Introducing something new to me in action combat is rare. In games that feature it, you’re likely using either guns to kill enemies or melee action to take them down, and I’m not often surprised by how this can work. I can, of course, fall in love with familiar combat despite that, but it’s always exciting to experience something I haven’t before, which is what Strayed Lights manages to do.
Relying almost exclusively on a unique parry system requiring you to switch between two colors to match your enemy’s attack, I couldn’t get enough of Strayed Lights’ action, even if it was repetitive. That this combat was wrapped up in a gorgeous, realized alien world and backed by a dynamic and musically diverse score from Austin Wintory (the composer of Journey and The Pathless) made my time with the game all the better.
Strayed Lights begins with a birth of sorts. You start as a spark of light – an ember – on a journey to transcendence. To succeed, you must confront your inner demons – darkness – using a defense-focused combat style, all while exploring more of this ethereal sci-fi world to learn about your existence. In my first hour, I felt overwhelmed because developer Embers does little to hold your hand or even guide you in a direction, but the game’s openness is more linear than it first appears.
Running around this world is great, but the platforming is sometimes less than stellar. Jumping feels strange because your character often hits the ground with a thud, and you must wait a few moments for them to recover and stand back up. This design choice makes larger jumps, of which there are many, feel burdensome. But platforming is rarely the star of this show as it’s more of a quick means to reach the next combat arena.
When an enemy is close, a shadowy substance smears the edges of the screen, a rocky monster (sometimes two) appears, and Strayed Lights begins to shine. By pressing the left bumper, I can switch the color of the fiery light burning inside my character from blue to orange and back. This is important to nail down soon after the game begins because every enemy switches colors like this too. And you need to parry with the right bumper with your color matching theirs. This mechanic starts simple, but a third color you cannot match – purple – is thrown into the mix, requiring you to dodge. At its height, a fourth color is added and enemies quickly switch between them as they wail at you with three, four, and sometimes five hits. I loved frantically switching my colors to match theirs with a parry, dodging when required, and getting in hits with my limited offensive abilities.
Parrying is the only way to regain health during combat, which required me to play more dangerously as my health dropped. There are abilities and special moves you can unlock for your combat repertoire but ultimately, learning Strayed Lights’ parry mechanic is crucial – there’s no reaching the end if you can’t nail the timing. I love a good parry in a game and this one remained satisfying through the end, but those who prefer to dodge in melee action games may struggle.
Collecting shards from enemies to spend on abilities is satisfying, as is exploring the open areas to collect items connected to lore, leveling up, and more. Fortunately, straying from the path to find these collectibles requires little effort, which is good because it lets you get back to combat. The action is simple but satisfying, and while the instances where I had to fight more than one enemy at a time were more frustrating than anything else, I still enjoyed almost every combat scenario I stumbled into.
The game lacks enemy variety, though. It initially seemed like each new area might have its own enemy makeup, but halfway through the game, I realized Strayed Lights only had a handful of monsters to throw at me. Learning each attack pattern was a fun mental exercise, and I would have liked more.
Regardless of what I was doing, my eyes and ears were feasting. I entered each new open area in Strayed Lights delighted at the visual design before me. Suns and moons burn overhead, and landscapes are painted in beautiful hues of green, blue, neon pinks, and purples. My ember light of a character shined against these backdrops and my hard drive is home to a couple of dozen screenshots because of it. Wintory’s score matches the tone of each place, dancing between ethereal wind instruments and ritualistic percussion that seemed to be speaking its own alien language. Even when the gameplay falters, like in two-enemy combat scenarios or the game’s less-than-great platforming, I enjoyed being in this world because of Strayed Lights’ score and visual design.
Strayed Lights is short, sweet, and mostly excels at what it asks players to do. Its unique parry-required combat brings something new to the table, and I enjoyed nearly every instance of it, especially in the larger boss-fight setpieces sprinkled through the journey. Its exploration doesn’t require much effort, which is a good thing because it largely doesn’t feel great to platform through areas. Its misses are easy to put aside, though, when what I’m looking at and hearing throughout the game is such a delight. Strayed Lights is a strong debut from Embers in almost every way and serves to highlight the importance of a game’s foundation. At its core, Strayed Lights revolves around a simple, intuitive, and unique combat system, and with this strong base in place, it’s no wonder the game shines as bright as it does.