When it works, playing a Metroidvania game feels a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle for the first time. With each new piece, more of the image forms and you get a better grasp of the bigger picture. Before long, figuring out where additional pieces go is less guesswork and more informed decisions.
Games like Super Metroid (1994) and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997) are lauded as the standard bearers of this action-platformer genre, hence the amalgamated nickname.
The combined blueprint of these two titles has gone on to inform the design of a whole line of games released across the past two decades. Those that have followed the formula the closest, such as Shadow Complex and Cave Story, have achieved the greatest success.
Strider, a reinvention of the Capcom classic, isn't as successful. It fails in a number of key areas that are essential to the Metroidvania formula. Despite this, it's not a bad game either. In fact, provided it's given the time to find its feet, there is a lot to like about it.
This Double Helix-developed reboot comes in two distinct parts that lasts about six hours overall. The first half is a particularly awkward Metroid impression, where it attempts to reconcile its history as a combat-oriented platformer with the more modern design principles of an exploration game, and fumbles at both.
Provided it's given the time to find its feet, there is a lot to like about Strider
The beauty of Nintendo's game is that the player is constantly learning. Locked doors, ledges just out of reach and environments too harsh to venture into are noted on a mental map of the game world as points of interest to return to later. As new abilities are acquired, those avenues open up like unlocked ideas.
But the concept hinges on giving the player limited guidance and freedom to explore; allowing them to organically figure out what they can and can't do, and where they can and can't go, all setting up that "a-ha" moment when they're given new means to progress.
Strider, however, holds the player's hand too tightly. This somewhat due to an ever-present objective marker on the map, but mainly a result of environments that recall the lateral design of Shinobi more than the sprawling layout of Zebes. At times it's possible to auto-pilot through entire sections, simply holding forward and jumping where necessary. It's almost like playing Sonic.
Of course, you'll venture off the main path, and in most cases you'll find a collectible giving you some concept art or, in rarer cases, a health boost or weapon upgrade. But there's also a lot of wasted space, many rooms feature an extra screen of verticality, but offer nothing but a closer look at the ceiling paint.
Additionally, Strider feels more naturally suited to maintaining a brisk pace and a momentum. He's a nippy character that over-commits to his movements. He lunges into his run and, just a few steps later, is booking it. His jump is a goofy gym class cartwheel that vaults over pockets of bad guys, and he has a baseball slide that trips enemies and crashes through vents covers.
While running, pressing the light attack button will result in a quick sword swing, and by mashing the button as fast as you can it's possible to steam-roll your way through multiple enemies without dropping speed. Like Sega's blue speedster, he's someone you want to go fast with, which doesn't jam with methodical exploration.
At the same time, aspects of the way environments are constructed often break the pace and flow. The most notable of these is an annoying attach mechanic. Jump towards a surface while holding the stick in that direction, and Strider will cling on. But since the majority of areas are a tight fit and he catches some serious air, players will end up stuck in places they hadn't intended. It's jarring and happens too frequently. The solution to this is to hold down the button that manually lets go of surfaces for extended periods, but that's hardly ideal.
The city, for all its blinding lights and distracting gleam of metals, is lacking in visual diversity
On top of that, while Strider is able to bunny-hop up vertical surfaces (which expedites the climbing segments), he can't do the same during lateral and diagonal movements. So there's a constant breaking back and forth between quick and slow movements, meaning the latter soon becomes a little tedious.
Another of its Metroidvania formula violations comes from the visual presentation of the world. The game is set in Kazakh, a fictional neo-European city ruled by an iron-fisted dictator named ... er, something Russian sounding. It doesn't really matter. All you need to know is that your name is Hiryu, you belong to an elite group of ninjas called Striders, you're there to bring down the bad guy, and you've got a sweet scarf that never stops fluttering behind you.
The city, for all its blinding lights, smooth tarmac and distracting gleam of metals, is lacking in visual diversity. Almost every place you'll visit in the game is made up of some combination of these three ingredients, layered with some dark shadows and, if you're lucky, a sprinkle of colour. From one perspective, it gives the world an overall cohesion, but also makes it forgettable.
While the likes of Metroid and Castlevania succeed by offering a noticeable thematic change of location - from ice caves to volcanic caverns, from a marble gallery to creepy catacombs - Strider is largely a seamless teal smear. Fortunately, this is compensated somewhat with very cool character designs. Strider is like the same badasss character we've seen kicking butt in Capcom's crossover fighting games lately, and the game's various bosses have an exaggerated cartoon style with lots of colour. Their appearances shock the eyes back into focus.
Although it struggles to get a footing during these early hours, Strider is saved by the remaining core gameplay principles of a Metroidvania, namely finding new powers and putting them to use. The drip-feeding of new gameplay mechanics is satisfying, and the promise of more is just tempting enough to keep players engaged. Early unlocks include being able to summon a bird made up of plasma energy to swoop in and attack enemies, a ground pound, and, our favourite, the ability to deflect bullets using the sword attacks, effectively turning you into a Jedi.
The combat mechanics, meanwhile, tease a depth that it doesn't come to fruition until much later in the game. Using the left stick, it's possible to aim Strider's sword swings in the eight directions circling him. Enemies come in many different varieties, and approach thick and fast from all directions. Ground level soldiers spray bullets, aerial drones drop bombs and turrets lay it on thick with both too.
The second half of Strider is significantly more enjoyable than the first
At this stage repeated presses of horizontal sword attack is enough to take care of business, with the occasional charged attack to take combat the shielded enemy types, but what it lacks in complexity it makes up for by looking cool and feeling satisfying.
The second half of the game, however, is a significantly more enjoyable experience than the first. This is a result of an ability called Catapult, which nudges Strider further into action game territory and remedies some the issues mentioned above.
Catapult is essentially a teleportion tool. When R1 is held down, time slows briefly and a targeting laser appears, giving the player granular control over where the character will appear when the button is released. The movement is instant, and the cooldown time on it is relatively short, which means it can be chained and combined with double jumps.
The effect this has on the game's pace is significant. Players can now zip past areas that previously would have stuttered Strider's run. With Catapult unlocked, special gates that function like launch pads are activated, propelling Strider around environments at breakneck speed. It lets you go faster for longer and slots in with other skills in a way that creates a strategy to using your tools to get around effectively.
New environments, now designed around the catapult manoeuvre, elevate the experience considerably. Platforming sections later on, for example, require thoughtful, precise use of jumps, air control, double jumps and teleports. There's a few neat ideas thrown in too, like a room filled with moving spheres with their own gravitational fields that players must accurately jump between whilst fighting enemies.
Combat evolves too - with the Catapult, players can appear behind enemies to dodge attacks. It also unlocks the potential of your heavy attack - now functioning as a launcher that pops enemies into the air, inviting players follow up with more attacks. It's a small but nevertheless welcome addition.
Towards the end, there's enough pieces that click together to form a more cohesive and enjoyable picture. While the half of it trying to be a Metroidvania game is still a mess, eventually the action-focused second half makes up for it.
Those that go in expecting another Shadow Complex, or even Metroid, might be disappointed to find a game that isn't nearly as delicately constructed. But treat Strider as just an action game and you'll eventually find there's an enjoyable one there, it just takes some time getting to.
Once it stops trying to be Metroid, Strider grows into a solid and satisfying action game
- Satisfying combat
- Great sense of speed
- Smart evolution of abilities
- Visually uninteresting
- Platforming is uneven
- Cling mechanic is pesky
- World design is forgettable