"Metroidvanias" are not unique or hip anymore.
Nintendo and Konami seem to be the only ones to realize this, because after inventing the genre, they decisively are the only ones not making them any more.
Open world 2D maps, finding treasures and power-ups to progress and find secrets. You know the deal.
In this day and age where everybody and his mother has an indie game that slaps it with the overused label on Steam Greenlight or Kickstarter, or a big publisher revives a classic 2D franchise with the same ruleset, you really have to do something special to stand out.
Does the brand new Strider make that happen?
Is this the Same Game as the Demo?
The Strider demo accomplished standing out as a Metroidvania effort splendidly by compacting all those brilliant rules into a nice tight level. Straight-shooting, linear level design: point A to point B with the occasional corner or air duct hiding a new technique or a stat booster. Nowhere did Double Helix's expertly designed level design allow for a single second of downtime.
I slashed my way through enemies, found every secret in the level, and defeated the large boss feeling not only like I accomplished more than the average game in its genre, but doing so in about a quarter of the time.
If the full version of Strider had stacked on maybe 15 dense levels in the same vein, with a steady flow of increasing weapons and difficulty, then it might have been a perfect game. Sadly, Double Helix does not follow-up on this rush throughout the rest this seven hour experience.
After firing the game up and blowing through the first level, to my horror, that tight level design vanishes in an instant. Gone is the quick arcade pace and gone is the efficiency. Strider opens up and becomes exactly what it had originally set itself apart from, a by the books "Metroidvania."
It's almost as if Double Helix didn't have the confidence to deliver a true arcade game in this day and age, caving into the incorrect belief that linear is dead and open is always better.
Bring on the Pain!
Rather than talking about what Strider is not, though, let's focus on what it is. At the forefront of Strider Hiryuu's arsenal is his cypher blade, which thankfully can still be swung as fast as your finger can push the button. It's an iconic mechanic of the classic series that has rightfuly been carried over into the new game.
Hiryuu can mindlessly hack away enemies without developer intervention. No downtime after a combo, no three slash maximum, no waiting for a walking animation to finish before the action button does its thing. Hiyruu can run, jump, and attack as fast as your fingers will allow him to, making the combat and platforming here as tight and responsive as they come.
Thankfully, Strider also has a classic game design tactic known as a "difficulty curve." For example, six enemies stand in his way? Charge right through them and mash that button, Hiryuu will cut them to ribbons. Easy as pie.
Without heavy handed explanations either, Double Helix finely works in new elements to the combat. Eventually, one of those six guards will start holding a shield, meaning you'll have to start training yourself to realize that when it becomes proper to use charged attacks.
From there, Double Helix starts to throw colored shields into the fray, and when Hiryuu starts unlocking elements to power-up his blade, then you'll have to take it upon yourself to learn that only elemental blades can harm corresponding shields.
After the element drop in, Double Helix starts to throw bulkier enemies that normal attacks don't stand a chance against, and then you'll have to start combining your charge attacks, elemental power-ups, projectiles and teleportation to figure out how to win.
Back and forth communication without the use of words. This is how arcade action works. No hand-holding, no tutorials. Maybe a brief description when an item is picked up or hint on a loading screen, but by and large, Double Helix gives you an obstacle, and you use your arsenal to overcome it.
Learn from the experience, adapt your new strategies into the average encounter, and then await the next big addition to the game.
Hiryuu might be able to mindlessly swing his sword just like in the old days, but just like back then, mindlessly swinging can only get him so far. You'll fail and die quite often against enemies, but emerge a smarter player because of it.
That's the point: to practice and learn for the next time around.
Backtracking, Down-time, and Copy-Paste Level Design
This sensibility of teaching yourself how to play a tight and wonderful action game stops once you get beyond Hiyruu's blades, though. The world itself is where problems start to arise. As mentioned before, Strider is about as ho-hum of a Metroidvania (can I stop using that silly term now?) as it gets.
I can simply point out the silliness of playing a game all about exploration that has secrets revealed on the map from the start, screaming "Here I am waiting until you get the proper power-up!" but that's every game of this type's problem these days.
And then, as always, completionists can't possibly leave a secret unturned, and they'll run all the way back across the map, navigating complicated tunnels, just to find one silly little piece of concept art, wasting so much time and energy that could be put into the main plot.
For a seven hour game, I spent an awfully long time running back over ground I had already covered, jumping through plenty of rooms I could have sworn were copy-and-pasted from others. Some have no enemies, some have uninspired platforming which seems more like a time sink rather than put there for skilled jumps.
Therein lies the problem with Strider. There is way too much padding, too many retreads through earlier portions of the game, and jumping between the game's better designed portions just feels like a chore.
One area of the game is separated from the rest by an arena which activates every time you want to go treasure hunting, and I had to fight through the flat level design and bland enemy waves three times before finally completing everything that section of the game had.
Why bother? Is this necessary for an action game? Will gamers feel cheated if we remove all the excess downtime and just jump from awesome level to awesome level in a menu? Again, if Double Helix had scrapped the open-world and genuinely focused on 15 or so solid levels, rife with optional power-ups and exotic settings, Strider would have been a surefire hit.
And if you miss a secret, at least you get to replay through a fun section of the game again. As Strider has it now, you are still doing that, but just treading through uninspired and repetitive filler.
One only need look into Capcom's own rich history of games like Mega Man X , Bionic Commando ReArmed, or even the NES version of Strider for proper inspiration. Capcom need not look further than in its own library!
Old-school Action, New-school Exploration
Capcom sold this game as "Old-school Action, New-school Exploration," but beyond pointing out that there is nothing new about the Metroidvania genre since it is now twenty years old. Does Strider really do anything new?
Not really. It's a throwback that channels ideas from the older games but doesn't do too much with them. The cookie-cutter overworld map spreads Strider's existence way too thin, and it creates too many moments of downtime for what is supposed to be an "old-school action" arcade game.
Action is the sum of its parts: level design, enemy layout, and pacing included. Not just the combat.
Luckily, Strider has enough good moments in between its uneven distribution to call it a fun game. Genuinely tough boss battles, exciting combat, and the occasional flicker of brilliant level design provide enough of a drive to push on. By the end, once all the secrets have been uncovered and Hiryuu hits full potential, the game finally delivers without the burden of backtracking.
And if all else fails, then at least Strider features some slick art direction and music which perfectly recapture the 1980s. It's just a shame that Double Helix couldn't take Hiryuu into Ancient Egypt or the Amazon.
The bigger question is, can I hold Strider responsible for what I thought the game should have been? Were my expectations just in the wrong place? Should i judge the game based on what I had in mind rather than Double Helix did?
Well, a majority of the time I would say that is a fair statement to make, but not when it was the demo Capcom chose to publish that gave me such high expectations.
If I hadn't played the demo and went into Strider blind, I might be singing a different tune in this review. But as chance had it, I did play the demo, and that is why I walked away feeling shorthanded knowing what Strider could have been.
We purchased Strider with company funds for the PlayStation 3, and we played it to completion before writing this review.