Stray Blade Review – A rather dull blade

Reviewed May 3, 2023 on PC

Platforms:

PC, PS5, Xbox Series X

Released:

April 20, 2023

Publisher:

505 Games

Developer:

Point Blank Games

Stray Blade attempts to set itself apart in the now all too overcrowded souls-like genre. Though aside from some vibrant visuals, a more standard approach to storytelling and world-building, and an attempt at a simpler combat system, the game needs to do more to stand out from the pack.

When I review a game,  the first and most significant thing I ask myself is “Did I have fun?”, because at the end of the day, that is a large part of why we play games. Some may offer more zany fun, real-world grit, or violent journeys, but we all play games to enjoy ourselves.

Whilst I did have some fun with Stray Blade, its shortcomings and frustrations were always at the forefront of my mind during my journey, constantly reminding me of games that handled similar aspects better.

Stray Blade is set within the world of Acrea the Lost Valley, putting you in the boots of Farren – a fallen warrior resurrected from the dead – to embark on a journey to free them from the stone that binds them to this plane and bring peace to the lands. The story of Stray Blade is told in a more standard fashion to others in the souls-like genre, which typically leave much of the lore to be deciphered by the player. The game follows a lot of the common tropes and generic story beats that one may expect from a fantasy setting. Most of the lore is told to you via interactions with your ally, Boji, who is a charming character. Though the way in which the story unfolds feels more like unnecessary exposition, rather than unraveling naturally through character interactions and meaningful dialogue.

The combat in Stray Blade is where it all starts to fall apart, and seeing as this is what you will spend the majority of your time doing, it is one of the most important areas to cover first. Action utilises the basic mechanics of light and heavy attacks, dodging, and parrying. Enemies will be highlighted in either red or blue before they launch an attack – red means that you must dodge the attack, whilst blue indicates that you must perform a well-timed parry. The problem here is that whilst the enemies will be brightly coloured in one of the two colours, this is not what you must be timing your move for, you must instead lookout for the same colour just as it appears on their weapon or body part to successfully dodge or parry. The timing gaps for these all vary rather inconsistently and the combat can feel sloppy and clunky. There’s also very little need for planning out your attacks and implementing strategies to overcome your foes. 

This is frustrating as the combat can become fun once you are used to it, but the included mechanics and shortfalls minimise the enjoyment that could have been.

“…combat can feel sloppy and clunky…

There are some added aspects to monitor during gameplay such as your stamina and the enemy’s poise meter. Both of these need to be taken into account as you essentially want to make sure that you have enough stamina to attack, whilst also working down the enemy’s poise meter so that they will be staggered and left open for a finishing attack. The finishing attacks are glorious, and one of the highlights of the combat system. Each time I performed one, I was satisfied with the following carnage caused to my enemy.

I had plenty of frustrating experiences where I would time my attack on an enemy, but because they were also mid-attack, they were unfazed by my swing, usually resulting in me taking unexpected damage as they cannot be interrupted during their animations. This means that combat essentially boils down to waiting for the enemy to perform their attack, dodge or parry it (depending on the colour), then strike back with your own attack, rinse and repeat. Learning these patterns will be a frustrating die and try again experience, but not one that feels like it’s rewarding you as the player for improving. This system along with the terribly slow animation cycles, inconsistent hit-boxes, and altogether dull feedback, lead to a lacklustre time.

You are constantly fighting for control of the game’s systems, rather than you having control over them. That being said, the variety of weapons is nice, and each one does feel different to wield, complete with unique animations. The range of enemies and their associated designs and characteristics are also truly inspiring at times. It is just a shame that the act of combat is often hampered by Stray Blade’s core mechanics.

Luckily, death isn’t the end of the journey and is rather forgiving when compared to other titles in the genre. Upon being defeated, you will respawn at the nearest Life Shine, with most of your already completed activities carrying over. For example, if you have completely cleared an area of all hostiles, it will remain cleared even upon death, which does help to keep the momentum moving forward at a brisk pace.

Your ever-present ally Boji can come in handy in a pinch, being a valuable asset on the battlefield with his limited offerings of support attacks and abilities. Boji grants the player a few different abilities that will enable you to call upon him for assistance when needed. My favourite is the ability that fires a bolt of force that removes some of the enemy’s poise, which is more of a help than you may first think given the already mentioned clunky combat system.

Boji also has his own skill tree, which is furthered by finding lore points across the map to unlock points to spend and enhance his abilities. On the topic of Boji, he is far and away the standout character. His personality and design are a breath of fresh air in this world, and I loved the little touches that incorporate him into your journey. One example is when you open a chest and see Boji teleport in briefly to assist Farren, before quickly popping the collected loot into his bag and disappearing.

There are also movement abilities that are only available after defeating certain boss-level enemies known as ‘God-Kings’, generally granting you a new way to access previously inaccessible areas of the maps, and some even coming with combat capabilities, though these quickly lose their thrill with repeated use and do little to enhance the gameplay in any meaningful way.

Farren’s skill tree is a fairly routine and uninspired affair. Most of the areas that you can spend skill points on do little more than offer passive increases to damage, health, or stamina, with some being locked away until you have defeated enough enemies with a certain type of weapon. This does encourage experimentation, though the payoff of doing so doesn’t feel rewarding enough.

One of the few saving graces of Stray Blade is the art design and visuals. Opting for a more vibrant colour palette than the washed-out grey and brown tones that have become all too common leads to this title having a fairly gorgeous world. It is filled with lush greenery, dazzling colours, and a nice aesthetic reminiscent of Kingdoms of Amalur. Exploring the world of Stray Blade was among my highlights, always pushing me further so that I could soak in more of the pleasing visuals and designs imbued around the landscape.

It is a joy to journey through these landscapes, hosting all manner of optional paths and out-of-reach locations to explore that more often than not lead to new materials or a schematic. Whilst exploration is rewarding and joyful, it is slightly hampered by the disappointing feature of the looting and crafting mechanic. All weapons and armours are tied to specific schematics that you must first locate, and once you have done so, you must then gather the necessary materials to be able to craft the item before being able to equip it. It would have been good to have some usable weapons or armour that could be found hidden in the world instead of always having to craft them, which just feels like an unnecessary extra step. Furthermore, I found it rather difficult to compare the stats of items within the menus. As far as I could find, there was no easy way to compare two pieces of equipment to determine which one is better, aside from hovering your cursor back and forth over the items you are comparing and taking mental notes of which one had longer bars.

Audio is another highlight for Stray Blade, with immersive music, decent weapon sound effects, and more than capable voice acting – Boji being a personal favourite. At times some of this comes across as amateurish, especially the dialogue which doesn’t hit right at times, but it all has a certain charm to it that I couldn’t help but enjoy, and within this world, it all came together nicely.

5

Average

Positive:

  • Striking visuals and art design
  • Enjoyable characters
  • Immersive audio design

Negative:

  • Clunky combat system
  • Unrewarding skill tree progression
  • Generic story

Stray Blade has some redeeming qualities, though these will largely be subjective. It is easy to tell that Point Blank Games set out to create a title with passion in an attempt to offer something more unique. The visuals and art design are gorgeous, the world is interesting if a bit generic, and the general gameplay loop can be addicting if you can put up with the clunky combat. Though with that said, Stray Blade does little to warrant your attention in the landscape of today’s video game offerings. If you want a souls-like RPG that you can turn on, take in the vibrant scenery, and play through whilst turning your mind off, you could do far worse. For those looking for a refined combat experience, tight controls, and rewarding gameplay, you would do best to look elsewhere.