Making a compelling original story does not always come easy. Making video games are also profoundly difficult. Putting both endeavors together proves to be one of the most challenging ventures for any artist. Sometimes the core game can take up all the time and effort- coding, programming, scripting, etc… it can lead to other aspects of the game being underdeveloped.
A clever and talented designer can work around any limitation- including a substandard narrative. Most would agree that telling a simple story that is easy to understand is a guaranteed way to get general audiences to engage with a narrative. Not everyone will always have the tools to tell a simple story effectively. When in doubt, tell a simpler story in an abstract and surreal way.
Relying on visuals and emotion to convey a story is not new, but it is rarely done and it is not always done well. When it is perfectly executed, the results are engrossing. It is a type of story-telling that is more about the emotions of a scene and symbolism. These kinds of games are traditionally very simple adventure games, but what if it could be a 3D action platformer? Can it be done? Find out in this Strayed Lights review!
Developer: Embers SAS
Publisher: Embers SAS
Platforms: Windows PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (reviewed), Nintendo Switch
Release Date: April 25, 2023
Price: $24.99 USD
Strayed Lights can be generously described as a battle between good and evil, but that might not be giving it enough credit. The story is very abstract and steeped in symbolic imagery that is so vague that any of it can mean almost anything. The few metaphors that are defined are how we are quickly born into a violent and uncertain world and that our worst enemies come from within… maybe.
The completely otherworldly and alien premise will undoubtedly be a barrier for most gamers. There is almost nothing to relate to for the average normie. Strayed Lights is not the kind of story that relies on recognizable concepts as seen in other symbolism-driven adventure games like the Little Nightmares series or INSIDE.
Aside from some vaguely familiar architectural ruins, Strayed Lights gives nothing for the average gamer to make an emotional connection with. It is like it is a game made for aliens. Garage: Bad Dream has a story and premise that is easier to follow and connect with because it relies on familiar concepts that people know.
If all of this sounds negative- it isn’t. Strayed Lights is a very bold and visually striking game with utterly arresting vistas and gorgeous use of color. However, most gamers will find the premise completely impenetrable. Strayed Lights explains nothing and relies entirely on the user to absorb the feelings and tone of the atmosphere.
To the untrained eye, Strayed Lights will appear to be pretentious nonsense with nothing to say with no hook to pull them in. Gamers who are sensitive to symbolic story-telling will find that the obtuse narrative and perplexing cutscenes of firey humanoids duking it out like in an episode of Dragon Ball Z will offer a lot to chew on.
The protagonist can be best described as an elemental homunculus. This ambiguous creature can shift between two colors and battles with big floppy claws. It has large Disney™ eyes, no mouth, and is highly expressive with its body language.
Fighting other entities relies on the classic Z-targeting style combat that 3D The Legend of Zelda games have been using since 1996 and that the “Souls” games have relied on. Fighting is very simplistic and functional. There is not much risk in its design, but it does do something unique that helps make it stand out.
The protagonist’s aforementioned color shifting is tied to how effective it can parry. If the player is matching the color of the foe, a successful parry will restore some HP and build up a gauge that will end the fight when full. Overall, combat is overwhelmingly easy. The window to parry is large and getting hit takes very little damage. On top of beating foes with claws, parrying enough will allow players to instantly win.
While the story might be a tremendous barrier for average gamers to understand, nobody’s progress will be blocked by any fight. Strayed Lights is a very easy game- so much so that it borders on becoming boring. There is never a moment of tension or desperation because of the low-stakes difficulty.
Not all games need to be challenging like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. A game should be as difficult as it needs to be. Ideally, the challenge should match the tone and style of the game’s premise. Strayed Lights is going for an emotional, bleak, and surreal odyssey- so it should have had foes that pose more of a threat.
Compounded with the low difficulty, Strayed Lights is also unbelievably short. There are only two hub areas when three would have been more satisfying. Each hub has five levels, which is appropriate, but falls short when there are only two hubs. Level design is usually linear but is wide open enough to not feel claustrophobic. Players will end up seeing the credits in about three hours and change.
Regretfully, there is no new game plus mode or harder modes to unlock. The protagonist does get a skill tree and it is possible to get to the end without learning every ability. Being able to replay Strayed Lights from the start with previously earned techniques would have added some value to the experience.
The other collectibles are disappointing since they only unlock concept art and are frustrating to acquire since Strayed Lights does have many points of no return. Getting them all would mean having to replay the entire game from the start and this wouldn’t be so bad if it meant carrying over the previously collected items and abilities.
Despite that enemies don’t pose a threat or that the collectibles are unrewarding, Strayed Lights still manages to be an enjoyable adventure. Most of what makes the experience enthralling are the impeccable graphics. The sights make full use of Unreal 4; the highly dense foliage is especially impressive and it is hard to not get sucked into the world when the vistas are massive.
Action game fans will be left bored by the combat, but kids who are getting used to 3D action games will find Strayed Lights worth a play. The emotive ambiance and the low-stakes gameplay make the experience intriguing for younger gamers who would normally be confused by exposition or extended scenes of dialogue or text. The disappointingly short playtime is a bummer, but that means it will hold the attention of kids.
Strayed Lights was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a code provided by Embers SAS. Additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy can be found here. Strayed Lights is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Nintendo Switch.