New Indie game development studios have taken the industry by storm since so many critically acclaimed titles have spawned from smaller studios. This is where the developer Embers slots in with their debut title Strayed Lights. Critical successes such as Hades and Hollow Knight have walked so that many artistic visions in the Indie development space could run, and Strayed Lights shows up to deliver.
A Quiet Place
Upon starting up Strayed Lights, I was introduced to the unnamed friendly protagonist, which also doubles as a literal ball of light shaped like a clumsy 1 or 2-year-old. As you watch the main character sprout from what appears to be a toddler into a fully fleshed human-esque light body complete with Super Saiyan hair in 5 literal minutes, Strayed Lights makes it readily apparent that there will be NO dialogue.
After meeting your demons by looking in the mirror — literally looking in a reflection — the main character is thrust into an epic confrontation with a large darkness demon that sprouted from your reflection. This is where the combat tutorial takes place, and it’s very Souls-like.
Combat Is, As Combat Does
As the Warrior of Light — no relation to Final Fantasy — you can parry, dodge, attack and use special abilities to destroy enemies. For Souls veterans, it’s odd that the blocking button is where the attack button would be, but it makes sense considering parrying is the premier way to attack in Strayed Lights. To add intricacies to combat is the ability to switch light colours, from blue to red and back, with just a tap of the LB button. If you are the proper colour when parrying — denoted by the colour of the enemy attack — you do damage and gain health for your efforts. The player doesn’t gain health when the colour doesn’t match, but the parry is still effective.
This system is very unique. An enemy can throw blue attacks from the left, red attacks from the right, and mixtures of both with varying timing. When enemies glow purple, it denotes GET OUT OF THE WAY, as an unblockable attack is surely next. This is where players can span the dodge button to avoid damage.
Getting the timing right is key for these encounters, as combat is easy to pick up and start, but when more enemies appear, you must juggle palette-swapping and timing parries for the multiple enemies attempting to turn off your light. Combat becomes a fluid yet challenging balance of timing that feels good when you destroy your opposition, especially in these multiple enemy encounters or massive boss fights that can really test your mettle. A true power trip.
Transcend The Atmosphere
Strayed Lights presents epic in scale, with huge, cavernous areas and beautiful light direction that makes everything around you feel ready to spring to life at a moment’s notice. A dynamite musical score from Journey composer Austin Wintory is left to his devices to create his own narrative with a musical score. It performs admirably in place of the overall lack of context the title gives.
The setting is varied and breathtaking. There is a forest, many caves, outdoor swaths of land, quagmire-riddled hallways and an awestriking visual presentation on the level design that immerses the player into a Strayed Lights fever dream. Embers aimed for atmosphere and hit a home run.
“Strayed Lights presents epic in scale, with huge, cavernous areas and beautiful light direction that makes everything around you feel ready to spring to life at a moment’s notice.”
No dialogue or audible sounds come from any of the characters, but interactions are intense occasions loaded with personality. Although all of the characters — referred to as siblings, which was obtained from an achievement notification, not in-game information — look the same, their personalities differ.
This is where the in-game Strayed Lights directing and animation team truly reveals their talents. The characters have limited facial details. However, you can still understand what they mean when communicating, which is a massive feat. Insomniac makes this look easy with Spider-Man, and Embers also does a masterful job at this. You can feel a character’s fear when surrounded by dark spider-looking antagonists, although they lack many facial features.
Strayed Lights features a less-is-more style of storytelling that has been done before in indie games, with Tunic springing to mind instantly. But unlike Tunic, Strayed Lights gives far less context and no visual aides to help players understand the world they’re in. With such an interesting setting, loaded with atmosphere and likable characters, it would have been a great addition to give just a little more to the player to understand what’s happening without relying on assumptions.
“Strayed Lights is a momentous debut title, but one with flaws.”
The jumping system is lacking in Strayed Lights. With such vast open spaces, jumping works, but just doesn’t feel like it matches the rest of the title’s momentum. When the protagonist hits a ledge, they latch on, and the player has to tap A to climb up. This mechanic works GREAT during boss encounters, but during basic traversal, it just feels cumbersome and slow. For a character that can run fast, they surely jump very low.
The combat is fluid, and it works, but it feels like there is little more than merely waiting for an attack, blocking it at the right time, countering, and repeating. Attacking back feels like it barely does anything until you unlock the heavy/counterattacks from a skill tree, which seems to be present in every game on the market now. However, the skill tree is shallow and unexciting and possibly could have been excluded entirely. Unlocking new abilities doesn’t feel like anything special, and during my time with Strayed Lights, I didn’t go out of the way to use it after obtaining the counterattack.
To grab skills from the skill tree, the player has to enter a mindlike state that holds three areas: the one you just came from, the hub in the center where the levels intertwine, and the skill tree area. The entire thing could have been put into an easily accessible menu screen without travelling and wading through loading screens. This is the only reason I didn’t use the skill tree much, as changing locations to level up kills the game’s momentum and ruins the atmosphere Strayed Lights does such a great job of building.
Strayed Lights is a unique title. It builds upon its atmosphere with a soundtrack and silent likable characters to entrance the player into its gorgeous visual presentation. A remarkably safe combat system is implemented to great effect with unique features to add difficulty while staying just interesting enough to demand the player stay until the credits roll. But, wide empty spaces, lack of context, miserable jump mechanics, and questionable menu choices hold new developer Embers just shy of creating something truly special. Strayed Lights is a momentous debut title, but one with flaws.