Frantic, split-second action is what the Strider franchise is all about, and with developer Double Helix's newest entry into the beloved series, fans will be glad to hear that the hectic feel of the older games has been recreated well. The question is: can ageing hero Strider Hiryu maintain the pace with newer sidescrollers?
Unfortunately for our deadly Super A agent, the answer to that question is a mixed one. While the release can certainly serve up a lot of slick, speedy fun, its newly introduced Metroidvania-style map design and segmented progression sometimes takes the sting out of the otherwise blistering experience. Dashing and slashing your way through robotic enemies and watching them crackle before exploding makes for some brilliantly satisfying moments – but that's all they ever are: moments.
In between these tiny bursts of enjoyment, you'll be guiding the slender protagonist through a futuristic Eastern European-style city that's currently in the grasp of a tyrant and his army of mechanical soldiers. It's full of rooftops, alleyways, train tunnels, hidden laboratories, and military bases, which are all ready to be explored as you complete singular mission objectives. It's not that navigating the title's world is difficult as the game controls absolutely beautifully, but it just feels like the inclusion of such a vast map and the need to frequently backtrack doesn't quite gel with the star's quick feet.
Sprinting from area to area feels great the first time, though, as you'll need to adapt to your new surroundings fast before you're pelted with bullets. Hiryu's movements are as smooth as butter, which makes transitioning from sliding to jumping to cutting through opponents feel incredibly fluid and natural, as each push of a button results in something that looks extremely cool on screen. Whether it's a last second leap over the head of a foe or a finishing blow to a burly mech, the release is often quite dazzling to see in motion, except when Hiryu seems hell-bent on sticking to a wall or ceiling instead of simply diving out of the way of an enemy's attack.
Indeed, the level design may be the architect of at least a few frustrating moments. As previously alluded, the title's titular warrior has a nasty habit of latching onto platforms and walls that you weren't necessarily trying to reach, which can unsurprisingly result in losing a good chunk of health as you're barraged by numerous projectiles. It's definitely not a huge problem, but when you're gracefully gliding through a location only to awkwardly grab onto a nearby ledge, it becomes a bit of a cheap way to kill the mood.
Avoid these minor niggles, though, and it isn't hard to get into the rhythm and flow of the game. There's no doubt that Strider is at its absolute best when you're effortlessly bounding above and behind adversaries before slicing them in half, then launching yourself over a chasm and continuing the slaughter on the other side. When you're really in the zone, the title offers a ride that's not too dissimilar to the dizzying adrenaline highs of something like WipEout, and it's during these frantic free-for-alls that you'll be glad that you decided to make a home for the game on your hard drive.
Staying in that sweet spot takes some practice, however. The dash-'em-up is capable of throwing some rather demanding scenarios at you that'll keep you constantly on your toes, and if you're not quick to react, you'll likely get pummelled from just about every direction. The fact that almost every foe makes use of some sort of ranged weapon means that most of your brainpower will be depleted in trying to deduce the best way to get in close and go for the kill. With no dodge mechanic and no way to deflect incoming projectiles until later in the release, you'll need to rely on Hiryu's reliable jump, and, more often than not, you'll just need to take the hits on the chin. Thankfully, defeated opponents yield health pick-ups, and prevalent floating green containers also grant you a life force boost, meaning that much of the title is spent healing back the damage taken from the foe that you just mowed down.
This creates a somewhat simple, pure style of gameplay where you're always trying to minimise incoming damage while also striving to wipe out your aggressors as quickly as possible. As such, Strider is actually quite accessible despite its love of dropping you into tricky situations, as your overall goal in combat rarely becomes anything more complex. Similarly, the swordplay itself shouldn't take too long to master. You'll be mashing square almost as much as you would in Dynasty Warriors, but each slash and swipe of the Cypher blade looks and feels fast and deadly. You'll also gradually build up a selection of flashy special moves as you progress through the seven or so hour adventure, which add a little bit of spice to encounters, particularly when you're pulling off self-made combos in the heat of the moment.
Bosses, however, conjure up battles where you'll need to learn attack patterns and know just when to strike. Sadly, compared to the addictive pace of the standard gameplay, these brawls can seem a little static, which will perhaps disappoint long time fans. While the baddies are a necessary component, and, for the most part, provide a fair fight, they're just not very memorable or exciting. Even near the beginning of the release, when you're busy climbing up a mechanised dragon, it just isn't as bombastic and over the top as it arguably should be. And sadly, this is also the case when it comes to describing the title as a whole.
From the bland environments and generic audio to the predictable enemy design, Strider doesn't really do much to stand out, despite its silky smooth performance on the PlayStation 4. When you're not blitzing your way through scenarios that closely resemble past titles, journeying through the somewhat soulless city – especially when you're lost and looking for the correct corridor – can feel a little bit boring. It's a shame, too, because as we mentioned earlier, when the release is doing what it does best, it can be extremely difficult to put down, which makes us wish that it stuck to the series' classic formula more often.
At its blistering best, Strider is a joy to play – its silky smooth controls making it difficult to not feel like the unstoppable agent himself. It's a welcome return to a beloved franchise, but it falls just short of maintaining the momentum that's expected of it, and instead opts to slice its way into a new generation with some less than exhilarating gameplay additions.