Part of what makes Metroidvanias and Soulslikes so all-consuming is their affected pretentiousness. Both genres take from a list of acclaimed titles that put their players’ skills to the test, occasionally at the expense of entertainment. Point Blank Games’ Stray Blade is a recent addition to this crowded category and, in a circular way, it must also pass muster with fans to earn a place in this particular genre.
Playing a Soulslike game becomes survival of the fittest in order to gain a foot on a ladder where the person who is revered for their hundreds of hours in the game, crafting their builds on Google Drive like Hephaestus in his forge, can be unseated by someone using a pizza slice as a controller.
Many examples in this genre hold excellent, engaging stories – Bloodborne, Elden Ring, Hollow Knight are just some examples – however the commitment that these games require is intimidating and self-perpetuates the gatekeeping of these games. Set in an evocative land and pairing the player with a magical companion, Stray Blade proves there is in fact a justification for that pretentiousness.
Farren West is the adventurer at the centre of the story, seeking the ancient Valley of Acrea. You get the chance to choose between two bodies and two voices for Farren, those options falling into a more masculine or a more feminine frame and tone. However, this voyage that was intended to be one more chapter in their epic becomes their epilogue. Farren awakens after an accident, finding that the world has spun on without them, and they now are able to absorb the powers of Acrea’s godkings from aeons past.
With such a weighty synopsis, you might imagine Acrea to be mired in muted greys, browns and greens. Though stylised, the world is vibrant, revelling in every shade under the sun to tell the story of what happened to the previously peaceful valley. As a Soulslike (albeit a more approachable one), you’ll be dying a lot before you master the mechanics and settle on your weapon of choice, so it’s placating to be drenched in colours and light, and encourages exploration where you’ll be rewarded with crafting materials, cloth dyes and combat blueprints for Farren.
Visually, combat is a standout, with satisfyingly smooth animations as the characters dodge, charge, slice and execute each other. Enemies flash red to signal an unavoidable attack and flash blue for a parryable attack. Perfect dodges and parries restore some of Farren’s stamina. There are also stomach-churningly savage backstabs and finishers, surprising in the cartoony surroundings, and returning to the same area offers opportunities to increase your experience points and improve your skills with your weapon. In one camp, I’d liberated some soldiers from life, and then found that spider-like creatures had set up shop instead, crushing their ramshackle sentry post to splinters.
As Farren attempts to avail themselves of Acrea, they are guided by Boji. Boji is a companion that, besides looking uncannily like Mark Hamill, offers magical attacks and defences as Farren and Boji’s skills and camaraderie increases. Again, this outsources a lot of the stress of a Soulslike as Boji creates chances to shatter enemies’ guards and in time allows for powerful area of effect abilities. While, eventually, you are an NPC’s worst nightmare and doling out bone breaking hits, the story isn’t that engaging, even though there are multiple mysteries to solve.
Like Farren’s pursuit for the lost artifacts of Arcea, there are moments where Stray Blade arranges its inharmonious elements together into an entertaining game. And, like Farren’s frequent resurrections, these moments are going over the same ground as lots of other games. Not offering anything new is not a sin – if it was, all-you-can-eat buffets would not exist.
What’s more is that it’s hard to shake the sense that Stray Blade is dated. Point Blank Games has not suggested that classic computer games from the early 2000s are one of the inspirations for the action-adventure, yet that user interface, alternating between tiny or obtrusive, says otherwise. Farren and Boji rarely acknowledge each other aside from resurrections and scripted lore spiels and Farren’s attitude in their adventure is akin to someone searching for their keys rather than the key to being freed from their undead state.
Enemies patrol but are blithely unaware, walking into walls or standing idle even while sustaining damage from environmental hazards. The animations are staccato when outside of combat. In spite of those shiny pre-release screens, Acrea is a lot of corridors. Parrying and strikes in fights are just slightly slower than you would like.
Some enemies are teleporting from different spots on the field and sometimes Farren’s stabs go straight into the ground but still hit the targeted enemy. Targeting isn’t very reliable as it seems to select any enemy swarming you and not the closest one. While the animations look amazing and there’s a lot of variation in enemy types and attacks, it’s just not systematic enough. This’ll leave those seeking a challenge restless and those who are anticipating an accessible Metroidvania experience feeling unfairly punished for their mistakes.
Overall, it’s the Fisher-Price of Soulslikes. Colourful, safe, and for a small audience. Point Blank Games has clearly done tons of work on the artistic stylisation, world-building, fighting animations and even the range of weapons, so it’s upsetting to see this potential frozen in time. Farren may be a great adventurer, but their game got lost at sea in the rush to release.
Stray Blade is out now for PC, Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X|S. This review was played on PC.
Stray Blade is bewitching to behold for about fifteen minutes. The technical issues might be ironed out later but there’s just not enough substance for Soulslike and Metroidvania mavens to sink their teeth into.
- Bold stylised environments
- Charming soundtrack
- Feels like a much older game
- Story is boring
- Combat is a chore with these aforementioned issues