Strayed Lights is a game that came out of nowhere to land on my radar, but it landed hard. I’m a massive sucker for a simple, stylish indie adventure that can be blown over in an afternoon and straight out of the gate I can tell you that this game has all that and then some.
French studio Embers’ first outing casts players as a being born of light, taking them on a journey from birth to ascendance in a dreamlike world where they’ll need to battle their inner demons to bring about peace and a balance of energy. It’s a wordless and esoteric narrative that, at least as far as my own experience goes, serves primarily to offer up a cool-looking world and contextualise some inventive and exciting combat mechanics.
As you make your way through this mysterious world, split into two hubs of interconnected biomes, you’ll happen across its less-than-friendly denizens. Rather than a traditional blow-by-blow combat system, Strayed Lights’ is one of an exchanging of energies. You can certainly take swipes at them, but the true tactic is to carefully party every blow they send your way until you’ve successfully absorbed all of their energy meter into your own, at which point you can end things at the touch of a button.
The added complexity in all this is a colour-based system that rewards you for switching the ethereal glow of your body between orange or blue to match that of your enemy at the moment of parry. Parrying as the correct colour is how you’ll successfully absorb energy (and regain health) while getting the timing right but the colour wrong will still negate any damage but without the other benefits. It’s simple enough but deceptively engaging, as you’re not only learning each enemy type’s attack patterns but memorising which colour they’ll be at key points in their combos, including a third, purple colour signifying an unblockable attack that you’ll need to dodge instead.
This comes together wonderfully during the game’s marquee boss battles, which up the scale of your foes significantly while giving them unique extra mechanics to contend with. These are unanimously great fights that feel increasingly satisfying as you hone your partying and dodging skills against the regular enemies in the lead-up. There aren’t all that many encounters across the game’s four-hour runtime, maybe a dozen for each of the major areas, making them all feel like crucial steps in your journey.
The one concern I do have with Strayed Lights’ otherwise-commendable take on enemy encounters is that there’s a bit of built-in exclusion that comes from the colour aspect. With no settings to tweak how these are displayed or alternative method of delivering the information needed, those who struggle with colour vision could find themselves at a huge disadvantage, doubly so given there are no difficulty settings to speak of either.
Outside of combat, Strayed Lights’ loose exploration serves well enough as a stroll through its oneiric landscapes. There are some collectibles to be found off the beaten path that add towards character progression, and a smattering of abilities to upgrade as you go, but it’s otherwise fairly basic stuff. The positive there is it makes this an easy game to slip into and vibe with minimal interruption, and it keeps things nice and succinct. Upon finishing the game I was a little stung to find that it’s not possible to go back to the pre-climax state and search out anything I missed along the way – the game simply throws players back to the main menu with only “New Game” as an option to dive back in.
I’d happily take the plunge again though, not least because Strayed Lights is a beautiful experience. From the breathtaking environments and their abstract-but-endearing inhabitants to the awe inspiring boss designs and anime-as-hell set pieces tussles you’ll have with them, this is a very handsome title indeed. The music, dreamt up by Austin Wintory (Journey, ABZÛ), is equally gorgeous even if the games overall audio mix is a bit dull throughout.
It’s not out to shake up the indie video game space, but thanks to a uniquely engaging combat system and a consistent stream of wonderous sights and sounds, Strayed Lights is a worthwhile little journey that makes for a great lazy afternoon play. It’s unfortunate that the user experience has suffered an oversight or two, especially in areas of accessibility, but mainly because it’s a quiet gem of a game that absolutely deserves to be played.