Coming from Point Blank Games and published by 505 Games, Stray Blade is an odd beast to try and explain. It sets a stall out to almost be a Souls-like game, but there is a lot more to it than simply fighting, dying and repeating. However, there is already a ruler on this particular block in the shape of Elden Ring, so I guess the question that needs to be addressed is whether Stray Blade can stand up to that behemoth…
Starting with the story, and Stray Blade does follow the traditional kind of Souls-like pattern, in that it gives you a basic outline and then you have to have conversations and find writing to expand on the story. The basic gist is this – We are Farron West, a girl/boy (delete as appropriate) who is an explorer. We catch wind of a secret valley tucked away in a lost corner of the world, going by the name of Acrea. Being such a great explorer, we find Acrea, and then are ignominiously killed shortly after. We awaken a while later to find that there is now a stone embedded in our chest, and this, while it has it advantages, such as making us basically immortal, does also have a fairly major downside – while the stone is in our chest, we can cannot leave the valley, or we will die for real.
Luckily, this is all explained to us by Boji, a kind of wolf that has been changed by the metals found in this valley, and he is soon our trusted companion. He also has a cool Scottish accent for some reason! Bohji explains that in order to free ourselves from the curse of the stone, we need to master each of the three metals that are present in the valley, and to do so, we must defeat the current masters by the application of a piece of pointy metal to their collective faces. With the scene set, we are left to wander, attempting to work our way through this strange new world.
Presentation of Stray Blade follows the traditional third person view that is popular for such games, yet the overall aesthetic is much more cartoon-like and colourful than the likes of Dark Souls, where there is a real “end of the world” vibe going on. As Farron finds new armour, weapons and colours by exploring, their appearance changes, and the animation of both them and the enemies we face is very good indeed. Thats is not to say there aren’t some oddities, but I will dedicate an entire paragraph to those later on, so hold on tight.
The actual design of both enemies and the world they inhabit is very good indeed, with foes ranging from spider-type things all the way up to massive bosses and everything in between. The world is split into discrete sections, and going from one realm to the next can be quite jarring; moving from a snowy mountain to a desert means that the landscape is always changing. All in all, with the nice music and good voice work from Boji and Farron, this world is a pretty nice place to spend time in.
Now, as always, the gameplay is split into two sections – combat (of which there is a lot) and the exploration of the world. I’ll start with the second of these elements, and the wandering about.
When we first begin, we will appear to keep finding dead ends – but Stray Blade also seems to be something of a Metroidvania and so new abilities are gifted to help us get around. These are tied to the metals of the land, and so by defeating the ruler of Intium, for instance, we will gain the ability to teleport to things that are dotted around the landscape, while Mannanite give us the ability to make rock bridges and pillars appear from the earth. The last metal, Xhinnon will enable us to make solid the misty green platforms we see about the place. With the abilities we have, there are a whole range of things to find, from weapon blueprints to armour patterns to different runes that can be set into the weapons we have. On the map, you can see what collectibles you have missed, luckily, so the desire to collect everything can be quenched.
It’s in the combat where Stray Blade starts to come alive. You will find lots of different weapons that all handle very differently, and in quite an interesting move, only by using these weapons can make Farron stronger. Let me explain.
As you use each weapon, your affinity with it grows, and once it reaches 100%, you can spend one of the skill points that you get for levelling up to unlock a skill; be more damage or an extra healing berry slot. This is an interesting way of making you stronger, as it means you can’t just stick with one weapon but must use them all. While some are rubbish (looking at you, noble rapier) the rest are pretty cool. And finding blueprints and the parts you need to make each one leads into the exploration side, so there is a pleasing circularity to how Stray Blade combines the elements. Boji also has his own skill tree to upgrade, as well as certain abilities that he can use to help you in combat, along with upgrading the runes that you find.
Combat is pretty simple, and reminds a bit of the system seen in Ryse: Son of Rome (why haven’t we has a sequel to that game, Microsoft?). As you fight, the enemies will flash red or blue. Blue attacks are parryable, while red attacks have to be dodged. If you manage to parry a blue attack perfectly, it will interrupt your opponent and let you lay the smack down, while if you dodge a red attack at the last moment, it will restore your stamina a little and again allow you an opening. Managing your stamina is again key, as is usual in these games, so every little helps. My top tip is this: don’t immediately react to the flash of colour, but wait for the attack to almost land before reacting. Otherwise, a mistimed dodge depletes your stamina and you still get hit, so paying attention is vital.
It’s not unusual, as Sir Tom once sang, to find yourself surrounded, so only by fighting smart do you have a chance. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have run to kill a simple wolf, only to be ambushed by his three mates I hadn’t seen and taken on a swift trip back to the respawn point (shrines are Stray Blade’s bonfires) a much wiser man. In a pretty cool move, if you do manage to kill all the enemies in an area, you’ll be notified that you have cleared all enemies, ensuring they stay dead even after you respawn. Of course, finding and defeating every enemy in a single life is pretty tricky! Combat in Stray Blade is one of the stronger points, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it.
There are rough edges, however. The music, while nice, does seem to lag out and sound jaggy when you are running about. This is annoying, nothing more, but there are other frustrations too. In the first major boss fight against Tezuth, we have to use the teleport mechanic we unlocked by beating his general, and it just doesn’t work. I could whittle his health down, no problem, but when it came time to teleport, I consistently failed, despite being locked onto the point. The same thing happened when I got the ability – if I had to respawn, quite often the teleport points couldn’t be locked on to, until I killed myself a couple of times or restarted the game. Not a major problem, you’d think, but the area I had last saved in had only way out – these points, so I was literally stuck.
Hold on, there’s more! When you draw enemies out and they reach a certain distance from their spots, they magically teleport all the way back to their origin point, making the best tactic, that of fighting one-on-one wherever possible, completely null and void. I’ve knocked enemies into walls, I have got stuck in the scenery, I have fallen off cliffs and survived and then dropped off a wall and died. The list goes on.
Stray Blade has a lot to recommend. The protagonists are likeable enough, the story is good and the action pretty cool, but the rough edges take the shine off. With a bit more polish this could have been a contender, but as it is, it will have to be satisfied with a middle of the road mark. There is fun to be had here, but frustration in seemingly equal amounts.