Strania is a title that is distinctly Japanese. There’s an invasion, flying mechs, explosions and two anime girls in bum-hugging outfits out to save the day. It’s also incredibly difficult.
When meeting someone for the first time we form our opinion of them within five seconds. It’s no different for video games; the title screen and opening music instantly sets our expectations. Boot up a game you love and the first few notes of music and the loading screen will open the floodgates to past gaming memories. Strania fails in welcoming the player – it’s the guy slouched in a chair, yawning with a mouthful of junk food.
The loading sign, title screen, and menu sound effects are prehistoric, completely lacking in any presentational merit; it looks budget. The in-game sound effects and music are often uninspiring. Like an HD update of a ‘90s shump without the nostalgia or clever sound design, Strania sounds rushed at times, with the only memorable piece of ear-candy being the huge explosions that often follow the defeat of a giant warship and the stage four boss score (think Rocky IV soundtrack). There’s no harm in arming a game, no matter how retro in theme, with a powerful score and guns that sound like they would bring down an empire. A trick in Spagehtti Western films was to ‘one-up’ gun sound design. A pistol would have the sound of a rifle and a rifle the sound of a cannon. It worked, and a little magic in the audio department would have given Strania and it’s flying mechs some needed impact and punch.
Prior to entering the game you’re given a list of customisable options. You can switch between two characters (Strania has co-op), turn the tutorial text off, increase lives, difficulty and continues, and although the description states continues can be changed, this option has to be unlocked. To be ranked on the leaderboards and gain achievements, the game advises you to play it the way it should be played; with the default setup.
The default setup provides you with three blocks to your armour bar and no continues. Get hit three times and it’s game over, back to the title screen, and back to the beginning of the first level. Strania is completely unforgiving and you’ll struggle to clear each progressive stage. The enemies are various types of colourful mechs, armed with a variety of assault artillery. However, war isn’t about firing at everything and hoping for the best. To win you need to plan strategically and defend your own army.
Throughout Strania you’ll use a wide range of weaponry, from homing missiles to power swords and to guns that shoot sideways, and you’ll need to use them effectively, especially in the games defence section. Here, major tactical points are under attack and you’ll need to support them. During these scenes, waves of enemy forces launch key offensives at vital points and you need to stop the onslaught. Each location has an on-screen energy bar much like the boss enemies, except this time you don’t want it to decrease.
Strania is about learning patterns as much as it is about skill. Every section is designed with a weapon or two in mind, and bosses can easily be defeated once you learn their patterns. This balance can be reflected in the players own performance – every attempt will see you advance further into this Mecha odyssey. And if it feels like an uphill battle, you can increase the armour and continues; although don’t expect to fly through the game with these settings increased.
Apart from holding down fire and destroying robots before they destroy you, the core gaming mechanic is in the deployment of weaponry. You can install three weapons, one on each arm and a third in reserve. Tap the designated button and the weapons will rotate. This simple play mechanic allows for real-time, strategic planning. During the first few playthroughs the importance of this system is hard to understand due to the pace of the game, which throws you straight into the action. Then it clicks, and collecting the weapon that fires sideways makes the following section a breeze, or swapping it for a bomb dropping device will help annihilate a hiding enemy later.
Collecting new weapons is done via an intuitive, and what could have been game destroying, method. As a weapon floats down the screen in a typically ‘90s fashion, an arrow will attach to the right or left arm as you approach it. Positioning yourself at the relevant side will collect and install the weapon. To ensure this didn’t become a mess of unwillingly switching out weaponry, you have to move into the item and the arrow will turn yellow for left-hand, or green for right-hand installation. This gives you enough warning to move away from an item, all happening with enough pace to not hinder the player or slow down the action.
There are some nice touches throughout. Seeing bosses explode is satisfying and the detail in design increases with each level, with some great 3D backgrounds as you advance. The empty bullet shells spilling out the side of the Vulcan cannon is a neat addition, and it’s a shame more little touches weren’t made. To see the jetpack fire react and tilt more with the player, visible damage as you lose armour, and more detailed movement animations on the mech would’ve been great. It’s the little touches that can help to define a game.
Occasionally the camera will move and provide a new and interesting angle. Unfortunately, these are often during short cutscenes to link battles together or when navigating a trap. Having a brief section to each level where the camera moved to a unique angle would have provided a necessary dynamic. The standard view shifting sideways for an old-school R-Type section or swinging directly behind in a Space Harrier-esque way would have been a brilliant addition.
Visually, Strania is anime based. While the bright Gundam aesthetic is by no means ugly on the eyes, it can look bland, and again, a little uninspired. Fantasy Zone was a shump that created a varied, colourful world that worked – but it worked because it was a unique vision. The later levels do make an improvement on this as the backgrounds and bosses become more detailed. A darker, more serious visual tone throughout would have helped to raise Strania above the crowd. The shaded, grittier visuals of Berserk or Appleseed would have lent themselves favourably to create a title that would be much more visually pleasing. Perhaps the colourful look has a more significant meaning in Japan, but if so it’s lost on Western eyes.
This is a solid effort regardless of my gripes with the visual and audio design, and G.rev has created a shump that is faithful to the godfathers of the genre it’s lovingly dedicated too. Strania has its hands deep in the ashes of fourth generation consoles – it feels warm and welcoming but lacks the innovation and punch of current titles, and by aiming for a core fan-base alienates itself from the wider audience.