Strider (2014)

Strider attempts to bridge the gap between a straightforward arcade action game and a Metroidvania style upgrade-and-exploration game, while managing to do neither particularly well. As an arcade and old-timey-console character Strider is signified mostly through stoicism, a constantly italicized running animation, and swinging his sword in a quick staccato of visual effects and exploding enemies.

These are all preserved in the new game, as Strider runs and slices and ellipses his way through a world that seems ill suited to his skill set. You show up with little more than a marker on your map telling you where to head next, which you set to with grim determination, all the while collecting various color-swap upgrades to your weapons and a seemingly endless cavalcade of useless concept art and enemy bio sheets (made especially pointless by being inaccessible from in game, you have to go to the main menu to see any of it). All of it gives you another colored door to open up, or a specially marked floor to destroy, but none of it is particularly useful in battle (the game goes out of its way to give enemies color coded shields to try to encourage weapon switching, but that’s about it), so for the most part the upgrades seemingly only exist to get more upgrades, most of which are only there to be there in the form of all that ancillary material.

Even worse, the game makes it nearly impossible to go back and find what you’ve missed. Pickups that you’ve seen but haven collected aren’t always marked on the map, and because the game’s many maps aren’t grid based (how gauche to suggest tile sets in the high tech future of 2014 video games) the way you fill them out means that rooms you might have only glanced at and not comprehended will still show up as visited on your map just like any other place you’ve been to a dozen times. Most damnably, when you finally hit that point in these types of games where you’re kicked loose to collect all the upgrades before the final boss, the game offers almost no fast travelling features. Strider’s many upgrades never include a speed dash or an infinite jump or a flying tackle move like Metroid or Castlevania, and the world itself has only sporadic warp points, most of which are also unmarked on your map. Don’t remember how to get from one area to the next? Well, if you go right far enough, eventually you’ll figure it out. But in the meantime you’ll fight 100 of the same enemies, only by now you’re tired of them and the tiered upgrades haven’t actually equipped you to tear through them as fast as you probably should.

Likewise, most of these upgrades are pointless in actual battle with the game’s many bosses. They’re strangely chatty (think Bionic Commando Rearmed, which is clearly what this game is trying to emulate), coming up against a nearly mute hero, and the game seems to want to bend over backwards to provide a mythology only in these few moments before it turns into a boss fight. As such, the boss fights are undoubtedly the highlight, as they’re the one shining spot where Strider embraces its arcade game roots. The problem is that the bosses are all insufferably long-lived, because Strider himself is long-lived and you fight so many enemies on the way to said bosses. That minute to minute aesthetic coolness of killing 20 guys as you run down a corridor also means that you spend 10 minutes looping a bosses attack animation as you do minuscule chip damage to their meaty life bar, while they seemingly wipe out huge percentages of yours. It feels like an over-correction, turning what could be flashy tests of skill into long battles of attrition, especially when many bosses show up more than once for a high-powered rematch.

The whole thing feels at odds with itself, and the game that comes out the other end seems sterile in how little it embraces both sides of its fractured self. The loop of going from room to room and slashing guys isn’t without its moments, and it captures the speed you’d expect from an action title, but saddling it with the character building mechanics of a Metroidvania style game meant that even at 5 hours long so much of it felt like a slog built for a character with way more room to grow than Strider. By the end, when you’ve fought two separate grunt gauntlets to get to a strangely easy final boss, and you watch what might be the most rushed, half-assed final cutscene I’ve seen in a game, you wonder what it was all for? There’s not enough here to count as an actual reinvention of this character, but it’s so far removed from its roots as to obviously not be a retro remake. Instead Strider sits on the fence, and manages to commit to neither, becoming two good ideas that make a middling game.

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