Strider Hiryu is perhaps one of the more iconic names in Capcom’s repertoire of intellectual property, however for many he’s a character perhaps better recognized from the Marvel vs Capcom series of fighting games, rather than his own original series. In fact Strider didn’t even get his current, iconic appearance until Strider 2, which has since seen very little development with his sole three dimentional iteration appearing in Marvel vs Capcom 3. As such Double Helix games have been able to take a slightly more liberal approach to this games reboot, much less faithful to its past than games like Bionic Commando Rearmed; Strider (2014) proclaims to be 8 times faster than its predecessors and borrows much more from games like Shadow complex and Castlevania than its own roots. The question then, is whether this Strider-metroidvania blend produces a winning formula.
Strider takes place in Kazakh city, featuring little to nothing in regards to backstory the game throws you immediately into the action. Strider is very much a case of ‘adapt or die’, the game is very brief in its explanation of its mechanics, and very unique in its approach to gameplay. This produces an environment where you either promptly grasp the techniques the game wants you to, or you find yourself struggling very early. One aspect you will notice is Strider is a game of trading damage rather than necessarily avoiding it; almost every enemy you kill in Strider drops health pickups – not a great deal but typically enough to negate the damage they’re liable to deal themselves – so damage taken can be offset against this health reward. You quickly learn that the most efficient method of progressing safely becomes to kill everything on screen as expediently as possible. Enemies like the shotgun trooper send out a very wide spread of projectiles, when combined with others such as snipers these make for scenarios where damage seems virtually unavoidable, thus killing them before they pull the trigger, and using the health they drop to mitigate your losses as you charge through large groups of enemies becomes almost paramount for success.
In this regard Strider is almost as much a game of strategy as it is skill. Dodging bullets is of course possible but selecting the order and most efficient path through each screen is a rewarding tactical demand. Analysing the health-bar, against the health yield of enemies, relative to their liability deal damage, informs decisions on whether they should be avoided entirely, killed, and indeed even what order they should be killed to minimize risk? Should you kill the shielded soldier before the gunner behind him, or should you scale the wall and take out the sniper above to make the scenario a little easier beforehand? The freedom the game presents you further exacerbates this effect, Strider can slide, aid dash, double jump, climb walls and use various other abilities both offensive and defensive to navigate the environment and destroy his foes.
Not all of these abilities can be performed at the start of the game however. Most of which are unlocked by beating the games various bosses, sadly this is where the game falls short a little. While Striders combat is enjoyable thanks to his versatile array of abilities and skills, the bosses invariably don’t make the most of this. At best they’re relatively well designed, with solid attack patterns that you’ll need to learn and avoid, however they fail to present any particular challenge in regards to the offensive strategy you’re required to employ. These boss fights – the moderately enjoyable ones that is – can generally be hit by the entirety of Striders arsenal, this means if you want to just hang onto the wall and repeatedly use option C for 3 minutes, there’s little stopping you from doing so. At most bosses demand you use your charge attack to break your guard, but beyond that you’ll find yourself doing whatever you found most effective the first time, over and over again. Invariably this will involve simply mashing the attack button as fast as possible. Things get worse too, at times bosses can devolve into simple patterns with simple and almost luck-based resolutions.
The games very first boss offers a perfect example of this; a giant robotic dragon that tasks you to run along it and attack its head. Running along the dragon is simple enough, you’re presented with hazards such as electric spikes, missiles, and drones. None of which provide any particular challenge, however when you get to its head you’ll need to hit one of its energy cores. For the first two phases this is relatively easy since the dragon keeps a stable pattern, boring and repetitive, but easy to deal with none-the-less. On the third phase and final phase however, the dragons flight path will change into something resembling an S shape. This is where the gameplay begins to feel sloppy, as you find yourself jumping at this tiny space slashing maniacally and half of the time unsure if your even doing any damage. Alternatively you might get a situation where you manage to get onto the Dragons head and behind the core, where there are no hazards, from here your free to slash him to death until he’s dead. This is a means of skipping an otherwise potentially frustrating scenario, but one that presents absolutely no challenge so serves little consolation. Neither of these two scenarios provide any enjoyment, and both are undoubtedly characteristic of poor design.
In many ways the problem with the aforementioned Dragon reflects many of Striders design mishaps. Double Helix often seem incapable of distinguishing between difficulty, and tedium. One particular segment in the latter half of the game flips the screen upside down, almost randomly. This isn’t particularly challenging, and it isn’t particularly enjoyable either. It takes a few moments to adapt to the inverted controls, and you’ll probably experience a few falls as a result, but there’s no contrasting satisfaction for nailing one of these segments, feeling like near-artificial difficulty influenced by a cheap trick rather than intelligent level design. There are some better instances of the latter though, one particular segment had me using my ice cypher to freeze enemies then climb onto them, a technique that needs to be done quickly as they promptly thaw out. It’s a simple concept but there’s a lot of satisfaction to be had in platforming across frozen enemies to navigate otherwise impassible hazards.
Fortunately however, these poorly conceived platforming segments and boss fights make up a relatively small portion of the game. For the most part you’ll be with the core Strider-metroidvania gameplay; slicing, sliding and climbing your way through the games various maps, while collecting invaluable upgrades and unlockables. And Strider is not only enjoyable to play, but beautiful to look at, with an impeccable artstyle that’s exacerbated by the capabilities of next-gen consoles. The blend of 2D cartoon smoke effects and explosions fits the almost comic-book world of Strider perfectly, on top of that everything has been modelled and textured with extreme care. Environments are colourful and extremely varied, ranging from the vibrant reds and golds splashed over the upper district to the striking greens of the sewers. Each of the games areas feels distinct and unique due to both robust aesthetic and ever evolving gameplay thanks to Striders ability, and enemy progression.
Although the game has undeniable flaws, Strider manages to provide a compelling gameplay experience, and one you probably won’t feel like you’ve had before, and as such it’s not difficult to recommend. Strider is of a very unique breed, most metroidvania games are relatively slow in their pacing, but flexible in their structure. Strider is flexible, and fast and even though your hand is being held, it feels like your carving your own path through Kazakh city. However it’s just a shame it’s all marred by some minor inconsistencies in regards to level and boss design. These issues are substantial enough to prevent it from being a truly definitive action-platformer but it’s impossible to deny Striders status as both an reboot of the series, and one we hope to see more from in the years to come.