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Stray Blade Review: A Flawed But Fun Take On The Soulslike Genre

EDITORS' RATING : 7 / 10
Pros
  • Engaging combat
  • Huge weapon variety
  • Plenty of customization
Cons
  • Generic story
  • Some tedious systems
  • Lack of enemy variety

A PC review code was provided to Zaaz for this review. "Stray Blade" is now available for PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, and PC.

Farren West had adventured his way through the world's most exciting locales before setting his sights on the Valley of Acrea. Once the home of a powerfully magical civilization of giants, the Valley is now ripe for plundering from confident explorers. Unfortunately, its dangers are also very real, and Farren's adventuring career was put to an early end when something in the Valley struck him down.

Except, it's not over. Farren awoke with a strange piece of stone lodged in his chest. Now anytime he dies, he's promptly resurrected and thrust back into the fight. If he ever wants to break the cycle and escape the Valley, he'll need to unlock all of its secrets, and with the help of a certain talking wolf named Boji, he just might manage to get out.

Whether or not the premise of "Stray Blade" grabs your attention, its gameplay formula almost certainly will. "Stray Blade" borrows the core components of the Soulslike genre but brings along some twists (including a difficulty slider) that are likely to appeal to a wider audience. It's a flawed game, but also a fun one.

Build your way

Even though players take on the role of a pre-designed character in "Stray Blade," there is still a surprising amount of room left for customization. Moving through the world and taking down enemies will undoubtedly lead players to new gear and crafting recipes. In addition to boosted stats, every piece of armor comes with a unique look that can be further customized by swapping out color palettes that are hidden all across the map. Every adventurer might technically be the same character, but no two are going to look alike.

Aside from all the cosmetic options that are available, the game's progression system lets players develop their own combat styles. Do you want to sneak around enemies and try to stab them in the back with a spear? Would you rather become a parrying god and laugh as you deflect incoming blows and riposte with a sword? Or is it time to just hold on tight to a big shield and smash enemies with a club between attacks?

As players level up, they'll earn new skill points, but after the first few levels they won't be able to just immediately assign those points. Instead, they'll first need to unlock new skills by becoming proficient with new weapons. There are a ton of weapons to discover, and they have their own move sets, power abilities, and inherent skill to unlock. After the skill becomes available and the point has been assigned, it stays active regardless of which weapon you choose to use.

This system gives players a good reason to experiment with every weapon the game throws their way. From time to time, a valuable skill will be locked behind a subpar weapon, but luckily it doesn't take all that many kills to reach full proficiency. Combining these player skills with the separate, albeit more simplified skill tree that's available for Boji opens up a huge range of options during combat.

Combat with perks and quirks

The basics of combat in "Stray Blade" function like any other Soulslike game. Players have a light and a heavy attack which both deal damage and wear down an enemy's poise. Certain weapons come with a shield that allow players to fully block attacks at a stamina cost, but for the most part, avoiding damage will require careful dodging and parrying. Here is where "Stray Blade" introduces one of its small twists. Before an enemy attacks, it will flash either blue or red to indicate if the incoming strike should be dodged or parried. Not just being able to constantly spam dodge brings a nice challenge to combat, but getting down the timing is frustrating in the beginning. Some enemies flash long before they actually make their attack, whereas others only light up when they're inches away from your face.

When you team up with Boji, combat gets much more interesting. He has the ability to combine crafting materials into runes that give bonuses for a limited time. Some will knock back enemies when they hit you. Others will refill your health after performing a finishing move. Boji can also perform his own poise-damaging attack or even revive players, all based on a small meter that charges during combat. There are a handful of other special combat abilities that players will unlock as they continue to progress through the game. In the early hours, combat feels slower and clunkier than it should, but by the time more options open up, it really does start to feel engaging.

Imperfections take their toll

There are some other areas where "Stray Blade" doesn't necessarily stumble, but does fail to impress. While it's a nice change of pace for a game in this genre to have a plot that can be followed without hours of YouTube research and characters to potentially get invested in, what's here isn't particularly strong. The story of Farren West's quest for freedom is about as straightforward as can be. Rather than hiding the lore of the fallen Elessine kingdom in item descriptions, the game has Boji frequently stop to exposit for minutes on end. It also lets players skip right past those conversations and get back into the action.

The crafting system at first glance is enticing, but after a while it becomes tedious. Enemies tend to only drop crafting supplies and recipes, meaning that getting a new weapon or piece of armor requires grinding for materials. Then, once the weapon is forged, it's back to grinding to unlock its skills, which has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting the game's lack of enemy variety. Aside from giving players a bigger incentive to thoroughly explore the admittedly confusing map, there doesn't seem to be a real reason for enemies not to just drop weapons and armor outright. None of these issues are deal breakers, but they add quite a bit of friction to the experience.

A mixed bag

"Stray Blade" throws a lot of ideas at the wall. They don't all land perfectly, but they do manage to mix up a gameplay formula that become pretty rote these days. Swapping out runes mid-combat and calling in Boji for an assist against a powerful enemy keeps combat feeling fluid, and the sheer variety of weapons means that things can stay fresh throughout the entire game. Between that fluidity and the game's approachable and adjustable difficulty make "Stray Blade" a great choice for people who've been interested in these kinds of games, but have bounced off of some of the bigger titles.

On the other hand, there's plenty about the game that's lacking a bit of polish. Awkward timing windows, a difficult to navigate map, and a tedious crafting system might turn off players who want a Soulslike experience that feels perfectly smooth and balanced. There are definitely going to be moments of unnecessary frustration throughout a playthrough, particularly for players who are well-versed with the genre. "Stray Blade" might not go down in history as one of the best Soulslike experiences out there, but it tries plenty of new things and for that it deserves some real credit.

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