Once upon a time, From Software’s games were hidden, underrated gems. Now we are bombarded to death with their type of games. There are little Souls-likes, big Souls-likes, Souls-likes with guns and Souls-likes with lightsabers. Even if a modern game doesn’t quite fit the genre, it does incorporate some Souls-like elements.
Artsy indie games also have to go with it. A decade or so ago, a game like Strayed Lights probably would have been a walking simulator. Now it’s a small-scale Souls-like game in the style of Sekiro. Like more games like this, it mostly shows how masterful From Software is. Indeed, Strayed Lights brings with it some interesting ideas, but doesn’t compare too well to its inspiration due to mediocre execution.
On to Nirvana
In Strayed Lights, you play a creature of energy who must grow to eventually experience her transcendence. That sounds rather vague. Practically, it boils down to starting as a baby, growing up and eventually dying to be reborn again. Along the way, you help others and grow both physically and mentally. As a child, you learn to deal with primary emotions such as fear and anger by defeating bosses in that theme. When your main character takes on an adult form, things become more complex. Bosses then revolve around dreams, or insecurity. With each boss you defeat, your main character gets closer to her equivalent of Nirvana.
It’s all somewhat abstract and full of “big ideas. Like quite a few games with a similar theme, it just comes across as somewhat naive and pretentious. It doesn’t make a coherent point: content-wise, it has little to say besides that it’s good to grow as a human being, or something like that. Strayed Lights seems artistic, but it’s more about aesthetics and world-building here, rather than making you think. Form takes precedence over substance.
It’s a good thing then that form is apt. The world is believable and definitely scores points in terms of graphic style. There are basically two hubs, each connecting a level or three. Each level has its own recognizable theme and looks like it was plucked straight out of a modern picture book. The creatures you find here are just as beautifully designed, and are incredibly expressively animated. The use of colored light, especially blue, purple and orange, also makes enemies and important objects stand out immediately. This is necessary. Without these colors, the many details in the environment would be distracting or chaotic.
Colors as gameplay
The use of color is not limited to graphics. In fact, color is incorporated into the game systems. As mentioned, Strayed Lights is a Soulslike in the style of Sekiro. That means the emphasis is more on defense than attacking. In fact, you can pretty much ignore your simple attacks here. Instead, it’s more effective to parry. Parry gives you life back, and fills an energy bar at the same time. Once your energy bar is full, you have effectively won the fight. The twist is that parrying an attack only pays off if your character’s color matches that of the enemy: blue or orange. You can change your own color at any time. If the enemy turns purple, you cannot parry the attack, and you will have to dodge. These interactions alternate rapidly: usually enemies incorporate all these colors into a single combo. Sekiro already felt like a rhythm game in some battles, but Strayed Lights takes it a step further.
This gives you ample opportunity to learn the steps before you end up having to dance off.
At the beginning of the game, this system works very pleasantly. This is mainly because it slowly but steadily ramps up the difficulty. Thus, you encounter almost every boss several times during his level. Each time this results in a battle in which he or she gets a slightly more extensive moveset. This gives you ample opportunity to learn the moves before you end up having to dance off, so to speak. It remains trial and error until you know the patterns, but at least it gives you a chance to build your repertoire.
The downside of this system is that there is only one way to play the game. The game is little more than recognizing patterns, and executing them repeatedly. There is no stamina management, no equipment to refine your play style with, and the skill tree is so shallow that it adds practically nothing. The only engaging unlockable is a special attack after you parry a full combo string. Yet even that is not an interesting choice that changes your play style. Rather, it is more of a reward for what you were doing anyway. So Strayed Lights has little to offer besides the parry system, and with that, every fight basically becomes a glorified game of Simon Says.
What’s worse is that this rigid, imposed play style works worse and worse as you progress through the game. Indeed, the rather sparse basics are not refined enough for the challenges in the second half of the game. Changing your own color, for example, is accompanied by a slight delay, making color switching not just a matter of responsiveness. Once bosses attack in quicker succession with multiple colors, your success in this also becomes dependent on anticipation by training your memory. As a result, it feels like you’re being punished even though you’re really pushing the right buttons. In addition, you increasingly have to deal with two enemies at once, which the combat system is clearly not built for. It doesn’t make the game much harder, but it does make it frustrating. Fortunately, the game is generous in terms of checkpoints and you are not punished for a game over.
It may be a good thing, then, that Strayed Lights doesn’t demand much of your time. At the same time, at three mere hours, it does end very quickly. In those three hours I collected many of the collectibles and got the bulk of the trophies. If there was a New Game+ or chapter select to collect the rest, maybe that would stretch my playing time a bit more. Unfortunately, that’s not the case: I can only start over, and that’s a bit too much for me.
Strayed Lights has an interesting setting, an effective and unique graphic style, and quite a few interesting ideas. Especially the rhythmic parrying and matching your color to that of the enemy attack is a cool concept. The downside is that it reduces the Souls-like experience to the absolute basics of pattern recognition through trial and error. The game does little to disguise or build on that basic gameplay, making it boring even in the few hours the game is long.