Review: Strider

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I don’t know Strider from anything outside of Marvel vs. Capcom 2, so you won’t find a hint of nostalgia in this review. It doesn’t need it though, being as expansive and fast-paced a platformer as it is. There are plenty of metroidvanias out there but I can’t think of many that let you play as a spastic cyber-ninja, and that’s just as fun as it sounds. Despite a few design hangups it stays fun the whole way through, too, so it’s an easy recommendation for an action-heavy take on the genre.

Strider dumps you into the cyberboots of Strider Hiryu, out on a mission to kill the mysterious despot who rules the world from high-tech Kazakh City. This isn’t really explained in the game intro which drops you into the snowy outskirts of the city, leaving you to pick up the pieces of the story through the game’s terribly talkative bosses. I can’t say I minded too much because right from that intro I was somersault-slashing robot soldiers into cyberfillets and speeding across rooftops, and at that point I wasn’t questioning it.

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This game wastes no time in getting you to the action, so I’ll waste no time lauding them for it: This is one of the most viscerally fun metroidvanias out there to tear around in. Combat in Strider is always fast-paced, kinetic, and full of possibilities. Your spry protagonist will quickly unlock a full suite of combat moves including charged slashes, sliding kicks, diving strikes, and air dashes. Even his basic attack is a lightning-fast swing you can rapid-fire like the Crissaegrim from Symphony of the Night, in any direction no less. On top of that are the plasma types, allowing Strider’s sword to reflect bullets or freeze enemies, throwing knives which can share those plasmas, and three combat options like a holographic panther and orbiting drones.

All of those tools will be necessary for cutting down the hundreds of cybernetic foes standing in your way. Enemy troops carry all kinds of firearms and almost every group has a shield soldier to dispatch with a charged slash or a specific plasma. Then there are flying drones, turrets, and larger mechanical menaces that make for longer encounters. You’ll need to be agile to take on beefier foes but flipping willy-nilly all over a giant robot as you hack it up never gets old here. Once you master the movement you can control the flow of battles, slipping between shots and removing threats as you see fit.

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Your swift, fluid movement will help you traverse the vast metropolis of Kazakh City as well. The map is divided into thematic districts, from rain-soaked cityscapes to cramped industrial complexes to vast underground caverns. Strider starts the game with the ability to cling to and climb along any surface, walls and ceilings included, which greatly multiplies the spaces that can conceal secrets. And indeed, there is stuff to find stuffed into every corner of the sprawling world. This is actually one place where the game’s design works against it, because the levels are a little too vast to comfortably retread to find new secrets. There’s no fast travel system either, so hiking back to the starting areas can be a laborious undertaking.

The level design is definitely the weakest part of Strider, which is a pretty big deal for a metroidvania. And it’s doubly painful because the levels LOOK great, with tons of little details in the fully-3D landscapes. But all that detail can make it tricky to pick out the walls and platforms in the foreground, especially when things get cramped. They get cramped pretty often as well, with many levels going overboard on long, featureless halls to sprint down. Strider’s normal running speed makes this less of an issue, until you need to backtrack somewhere. But that’s the other part that got to me, the backtracking. It’s to be expected in any metroidvania especially after you score a new power, but here it feels particularly forced. You’ll be sent to a new level to do something and all of a sudden you’ll get a notice that you need a new option or plasma to proceed. It could be as simple as one locked door between you and your goal, but the game will happily send you through three enormous side levels to get a new power to open that damn door. Or it might arbitrarily send you back to the middle of an early level, or into a back entrance of an old map, or so on. It’s not the worst thing in the world since you get more to explore, it just tends to be terribly arbitrary.

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I feel pretty confident that the action will help push you through the worst offences of the level design, though. The fights never get boring and the bosses all have fun gimmicks and lots of dynamic attacks. Strider isn’t a terribly difficult game on normal, either, so it should be clear sailing right up to the final area. The journey will take you a good 5 or 6 hours and there are additional difficulties and challenge modes to top it off. The sound design is great, with plenty of rich metallic tones and a pumping soundtrack to keep you pushing on. The graphics are nice and clean but leave the characters looking stiff and plasticky in the cutscenes, but at this point I’m just nitpicking. There are certainly nits to pick but honestly if you like metroidvanias and ninjas, just get it and immerse yourself in hours of quality skulking and slashing.

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