REVIEW: ‘Stray Blade’ Delivers Challenges And Exploration (PC)

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Stray Blade — But Why Tho

Farren is a bold adventurer who has arrived in the Acrean Valley looking for new wonders. But when they find the lost valley, it turns out to be far more than they expected. Now, with the help of a local named Boji, Farren must face off against hostile monsters and roving bands of troops, and slay beings akin to gods if they hope to ever escape the valley in Stray Blade, the challenging action-adventure game from developer Point Blank Games and publisher 505 Games.

As a sub-genre of action-adventure games, the Soulslikes are some of the hardest games to get into. Their punishing difficulty and often unforgiving save systems have never been for the faint of heart. But with Stray Blade, I think we have one of, if not the most, accessible entries in the genre to date. While it still demands precision in combat and lots of patience from the player, this game feels far more forgiving in a number of ways that allow the player a better chance to overcome their struggles. Let’s start by looking at the combat.

The combat here is the slower, more methodical style of swordplay one expects to find in a Soulslike. Rather than hacking and slashing away at foes, Stray Blade expects players to approach each new encounter with caution. Every new enemy presents a new danger, one that, until scouted out, can pose a great deal of threat to would-be explorers. The first thing a player needs to learn is what kind of attacks the enemy uses.

All attacks can be dealt with through either dodging or parrying. When an enemy prepares to attack, they will become outlined in either blue or red. Blue means the player will need to parry the incoming attack, while red means a dodge will be required. This information is invaluable as not knowing would make new attacks a harsh experience of trial and error. Though the color indicators can be turned off if a player should wish for that harsher challenge. As someone who accidentally turned theirs off for the first several hours of my time with the game, I can assure you it makes it much harder.

Stray Blade — But Why Tho

But while these color warnings take a lot of the sting from fighting a foe, it doesn’t tell the player the whole story. How to handle the incoming attack is given to them, but not when to affect their defensive maneuver. The timing between color flash and when the attack actually comes is widely varied from attack to attack—some sport deceptively long delays, while others come almost as the flash subsides from view. Learning when to dodge or parry perfectly is one of the keys to victory. Since defending “well enough” may allow you to survive an attack, it can cost you the fight.

The reason why perfect defense is so important in Stray Blade is due to the energy system. Every attack and defensive maneuver drains your energy bar. If the bar is ever empty, neither action can be taken. This is bad for all the obvious reasons. However, when a perfect Dodge or parry is performed the player receives a burst of their energy back. So if you can get into a rhythm of perfect defense you can press a much stronger attack. Otherwise, you will find yourself forced to fall back from enemies while your energy regenerates, making fights far longer affairs. or, if no ground is available to run to, the fight will end even sooner as the player racks up another death.

Enemies are also bound to a similar system with their poise bar. If an enemy ever runs out of poise, the player can perform a finishing attack that will kill the enemy, regardless of their health. This further incentivizes pushing a strong attack so enemies can’t regain their poise. The one exception to this is, unsurprisingly, boss encounters. Bosses don’t suffer from poise, forcing players to whittle away their extended life bars bit by bit.

These infrequent boss encounters, while set up to be impressive moments that pit the player against near-godlike beings, fall far short of the mark. While they hit harder and take longer to kill, these elements don’t make them more engaging or fun, just longer and more unforgiving. As the player manages to work through the boss’s health slowly, they will periodically fall back to force some new element into the combat the player must maneuver through. From raining rocks from the sky to forcing the player to take out scenery elements to keep the boss from regenerating, these momentary distractions work to break up the fights, but never feel fun.

The reward for each boss beaten is a new means of exploring Stray Blade‘s world. These new movement options open up previously inaccessible areas as well as being critical in moving through the rest of the game’s map going forward. However, all of these moments are set to certain areas, with visual cues informing the player of when the ability needs to be used. While the newly gained ability is initially exciting, the limited ways they can be used makes them quickly lose their thrill. These new movement abilities do come with some combat implementations as well, but their functionality always felt too limited to me for frequent use. Though when they are useful, they are very useful.

The last element of Stray Blade‘s combat I need to talk about is perhaps the most challenging hurdle to get over, and unfortunately, it isn’t by design. That’s the target locking system. As you may have figured, during combat, players can lock onto a target to keep Farren focused on them, allowing for easier defense and counterattack. By clicking down on the left thumbstick(I opted to play with a controller), I could enable the lock while flicking right or left would change the target during multi-enemy engagements. At least in theory. I frequently found myself having to click the thumbstick repeatedly while pivoting the camera around my desired target in order to get a lock on. And changing targets during combat was often unreliable. Sometimes it wouldn’t work at all; sometimes, it would only work in one direction, forcing me to toggle through several enemies before getting to the one I wanted. Worse still were the times I’d slay one of my opponents, and rather than have the lock jump to the other enemy about to stab me, it would lock onto a previously unknown enemy on the other side of a cliff and nowhere near engaging me.

Stray Blade — But Why Tho

While the bulk of Stray Blade‘s combat is carried by Farren’s weapons, Boji comes to aid the player as well. Over time, as Boji levels up, he unlocks several abilities that can help the player in their fights. From a distracting attack that deals a large amount of poise damage to their enemies to a possible resuscitation should the player die, Boji comes to provide several useful support tools to aid in Farren’s journey. Though even with Boji’s help, death will come often. Luckily, even in death, Stray Blade is more forgiving than many games in the genre.

Death sees Farren brought back to the most recent save point they activated. However, much of what Farren has accomplished will carry over to their next life, helping the player continue to carry some of their momenta forward from one life to the next. Any levels or resources gathered will stay with them, and any areas that have been completely cleared of hostiles will remain cleared. This was a lifesaver for me as the endlessly repetitive fights going through the same areas over and over again are one of my biggest frustrations with the genre. This also allowed me to feel like I could press my luck a bit more than I otherwise would have. Since getting lost wasn’t as likely to see all my progress undone should I die again.

Incentivizing exploration is something that comes in handy as Stray Blade features a complex map that is fairly easy to get lost in. While not the largest map I have had to navigate by far, it is dense, with many winding paths and elevations making getting from point A to point B a challenge in and of itself, especially given the absence of an onscreen minimap. But taking the time to clear out enemy camps and hunt down rare artifacts will pay off big in the long run. Blueprints to build better weapons and armor can be found in chests scattered throughout the Acrean Valley, as well as the resources to build them with. Forges are typically only found in the heart of enemy camps, so some fights are necessary to gain better armaments. And better weapons are worth more than just improved damage, speed, or energy efficiency from the weapons you were using before.

Slaying enemies with different weapons raises Farren’s mastery of that weapon. This improves the weapon by unlocking rune slots(more on runes in a minute) as well as unlocking a special attack. But perhaps most important is the bonus Farren will then be able to unlock on their skill tree once the weapon is fully mastered. Unlike the other bonuses earned through weapon mastery, this bonus is not exclusive to when the given weapon is wielded.

Rather, it is permanent, applying to Farren for the rest of the game. Bonuses like more health, increased damage to certain kinds of attacks, and improved energy management can all be gained depending on which weapons the player masters. This encourages players to step out of their comfort zones and wield weapons they normally wouldn’t in order to unlock helpful boosts. And with the ability to have two weapons interchangeable with the press of a button, players can quickly fall back to a more reliable weapon if a situation should prove too troublesome.

Stray Blade 505 Games Showcase

While Farren upgrades through combat, Boji upgrades through knowledge. Discovering lore points scattered across the map rewards players with the ability to unlock and level up various abilities and runes that Boji can use to aid Farren. While abilities, once unlocked, are always available, runes are a finite resource. Every time the player crafts a rune, it is applied to the weapon they are currently using and only lasts for a limited number of strikes. While the resources used to make these combat buffs are not scarce if you explore a bit, overuse can see you run out. So while having a +20% chance to crit with an attack may always be helpful, you might want to save those for the big guys.

The story of Stray Blade is generally decent. Told mostly through optional dialogues between Farren and Boji as they travel, the duo teach each other about their respective worlds and bond as the journey goes on. How Acrea came to be as it is and where the magic that traps Farren there came from is an interesting story and worth listening to Boji tell it. But, if you aren’t into the plot and wish to skip over it, as I said, most are completely optional.

The last element of Stray Blade we need to talk about is the visuals. Acrea’s world is presented to the player through a series of lush environments. Jungles, ruined cities, scorching deserts, and frozen caves are all scattered across the valley. The most impressive of these visual elements is easily the towering temples and fortresses left behind by the valley’s former inhabitants. The gleaming structures never fail to lend an air of grandeur to the moments that bring the player through them.

The design of the creatures is good as well, though some are a bit overused. Some creatures appear in multiple regions sporting a simple color swap to differentiate them from their earlier fought lookalikes. This isn’t terrible, but it does dim some of the excitement of exploring a new area, just to run into familiar enemies of a different color. Though it can be said that this does make combat easier again, as it allows previously learned attacks to carry over into new regions making all of the player’s hard-earned lessons still useful.

Stray Blade delivers a lot of content in its fantasy journey. While most of the game comes together well, key elements greatly hurt the core gameplay. But, if you are willing to weather these added struggles, this game has some rewarding exploration and combat to deliver to gamers.

Stray Blade is available on April 20th on PC, PlayStation 5, and Xbox Series S/X.

Stray Blade
  • 7.5/10
    Rating - 7.5/10


Stray Blade delivers a lot of content in its fantasy journey. While most of the game comes together well, key elements greatly hurt the core gameplay. But, if you are willing to weather these added struggles, this game has some rewarding exploration and combat to deliver to gamers.

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