There are an awful lot of horror experiences available on Xbox, and that number only grows over the Halloween period, as they try to cash in on the terror vibe. But what makes a good horror game? Is it the suspense, the fear of the unknown, the creation of nausea and the sense of dread around every corner? If you’re a horror game dev, you certainly won’t want to reveal the monster too early.
Stray Souls has some of these ingredients. But when they are put together, it feels a bit of a mess.
Stray Souls is set in a fictitious American town called Aspen Falls. There is a gruesome prologue with a family tragedy that sets up the horror, before you start to play as Daniel, a young man in his twenties who has inherited his grandmother’s house in Aspen Falls. Strangely you start the game by picking up laundry, chatting online to others on dating websites, and walking about the house. But very quickly things start to go pear-shaped and spirits and terror start to creep into the house. He is met by his neighbour Martha who reveals many secrets and off they go on a road trip, in hope of ridding the town of the horror…
The story in Stray Souls badly wants to be Silent Hill and even employs the same composer, but it doesn’t feel as solid or mysterious as that old game. The dialogue is a bit wooden at times and Daniel will suddenly freak out about a gun, even when he seems okay about strange monsters attacking him from the woods. It doesn’t flow as a narrative, even though there are intriguing ideas hidden away, along with some clever story points. It feels a bit like a first draft at times, which is a shame.
The main issue is that Stray Souls is quite buggy, glitchy from the beginning. Going around the house at the start may well see your screen shaking, or the camera going haywire. Then there are the strange mechanics and UI. For example, when you are chatting online, in front of a computer screen the text conversations are in small boxes; you need to stand an inch away from the TV to read it. When there is a clue needed in this chat, it becomes more annoying.
Movement is fine in the third person, but it doesn’t feel as free-flowing as some games. And then when it comes to combat, Stray Souls is very jerky and not satisfying at all. Personally, I just ended up running away a lot rather than engaging. On the positive side, the puzzles are good and interesting, even if there aren’t any prompts or clues about what you are meant to be doing so you really have to scratch your brain and work things out. I found these very enjoyable and the most rewarding parts of the game.
There are boss battles as well, but they are a bit of a nightmare because you need to stand and fight. It’s more a chore rather than an enjoyable experience.
Visually, Stray Souls is okay with some nice moments of fear and terror. A grandma section in the house is scary, as she suddenly appears around walls behind you. The monsters you fight are just a bit generic and not anything new though; and that is a letdown. Movements don’t ever feel natural either, rarely helped along by the buggy bits and glitches. And it must be said, the colour grade isn’t very resonant either. Thankfully the soundscore is excellent, with a great feeling of dread throughout. That is complemented by some voice work which fits with the overall tone of the narrative.
I love a horror experience but the market does feel a bit saturated. That means in order to stand out, you need to do something special. Stray Souls fails in that regard. There is probably a good game in here somewhere, but it feels like Stray Souls needed more time in development to iron out the bugs and hone the mechanics. There’s no doubt that the puzzles are good, but the combat is terrible as is some of the movement of the characters. Even with an interesting narrative, the glitches break the immersion.
Let’s hope that Stray Souls gets patched, helping get it back on the right path.