Strider is your stereotypical idea of a videogame, through and through: you play as a futuristic ninja. You deflect robots’ bullets with your knife. You blaze through cyber-Soviet basses, slicing heavily armed guards in half as if they were nothing. You throw explosive kunai. You leave the Earth’s orbit for a climatic final boss battle with a massive, screen-filling space dragon. You do this for story reasons that are literally irrelevant. Strider revels in all the adrenaline-fuelled action evocative of the early arcade days, when videogames were lightning fast and utterly detached from any semblance of realism; the game seems to know exactly what it is, and despite the occasional stumble, delivers well on its promise to be a fulfilling arcade-style romp.
Yet to simply lump Strider into the “arcadey” category would be a disservice to its structure, which hails from the action-exploration platformer school of design (Metroidvania, although we seriously need a new name for that genre). The side-scrolling action is fluid and fast, and, being a reboot/remake, the game bears a resemblance to the Strider games that have come before it (namely the original arcade Strider and Strider 2). This is not a typical level-based game though: all areas of the game share the same overarching, interconnected map complete with healing stations, warp points, and obstacles that are inaccessible until the corresponding power-up has been claimed. It’s quite reminiscent of Strider on the NES, which shows the extent to which the new Strider is the orgy-child of the previous iterations (like, Strider even has his launcher from Marvel Vs. Capcom 3). If you’ve played Metroid, new-age Castlevania, or the Arkham games, you know the drill.
The overall structure works out pretty well, as proven by the success of all the other games that have employed it over the years. In Strider, however, it is not used quite as elegantly as, say, Super Metroid. To really pull off the whole exploration thing, all of a game’s elements need to come together in a way that makes it feel like exploration: a fitting atmosphere needs to be conveyed, the art design needs to extenuate the importance of certain areas, and the power-ups should generally feel like they give you access to new areas organically. This isn’t really the case here. Outside of background and general aesthetic, areas hardly have anything unique to offer over any other, and most of the doors clearly label which upgrade you need to have in order to pass through them. The latter draws attention to the structure of the game, practically shouting “see that door on the left there? Yeah, you need the ice sword for that one. And the door to your right? Not happening. Not till you find the kunai, chump.” Not only that, but the game always pinpoints the next location on your map, telling you where to find the next necessary upgrade, then showing you where to use it. This decision is particularly confounding, because it runs contrary to the exploration that the design is trying to encourage, doesn’t it?
While it probably sounds like I’m down on the whole exploration thing, it’s only because the industry has given us a wealth of games that have flat-out done it better already. Although there is an aspect unique to Strider that makes traversing the large environments exhilarating: the game’s movement. Strider can dash and slash his weapon simultaneously; this means that you often don’t need to stop momentum when tearing through the standard enemy grunts (it’s like you constantly have the Crissagrim from Symphony of the Night). In the air, Strider can attack in any direction and latch onto any surface, scaling both wall and ceiling. Apart from just feeling downright cool, this flexibility makes exploration intuitive, and it makes backtracking a fun diversion rather than a pain. And despite having your next target clearly labelled, backtracking is encouraged: the game’s areas are laden with unnecessary-but-useful upgrades that range from the obligatory health/energy extensions to appreciated skill supplements. As the game goes on, more of these skills are added, slowly building upon the simple, satisfying combat system.
Again, Strider is at its best when it focuses solely on combat, which involves dodging enemy bullets by using the terrain to your advantage, getting in close to finely dice your adversaries, and summoning the occasional robotic ghost animal (how are they both ghost and animal? Why are they both?). However, it does take some learning to stop approaching enemies from the front while they’re shooting at you, because while enemy projectiles move somewhat slowly, they can easily drain Strider’s health if you aren’t careful. At least on hard mode, they can. I’m in a tough spot commenting on the difficulty of the game: being a veteran side-scrolling action game player, I started the game on its hardest setting and, outside of some tough boss encounters, didn’t find it all too difficult. I did find it very satisfying though, because I’m honestly used to breezing through these sorts of games.
And “satisfying” is a word that describes this game well. It’s satisfying to use the different blade types in conjunction, such as the standard projectile-deflecting plasma type, or the more damaging fire sabre. It’s satisfying to finally nail the patterns of the more well-designed bosses. One particularly creative boss is actually evocative of bullet hell games, combining reflexes with careful reading of projectile trajectory. Hell, it’s satisfying to fight a normal enemy grunt: like the arcade games of old, Strider brims with flashy graphics and tons of hit spark, as each slash of your blade sets loose a fountain of sparks and is accompanied by fitting sound effects. But while the graphics and sound compliment the gameplay well, their quality wavers a bit elsewhere in the game.
That’s not to say the graphics are bad, even in spite of the fact that this is downloadable budget title. With full 3D models and backgrounds that change angles according to how your perspective changes, Strider looks quite nice when you’re blazing through areas, especially with the aforementioned comic book effects. The areas are sometimes let down by their artistic design though; for every interesting-looking futurist cityscape there’s a perfunctory sewer section or laboratory. The character models themselves are underwhelming as well, though this is only an issue when the camera comes close to them, which is the case during the cutscenes. Though there are few, these cutscenes are more irritating than interesting, what with the nondescript story and underwhelming voice work. The music isn’t much to speak of, either.
A few other negatives rear their heads over the course of Strider’s journey. Lack of enemy variety is certainly chief among them, as the vast majority of enemies you’ll face during the seven or so hours of gameplay are variations of the generic foot soldier. Again, this invites comparison to games that handle this set-up better, Castlevania games in particular usually sporting well over 100 enemy variants. This occasionally creates a “been here done that” feeling, but the level design is often varied enough to keep up the variety, with climbing sections and gauntlet-style chambers. And while the combat usually feels great, you aren’t awarded any invincibility frames after taking damage, which means that enemies who cause knockback can often do some nasty little combos on you, which can actually feel unfair at times (I’m looking at you, guys with tridents). And while we’re at it, there are some frustrating traps, and since Strider sometimes has a tendency to latch onto surfaces that you don’t want him to latch onto, traversing areas filled with enemies and said traps can be more annoying than fun.
I would like to stress, though, that these minor complaints don’t do much to threaten the fun that Strider has distilled at its core. Even though the exploration isn’t at its best here, collecting new powers or alternate color palettes feels rewarding and gives completionists an endgame goal. The game unfortunately lacks a “new game +” option or another unlockable difficulty. Still, for fans of arcade-style games and action platformers alike, Strider is an enjoyable, exhilarating title that will only occasionally test your patience, and gets a fairly strong recommendation from someone who’s a big fan of side-scrolling action games.