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Review: Strider

strider-01Strider (Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PC)
Developed by Double Helix Games and Published by Capcom
Release Date: February 18th, 2014

PC REQUIREMENTS:
OS: 64-bit OS required, Windows Vista SP2 x64, Windows 7 x64, Windows 8 x64
CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550, 2.83GHz / AMD Phenom II X3 720, 2.8GHz
Memory: 4 GB RAM
HDD: 3700 MB available space
Video:  ATI Radeon HD 5770 / GeForce GTX 460 or better  (DirectX 11 required)
Input: Keyboard and Mouse or Gamepad

Reviving old, nearly forgotten IPs and farming them out to other developers to put a new spin on is something Capcom has had a fairly decent run of success with over the course of the past generation.  Ultimate Ghosts ‘n Goblins was a fantastic modern iteration of everybody’s favorite childhood nightmare masochist toy, the recently-released DuckTales HD wasn’t the worst experience in the world, and the first Bionic Commando: Re-Armed is quite literally one of my favorite games of all-damn-time. And so, it wasn’t much of a surprise to anyone to see that the Strider name would be making a comeback when it was unveiled late last year, bringing Capcom’s cypher slinging, somersaulting late-80’s rendition of a ninja to the future to join his long-lost pals in nostalgic revelry. 

Double Helix Games, more recently known for their work on Xbox One’s Killer Instinct than their sketchy licensed products for EA and Activision, were tasked with bringing Hiryu up to speed on all the bips and bops of modern platforming pastiche. Taking more than a few cues from Chair Entertainment’s 2009 Nolan North fest Shadow Complex, the new revamped Strider is a modern-day sci-fi “exploration-based” 2.5D platformer with an expansive world to hack and slash your way around and lots of shiny little baubles to collect. All the pieces seem meticulously aligned for it to be the perfect reboot into a new generation for a series that very much deserves it.

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Strider wastes absolutely no time in making the finest first impression I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing all year. No five to ten minute cutscenes of endless expository dialog, no lengthy tutorials to sit through, no unnecessary anything. No, siree. None of that hogwash. Strider kicks off the starting line by recreating the famous hang glider intro from the original arcade game, dropping you right in front of a fresh set of fools to start cutting to ribbons while a single band of text on screen tasks you with the only goal of “Yo, kill the main bad guy!” Admittedly, I may have read that block of text wrong. Of course, we know things won’t be quite that easy as you’ll almost immediately be redirected toward your first power-up location, but damn if it isn’t refreshing for a game to just let me play.

The immediacy with which Hiryu’s actions start feeling second nature is astounding. Double Helix couldn’t have nailed a more perfect set of slick and responsive controls, putting you in control of the high-speed, brightly-colored ninja bad-assness that you’ll be wreaking upon the opening stage’s foes. Somersaulting, attacking, and climbing around Strider’s dystopian urban jungle has an elegance and ease of use that’ll be hard to match for anyone entering the retro platformer arena from here on. 

Things start simple enough, with the game merely asking you to run, jump, and attack, but you’ll soon find yourself power-sliding through enemies and grates, ground pounding through scores of floor blockades, and summoning a large robotic eagle to feast on your opposition with very little effort, and that’s all within the first hour of gameplay. It’s in these opening moments that Strider truly feels like a new beginning for the franchise. A hyper-speed hack ‘em up with a great new style and the potential to really do some over-the-top fun new things that weren’t possible with its predecessors due to hardware limitations.

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If only a fantastic first impression could last and that just be the end of the tale. Unfortunately, over the course of the first couple of hours, Strider steadily loses steam at an alarming pace, even with all the fancy new doodads it’s throwing into your inventory and all the running back and forth you seem to be doing.

While the game’s gimmick makes a grand entrance and first impression, it becomes quickly apparent that it doesn’t really have that many more fun or useful tricks up its sleeve. You’ll spend 90% of the game laying waste to the same types of enemies you were when you started, with very little changed in the way they behave or have to be cut down.

Over the course of the adventure, you’ll gain four types of cypher upgrades, and while they can inflict varying types of status effects on enemies, like freezing or setting them on fire, these upgrades are mostly only used to open different colored security doors around the city that gate your progress or hide power-ups. You’ll also find matching sets of kunai for ranged combat and some “Option” upgrades that function as special attacks, like the previously mentioned robotic eagle or little orbs that you can bat around with your cypher to attack your enemies. The problem is that most of these upgrades never feel very essential or alter the way you approach the game by any meaningful degree. The Reflect cypher will be your best friend throughout most of the 7-10 hours you’ll spend with the game thanks largely to its ability to mitigate about 70-80% of the damage enemies dish out.

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Strider feels almost completely designed around the idea of the Reflect cypher, in fact, and even then it’s not done all that well. Nearly every enemy in the game is literally barfing up bullets at you constantly and it is literally impossible to not take damage. You never feel like you can finesse your way through an area clean and smooth like the original arcade game and Strider 2 because there are just way too many fast-moving and nigh-unavoidable projectiles to deal with. The game may not be as simple as “hold right and mash attack to win,” but it comes dangerously close far too often and barely ever pries itself out of that rut.

The major problem with Strider is that there’s no real sweet spot for difficulty or any gradual curve to speak of for that matter. On Easy and Normal the game feels far too relaxed because most normal enemies barely harm Hiryu, and they all award free health upon death. Combat becomes tedious and doesn’t engage the player in any meaningful way. On Hard, the challenge you face starts to feel almost absurd around thirty or so minutes in because enemy damage output numbers are just bigger. Finally, the last area of the game is severely out of balance with the rest because no matter what difficulty you’re playing on, enemies go from barely scratching you to being able to take you out in as little as five or six hits, and the final boss is so horribly designed, I don’t even know how it got past testing in the shape it’s in.

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Complimenting its fairly uninspiring action mechanics are Strider’s equally bland visuals and audio. Like the gameplay, both make a great first impression, with most of the game’s best visuals and anthemic arranges of classic arcade tunes packed tightly up front. The rest of the game’s presentation suffers from the same issues that plagued Shadow Complex, with most locations being dull, gray, and aggressively forgettable. The soundtrack seems to fall behind the action most of the time and never manages to punch its way through, try as it might. It’s all just your standard fare, techno-infused orchestral muck that wouldn’t be out of place in any late-night B action movie soundscape.

It’s hard to see Double Helix’s Strider reboot as anything but a disappointment or mediocre title for both newcomers and fans of the series. The action isn’t engaging enough or balanced to be a consistently high quality action platformer and the exploration bits feel more tacked on than anything. It comes in screaming like a bat out of hell and barely sputters across the finish line before falling over, never quite making the cut as the sequel the amazing Strider 2 deserved.

Final Score: 4.5/10

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