Review | Strayed Lights
The Duality of Energy
Strayed Lights is the debut game from Embers Game Studio and for a first-up effort, there’s a strong foundation here for something more. As a being of light, you begin the game by waking up to find yourself in a beautiful and mysterious world. Fans of Ori games will immediately notice similarities in the visual style and hues within Strayed Light. The game gives you essentially…nothing. No guidance, no exposition, no dialogue. Cutscenes aren’t voiced or subtitled but there’s no character dialogue to speak of. You’re literally just fumbling your way through this world until you reach what is essentially your first mini-boss fight.
It’s at this point your internal energy splits. Allowing the player to switch between the blue and orange energy. A clear nod to Housemarque’s 2011 Xbox Live Arcade game Outland. From there, well, that’s anybody’s guess.
Make it on your own
This was a really interesting game to play and then review. Partially because of the game’s insistence on really not giving you much – if any, guidance, plus the fact that it took me a while to realise what it actually was. I honestly had no idea what was actually going on at any stage. At least from a story perspective. I only really gathered bits and pieces based on the achievements and what I noticed was happening during the un-skippable cutscenes. The rest I tried to glean from literally jumping on the developer’s website to see how they described their own game.
“You are a tiny, growing light seeking transcendence. Explore a land of otherworldly ruins and glowing trees, where entities of flickering lights and luminescent shadows reside.” says the Embers website. Yeah, I would not have figured this out without referring to their site.
You really do need to figure everything out on your own. Pretty much at all times. There’s no map, there’s no waypoints, no narrator…nothing. Now this can be quite jarring when the majority of gamers are so used to an insane level of hand-holding in almost all of their games these days. To be fair, it wasn’t overly difficult to figure out where to go and what to do. But the game doesn’t do the greatest job of onboarding you in its early stages. I was mostly figuring out by doing what I do in most semi-open 3D action-adventure games…I just look around everywhere and interact with stuff.
But the fact that I got almost every achievement in my first run should ultimately say you’ll most likely figure it out as you go.
What do you want to be?
I felt like this game wasn’t sure of the type of experience it was trying to give the player. The visual style, the music, and the exploratory nature of the game initially gives the player the sense that they’re going to be experiencing a nice, chilled, and almost zen-like adventure. But then the combat kicks.
Yeah, I think this game is trying to be a Souls-like. The combat in this game is quite ambitious for an indie title and I think they might be biting off more than they can chew. This is combat that relies heavily on parrying and if you’re going to do that, you need to make sure parries can be pulled off fairly reliably. There’s only one standard attack button in this game and your attacks do very little damage to enemies. Even as you grow stronger. All the damage is done with parries. But the parrying felt quite imprecise and unreliable to me. Which was further exacerbated by the sheer speed some attacks come at you. Add in the fact that you’re required to switch between blue and orange light to match the enemy attack be able to successfully parry, you can see how it can get quite frustrating.
You can straight-up block attacks even with the wrong colour, but that just won’t do any damage to the enemy or restore any of your life. Yes, the only way to try and survive as best you can during boss fights is to successfully parry attack in order to regain health. Now you’re not completely outgunned. There’s a fairly simple skill tree where skills can be unlocked and upgraded throughout the game and they do help somewhat, but just not as much as I like.
But I think part of the problem might be the control scheme. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but the combat style, combined with the control scheme as well as the gameplay in general just didn’t really mesh well with me. I feel like it needed to be simplified or just changed completely. The game luckily does give you the ability to fully map the controls, but the issue is, you quickly realise that based on certain double functions of buttons (like Dodge and Run being the same button) it doesn’t really help much. Just a simple change of having dodge and run on separate buttons would make a world of difference here.
Two Worlds, one vision
There is something the game really does nail though, which is the atmosphere. Strayed Lights is an attractive game with a beautifully realised world. Or should I say worlds. Once again, gathering from infrequent prompts that appear when you get a certain number of energy currency, you can enter the “inner world” which is where you can go to upgrade your character. From here you will have portals to your previous locations to go back to at any stage.
The game’s art style is bold and simple and uses almost monochromatic colour schemes throughout the worlds you visit. While the initial hours of the game drowns you in blues and purples (although with purple being my favourite colour this wasn’t an issue for me), the colour palette opens up and throws a vibrant and lavish mix of hues which help enrich the atmosphere each level is intended to convey.
The NPCs and various wildlife that inhabit the worlds are also suitably designed and the humanoid characters (that match the main one) will even switch their energy colour to match yours when you interact with them. Many of the achievements in fact encourage the player to interact with the world around them, which is another way that helps you get immersed in the world.
The musical score from Austin Wintory (composer of Journey, ABZÛ, and the Banner Saga series) is brooding, blends well with the visual style, and really helps enhance the atmosphere. This applies at pretty much all moments within the game. From the fun, playful moments of discovery, right through to the boss fights. The music always feels right, to the point where it almost disappears into the background. Which I know doesn’t sound like a compliment, but I mean it to say that it just…fits.
So close to discovery…
There is a lot to like about Strayed Lights. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of ReCore in that you can see how close the developer got to something truly great, but a few key decisions and some overly ambitious design choices just held the game back. As an example, the combat would have felt less frustrating had the boss fights not been excessively long. Which only highlighted it’s shortcomings. All the boss fights have phases, so just when you get that feeling of relief and elation beating a difficult boss, it throws another phase at you. This will come after you’ve already used special attacks and a sense of dread comes over you as you realise you probably won’t survive the next phase and have to start all over again.
It really made a short game feel way longer than it was. I beat the game in just a touch over 8 hours but it felt much longer than that due to just how often I failed the boss fights. Maybe a much more skilled player could beat it quicker, but I honestly didn’t feel like I was bad at the game. I generally know when I’m not great at a game and I didn’t feel that here. This just felt like the combat wasn’t as precise and reliable as it needed to be.
I can’t stress enough how close Embers is to something great here. Strayed Lights is just a few design decisions, tweaks and adjustments away from being fantastic. It’s a beautiful world you want to explore, but you just need a touch more guidance to feel less aimless. Even as someone who cares little for story in games, a little something here might help players feel more connected with the world.
My hope is that Strayed Lights gets a sequel that really maximises the potential offered by this first outing. There’s something here, but it just falls a little bit short of being something great.
Xbox Series X
- Beautiful and atmospheric visual style
- Well designed semi-open hubs
- Inconsistent combat mechanics
- Boss difficulty spikes can be frustrating
- Difficult to follow what's happening