Date: April 25, 2023
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of video game. The first kind of game is what all the big publishers are doing with their AAA titles these days, the “more is more” approach: a dozen types of collectible, a gigantic world map full of copy/pasted activities, and a 30-hour main quest. Games like Hogwarts Legacy or Horizon Forbidden West, where the various mechanics aren’t particularly fleshed out, because there are simply so many of them.
Then, there’s the opposite end of the spectrum: games that pick a few key mechanics or concepts and polish them to gleaming perfection; these tend to be more in the realm of indie games, simply because it’s the best kind of game to make when you can’t hire 200 people. Strayed Lights falls solidly into this category — while it’s relatively light on “stuff”, what it does offer absolutely shines.
Developed and published by indie studio Embers, Strayed Lights is an action adventure game with a focus on rhythmic, parry-oriented combat. Anchoring combat is a unique take on said parries: you and your enemies can swap between two colors (red and blue), and parries done while matching the enemy’s color will deal damage. It might sound tricky — and it is, at first — but it quickly becomes muscle memory, and correctly matching colors and parrying an entire enemy attack sequence offers a specific kind of satisfaction matched only by the hardest of Sekiro’s fights (unsurprisingly, a game that Strayed Lights’ devs have said they drew inspiration from).
There aren’t any weapons to find — both you and your enemies use claws, stingers, and foreheads instead — but there is a small skill tree that lets you upgrade your character. You can also unlock and upgrade three special abilities that can be swapped to with the d-pad. These include a dash attack, an area-of-effect stun, and a temporary passive buff that makes your parries count as both colors. They all have their uses; though I found the stun the most effective, I’m sure other folks will find their own favorites.
The other side of the skill tree lets you improve your character’s health, or unlock passive abilities like an AoE basic attack or chargeable parry. I do wish the skill trees had been a bit more extensive; in total, there are 6 “normal” upgrades, plus the 3 special abilities and two upgrades for each of them. While some players might appreciate that you can unlock everything by the end of the game, I personally find that having to make choices in skill trees is more interesting. The two sides of the tree require different currencies, further limiting the decision-making.
The final way your character can be improved is by collecting little orbs of light hidden in nooks and crannies throughout the game world. Collect enough of them and you’ll improve your energy gain, which essentially just means a quicker end to fights: dealing damage and color-matched parries fill your energy bar, and once it’s completely full — which always happens when the last enemy’s HP reaches zero — you press the left trigger and end the fight. Having only one reward for exploring, and having that reward directly impact my character’s strength, meant exploration always felt gratifying.
Of course, you don’t have any option but to explore: there are no waypoint markers, and finding your way forward requires that you actually engage with your surroundings. But I would have explored the environments of Strayed Lights, simply because they’re so pleasant to look at. The environments are varied and charming, and what they lack in detail they more than make up for in rock solid artistic direction. Ranging from crystalline purple caves to lush green meadows, the environments are well-varied, and each manages to wrap up right as you feel like you’ve seen enough of it.
The world certainly evokes a mood — one that is supported by a wonderful soundtrack from Austin Wintory, the composer for games such as Journey and The Banner Saga. Like the environments themselves, the music for each area is different, and the way the soundtrack matches the overall vibe of the current setting is masterfully handled. The calm tracks manage to be laid back and soothing without ever falling into the realm of the generic, and the music for the boss fights is both beautiful and exciting.
When you aren’t admiring the view and vibing to the music, you’ll be fighting, so let’s dig a bit more into the core of the game: combat. Each enemy can attack in both colors, and can also do unblockable (purple) attacks. Enemies aren’t particularly varied, but new types are added just often enough to keep things fresh — they will also get longer and more complex attacks as you get further into the game. As with the environments, just as you’ve seen an enemy too many times, a new one shows up, or it learns a few new moves.
That said, while it isn’t easy to block every attack, you heal a decent amount each time you successfully block with the correct color — you also heal to full after every won fight (enemies only ever appear solo or in pairs). You also get an ability point refilled for each enemy defeated in combat. Taken all together, the normal combats ended up being less than challenging. To be fair, I’ve played every FromSoft game out there, and am no stranger to parry timings, but I have to imagine that even more casual players won’t find Strayed Lights too much of a strain on their skills. Death is also low-consequence, as you’re simply placed right before the fight you lost.
The normal enemies are just the appetizer, however. The true highlight of the game’s combat is the boss battles, which feature enemy movesets that can only be described as fluid — an incredible amount of care has gone into the animations, and every boss has their own style and special moves. I was honestly disappointed each time I finished the fight, because I wanted to continue enjoying the rhythmic dance of parries and dodges (and none of the bosses took me more than a handful of tries). That’s not a criticism, however, as the relative lack of challenge is a net negative will come down to player preference. In many ways, Strayed Lights feels like Sekiro with training wheels — it has the same basic combat flow, but is much, much less punishing.
But I hesitate to continue to compare Embers’ game to FromSofts’, because while FromSoft games tell despairing, hopeless tales, Strayed Lights manages to craft one of the most positive and inspiring — yet without becoming cheesy — narratives I’ve seen in a while. It does this with zero dialog, written or spoken. Instead, Strayed Lights’ excellent animation works overtime to tell a simple, satisfying tale of inner conflict and growth. Without giving too much more away, suffice it to say that Strayed Lights’ ultimate message isn’t just meaningful, but actionable, for anyone who plays it — I found myself feeling downright inspired by the time I got to the credits.
While it’s a short game (I beat it in 4 hours, and the estimate the devs give is 6), what’s there is excellent. Embers is a small studio (I was in awe after seeing how few names there were on the aforementioned credits), and they didn’t overreach. Instead, they made a tight and focused game that does a couple of things very well. At $24.99, it might be a bit steep for “only” 6 hours of fun, but hey, that’s inflation for ya. Would I have liked a few more levels? Sure. But maybe my need for ‘more’ is just part of my own journey of inner growth I still need to conquer with some well-timed parries.