Strayed Lights is an interesting case for a video game review – it’s neither good, it’s neither bad, but it just is. Bland is a word that I would like to use to describe this experience, which is a shame because developer Embers has done some good work in certain aspects that could have resulted in a much better game had it been expanded upon. But as it stands now, Strayed Lights is a mostly unremarkable experience with some merits buried deep under a buffet of shoddy game design.
Strayed Lights puts you in the shoes of a flaming spirit who awakens in a dark world only to be greeted by a powerful corrupting force threatening your very existence. After a brief encounter with that monster, you are plunged right into the deep end as you start your journey to free any and all corrupting forces in this land and ascend into a state of awakening. As you can already imagine, it’s a really ambiguous narrative setup that does very little to explain what’s actually going on. There are no names for the characters and enemies, and what little cutscenes there are, showcase the spirit interacting with weird crystals and jumping to and from magic doors.
The developers want the players to draw their own separate meanings from this intentionally vague story – but it ends up biting itself back in the foot instead. There’s no compelling hook or character to latch on to, and nothing really eventful happens here that would make you want to be invested in this story. Even the unlockable optional narrative bits are just art pieces that force you to use your imagination to make sense of it all. The game does use environmental storytelling to dish out some narrative breadcrumbs, but I failed to connect the dots and draw some meaning out of this adventure.
"The developers want the players to draw their own separate meanings from this intentionally vague story – but it ends up biting itself back in the foot instead. There’s no compelling hook or character to latch on to, and nothing really eventful happens here that would make you want to be invested in this story"
Strayed Lights’ gameplay on the other hand, puts forth a strong first impression with its suite of ideas – but it never really comes to fully realizing the potential that these ideas hold. Let’s start with the combat, which is entirely based around parrying attacks by pressing the right trigger just before the enemy attack lands. You also have the option of attacking an enemy with heavy punches of your own, but with windows of opportunities being limited to a bare minimum and these attacks not dealing enough damage – it’s best to rely on parries exclusively for most fights.
Every enemy has a Sekiro-Esque posture meter that slowly fills up with each parry, and once the threshold is reached – you can dispatch the enemy with a single special attack that only activates when enemy posture is at its full. You can also switch your spirit’s color from orange to blue and vice versa with the press of the left trigger – and ideally, you should parry the enemy’s attacks while being in the corresponding spirit color. Enemy attacks come in three different colors – orange, blue, and purple. The purple ones are unblockable and thus, must be dodged while others must be parried by juggling your spirit color accordingly.
Blocking attacks with the right color heals your character, which motivates you to keep matching attacks whenever possible. There are no healing supplies to speak of, so even if you get pushed to a corner – you just need to execute a few successful parries to get back in the fight. This lends a distinct sense of flow to the combat proceedings, and you can always crawl back up to victory in any given time and situation.
"Encounters start to become mundane after a couple of levels, and while there are less than a handful of enemy variations – none of them require any new tactics to take down."
But the game does very little to spice things and introduce some variety to the gameplay loop. Once you get past the learning curve, downing enemies becomes really easy – and even if you mess up, it doesn’t take much to turn the odds back in your favor. Encounters start to become mundane after a couple of levels, and while there are less than a handful of enemy variations – none of them require any new tactics to take down. In addition to this, they all look visually identical to one another which further adds to the mundanity of it all.
Bosses fare a bit better in this regard, but not by a huge margin. They have longer chain combos with delay attacks that can catch you off guard and drain your health quickly if you are not careful, but once you get the basics down – they also start to become pushovers. Since the levels can be tackled in any order you see fit, bosses and general difficulty start to plummet as you progress further which worsens this issue. And by the time bosses start to get interesting with new and imaginative moves, the game has already reached its climax – leaving a sour taste in the mouth.
Strayed Lights describes itself as an atmospheric adventure, and while the adventure element might not be up to snuff – it fares much better when it comes to the atmosphere. The art direction is fantastic, and the levels themselves look beautiful with great use of color gradients to depict an ethereal world brimming with a sense of wonder and mystery. However, there’s little variety among the many levels since they use the same handful of colors for the environments – which does hurt the game somewhat.
"The art direction is fantastic, and the levels themselves look beautiful with great use of color gradients to depict an ethereal world brimming with a sense of wonder and mystery. "
But as great as the world looks on the surface, those merits are heavily marred down by extremely linear level design. There’s always a strictly laid out path that you need to follow to reach the objective, and occasionally you will come across an alternative side path that will take you to precious orbs that can be used to upgrade your character via a simple skill tree. The blueprint essentially remains the same for the entire adventure – reach the boss, fight the boss, rinse and repeat.
As such, playing through Strayed Lights starts to get repetitive as you face encounter after encounter with nothing really motivating you to keep inching further towards the finish line. And that’s a big criticism for a game that has a comparatively short runtime. It took me around 5 to 7 hours to reach the climax, and I was already out of motivation by the time the game reached its latter half. Also, there are no new game plus or additional challenge modes to try out once you finish the story – so this is just what you get for the price.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, these factors come together to make Strayed Lights a bland experience. And that’s one of the worst places to be for any entertainment product. It doesn’t do anything exceptionally well, and it doesn’t do anything exceptionally bad either. It’s a mediocre product that fails to do anything to keep you interested in what it has to say. The parry based combat is interesting in concept, but falters in the face of repetitive enemy encounters and mostly lackluster bosses. The minimalist approach to the narrative feels like the game is trying too hard to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Journey – but fails to capture the magic of what makes those stories interesting in the first place. All in all, it’s pretty hard to recommend this game to most players which is all the more saddening because it could have been something special had it spent some more time in the oven.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
The combat system based around parries is a unique idea; the atmosphere looks fantastic with good use of colors and post-processing effects to depict an ethereal world brimming with mystery.
Undercooked gameplay mechanics lead to repetition; the narrative is excessively vague and fails to give players any reason to get invested in it; linear levels with no interesting objectives or side paths.