Stray Blade review

This fantasy hack ‘n slasher introduces us to Farren West, a gallant adventurer whose bravery and determination hold no bounds. It’s easy to imagine him holed up in a tavern, capturing an audience with tales of his conquests. He speaks with a gruff British accent, describing himself as a man of the world. That’s our world, at least. Curiosity leads Farren to a magical realm – a world full of silent Gods and their gracious gifts – where he soon feels both out of place and out of his depth.

Fortunately, a friendly(ish) face soon emerges. Farren forms a pact with Boji, a magical creature resembling a miniature bi-peal wolf, who speaks with a Scottish twang. Boji acts as a guide through this overgrown world, detailing its history and using his powers to both open new routes and highlight the path ahead. He can also revive Farren should he fall in battle, although this does set you back to the last activated shrine.

Not only this, but Boji can even revive long-deceased legendary beasts, just so Farren can defeat them once again and earn their powers. This spectacle is reserved for the infrequent boss battles, often spaced a few hours apart.  

While several Souls-like features are present, including enemies that respawn upon activating a shrine and the ability to collect loot dropped upon death, Stray Blade plays more like a traditional hack ‘n slasher. The difficulty level is more forgiving; health-bestowing berries are easily found, and it’s consequently far easier to progress. It also provides lots of hints to stay on course: a main quest is always active, a compass can be activated, and a world map is slowly compiled by finding wall murals depicting the local area. The lack of an on-screen mini-map is unhelpful, though.

Combat sees Farren lash out with a wide range of melee weapons, each of which has its own range and other attributes. Every location includes numerous weapons and armour blueprints to find – usually inside chests found within bandit camps – creating a drip-feed of new equipment over the game’s 20+ hour duration. Equipment then must be crafted at a forge, likewise found within bandit camps, using resources either found in the environment or from defeated foes. Depending on location, forges can be uncommon, with one instance even calling for a lengthy backtrack.

Peculiarly, the skill tree is almost solely based on weapon proficiency. There are a few skills to acquire in the opening hours, but after this, further skills are all linked to levelling up weapons through use. This, in turn, unlocks rune slots – each providing a perk, such as comically sending enemies hurtling backwards if they land a successful blow. Farren’s life bar extends throughout the adventure, and this is the only way to track stats; you’re simply left to assume that he becomes stronger after levelling up. While this system is unconventional, it does encourage using different weapons. In theory, at least. I stuck with the pitchfork for several hours as its long reach proved invaluable.

World design is one of Stray Blade’s strengths. This magical realm was created by giants three times the size of a typical man, and as such, the world is filled with grand structures that tower above. During the game’s opening, I found myself stopping to take in the sights, finding the grassy knolls and floating islands alluring. The game’s second half, however, opts for snow-covered wastelands, disused mines, and scorched earth – making for far fewer picturesque views.

While it can be quite easy to become lost due to the size of each area – and perhaps a lack of notable landmarks – Boji often unlock elevators and creates bridges to make backtracking swifter. There are detours to discover too, and handily, Boji will point out when you’re heading off the beaten path.

It’s during combat that Stray Blade stumbles. There’s a slight QTE feel to the combat system, and I’m pretty sure this wasn’t intentional. Either way, many battles pan out in a similar fashion. An enemy will dash towards and strike, and either flash blue or red to indicate the need to dodge or parry. Worry not if your reflexes aren’t quick, as a dodge will see you escape most attacks. Then, when the enemy is preparing for their second attack, you can usually get a hit or two in before they flash and attack again. Repeat ad nauseam. It doesn’t matter if you’re fighting wild creatures, bandits, or knights with super-sized weapons; most battles boil down to a loop of parrying, dodging, and attacking during openings.

Combat can still satisfy though; both Farren and his adversaries deal heavy-hitting blows, complete with dramatic slow-mo. It’s also possible to stealth attack unaware enemies from behind (although, oddly, there’s no button prompt) and perform excessive final blows.

While enemies always attack aggressively – defeating several in a row unscathed is a tricky task – the AI isn’t too bright. Enemies are very quick to return to their home position. During one battle, a bandit even returned to their campfire as I battled the rest of their crew. They won’t climb objects either, so taking the high ground can leave their routines confuddled. There is some unintentional fun to be had here though. I was able to fool three enemies into falling off a bridge simultaneously, and lure a bunch of high-level enemies into an empty elevator shaft. I’m sure Dark Souls players are used to engaging in similar tomfoolery. Speaking of which, Farren’s attacks are intuitively mapped to RB and RT, with LT to raise a shield if you’re using a one-handed weapon.

Sadly, the AI isn’t the only aspect lacking polish. There are telling signs that Stray Blade needed a little longer in development, including the occasional appearance of a text box containing notes from a ranting developer. Taking to Boji – at least in the Xbox Series version – also results in part of the inventory screen randomly appearing, requiring said menu to be opened and closed for it to vanish. These things are at least patchable, leaving just the increasingly predictable combat and a handful of peculiar design choices as inherent faults.

While Stray Blade is inviting enough initially, it soon feels as if it’s going through the motions somewhat, leading to fatigue long before its forgone conclusion. If adventure calls, this will suffice – and those looking for a more accessible Souls-like may want to keep this in mind – but there are far better options out there, especially for those who relish a challenge.  

Developed by Point Blank Games and published by 505 Games, Stray Blade launched 20th April on PS5, Xbox Series, and PC.  

SCORE
6