unintuitive and awkward jumping controls which ruin a potentially interesting quirk of gameplay. Again returning to Super Metroid as a comparison; that game had equally challenging platforming sections, but reliable controls and physics that made them rewarding not frustrating. What the game also lacks is a real sense of exploration; while there are doors that require items to open and backtracking, most of the time they offer only a small number of rooms to solve for a single item. The individual levels are very discrete, which creates a far stronger sense of linearity over open-worldedness. In terms of the selection of items available, there is a comparatively small number and most are variants on the three actual weapons gained – sword, throwing-knives and air dash. Each has four Metroid analogous elements – ice, fire, a purple homing attack similar to the Wave Beam and a default mode which can imprecisely deflect bullets. Three special weapons are also gained, and these quite ruin the combat balance; one is so powerful there is no reason not to use it to defeat bosses in short order, and once energy and ammunition upgrades are collected it becomes the dominant weapon.

There are moments when Strider is very fun; the basic combat is enjoyable, using the different elements in combination is easy and moving around the levels should be fluid and dynamic. The boss fights are for the most part interesting, with only one or two really frustrating or poorly designed. However as a complete package it is lacking; the platforming, while fluid in low-stress situations is awkward and imprecise when it needs to be spot-on. The visuals do not hold up to scrutiny but look reasonable in motion. The items are formulaic and poorly-balanced, but at the same time work well at times. Overall it is hard to recommend the game – those aspects it does well are ultimately such fundamental aspects of its genre that were they not adequately done it would be worthless. Yet there is, even so, some entertainment to be gained from it – when the frustrations do not show themselves, there is the sense that it is an enjoyable game.

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