Horror. It’s so hot right now. It seems we’re all eager to shoot limbs off necromorphs, get nibbled on by zombies, and generally run around Eastern European villages in the desperate hope for ammo. Into that fray comes Stray Souls, which – at least to our eyes – is modelling itself on one of the few horror franchises not to come out in the first quarter of this year: Silent Hill.
Stray Souls is the debut game from an independent studio built up of industry veterans, but it’s so self-assured that Jukai Studio feel like they’ve been around for yonks. We wondered whether it was the product of some pact with a devil, so chatted to the game director, Artur Laczkowski to find out.
Hi, could you please introduce yourself and your role on Stray Souls?
Hello! My name is Artur Laczkowski and I’m the game director for Stray Souls. I’m joined by Pete Wicher, who is the writer of the game along with being the audio director. We’re the founding members of Jukai Studio.
Could you give us a quick rundown of the game?
Stray Souls is a 3rd person horror game that sees a young man go on a journey to uncover the secrets of his past. It all begins when he inherits a house from his estranged grandmother, and from there, things get pretty wild.
What are Stray Souls’ influences? We see some Resident Evil and Silent Hill in there potentially, but we wondered if other media influenced you, just as much as games.
That’s a great question! Our goal with Stray Souls was to pack in as much influence from media outside of games as possible. We took a lot of inspiration from horror films and shows as well as books and of course, other games. Eagle-eyed players will definitely find some cool references throughout the game!
What is the secret to pacing a fantastic horror game well? Games have often layered on combat thick, for example, which can hurt the feelings of dread. How have you got it right?
Horror is really a malleable genre in that there’s not one element that stands above the rest as “king,” so we took a balanced approach to making our game. There has to be a sort of ebb-and-flow to the experience so that players are forever on their toes. Having combat was really important for Stray Souls since we felt that there were too many “haunted house walking sims” out there, but we also love the concept behind those games and wanted to honor them by having spooky set pieces that ramp up the tension for players.
It’s great to see true puzzling in Stray Souls, as well as dialogue branching. There’s a lot going on there! But we’re trying to imagine which of the ingredients are most prominent in Stray Souls. Is it horror, combat, the puzzles, the story…?
The saying goes, “Everything in moderation…” Stray Souls’ gimmick is that there is no gimmick. Each section of the game has its own challenges and our aim was to provide a balanced experience for players. Enjoy combat? We’ve got that! Are you more of a puzzle solver? We’ve got that too! Do you play games mostly to experience the story? We’re making sure that you won’t be disappointed! All of the ingredients have to work in harmony for the overall experience to be memorable.
You don’t often see randomness in games like this, but you have mentioned random enemies, item locations and weather. How does randomness work in such a seemingly narrative-heavy game like this?
Stray Souls uses randomness to enhance each playthrough by moving around resources, key items, enemy encounters and even changing the weather. Keeping these elements as variables while having a strong narrative backbone that is told with clear intention ended up being the ideal mix for us. Think of it like watching your favorite movie where the throughline of narrative stays constant, but each time you watch it there are enough changes to make it feel different from the last time.
Dialogue choices and pivotal moments are mentioned, which impact on Daniel’s personality. Can you give us more information on this? How different could one person’s playthrough be from another player’s?
We’ve taken the approach of giving the players agency in reaction. Everyone has had different life experiences and will react in their own way to life events. Our aim was to allow players to have a hand in deciding what kind of person Daniel is. This approach allowed us to do some cool things with the overall experience where some people may discover things on their first playthrough that other players may not see until their second or third time around. We can’t really say too much about this without spoiling a lot of the story, so suffice to say, it’ll be worth exploring the many facets of Daniel’s personality in multiple playthroughs!
How are you pitching the difficulty of Stray Souls? We see the ‘Souls’ in the title and make some assumptions!
Stray Souls isn’t an easy game, but we also have a “pick up and play” design philosophy that guided us through development. We don’t want folks to crack their keyboards and controllers in frustration so we had to find a balance in our difficulty. That being said, veterans of “Souls” type games will find a lot to love, while fans of classic survival horror games will also feel right at home.
Horror is such a universal genre and always has a lot to say about the human condition. Given what we have been through over the past couple years as a planet, it kind of makes sense that horror is hitting a new renaissance right now. The powerful thing that the genre has going for it is that we all feel fear and we all want some way to approach that emotional state with some modicum of safety so that our minds can work through it. Horror media gives us the opportunity to experience the many flavors of fear while maintaining control of ourselves. Spooky stories have always been around in one shape or another and transcend time and place because of that universal constant: the fear of the unknown.
What do you feel makes Stray Souls truly stand out?
Stray Souls is kind of unique in that it takes inspiration from so many things and blends them all into a balanced experience. It isn’t just an “action-horror” game, or a “choose your own story” cinematic game, or even a “jump-scare” simulator, but it does honor the best parts of each of these sub-genres.
How has it been developing in Unreal 5?
Every engine has its pros and cons, but we’ve been enjoying the creative freedom that Unreal 5 offers us throughout development. The state of the engine these days has provided us the opportunity to do things that really aren’t that common in the current landscape of indie games such as realistic characters and environments. Unreal is also a powerful tool that has given us a massive palette of options in how we tell interactive stories.
Can we narrow the release date down further than 2023?
We can’t say anything about that yet, but we are working hard every day to get this game into the hands of players as soon as possible!
I don’t suppose you can reveal if you have been having discussions of getting Stray Souls onto Game Pass?
Unfortunately, that’s another “we can’t say much about” situation, but we would absolutely love to get Stray Souls into the hands of as many players as we can!
And finally, please say that the pug survives!?!?
Klopsik’s fate cannot be revealed at this time, but rest assured that all of us at Jukai Studio love our fur babies and will do anything and everything we can to keep them safe!
No amount of bribing or extortion managed to get a release date for Stray Souls out of Jukai Studio. But we have our hands full with survival horror games right now, so perhaps that’s a good thing. Know that when that 2023 date lands, we will be the first to report it back to you.
Huge thanks go out to Artur and Pete for giving us some of their time in order to discover more about their game. Expect to find Stray Souls playable on Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 5 and PC. If you wish to wishlist the game, you can do so on Steam right now.