Stray Blade follows the exploits of adventurer Farran West, exploring the ancient, lost land of Acrea. While their name sounds like a Love Island contestant, Farran is actually an experienced historian and explorer, and can be either male or female. There’s no character creator though, as you’ll never see their face anyway thanks to a convenient and uncomfortable looking full-face mask, or the array of helmets you’ll find and craft in the game.
Because Stray Blade is an action adventure with Soulslike elements (as is everything these days) that sees you fighting your way through groups of enemies to find blueprints, crafting materials, and stronger gear, resting at special points of interest that refill your health and respawn enemies. Stray Blade is an odd duck though, because while death drops you at a checkpoint and enemies respawn, everything else is persistent. You don’t lose gear, collectibles or experience, so it feels a little arbitrary.
As Farran, your goal is to traverse the various forests, ruins, abandoned temples and monster-haunted caves of Acrea. After a magical accident leaves you bound to the island, your only hope is to travel deeper into the island’s interior to find your way out. You’re aided along the way by Boji, a magical wolf-like creature who can help you in fights, revive you, and point the way when you’re lost. Although I also really like the compass mechanic, where Farran kneels in the dirt and displays the quest point by actually inspecting the compass.
Weapon and gear upgrades come from blueprints and materials you find. For some reason Acrea has a ratio of almost one forge per tree, so you’ll regularly have a means to upgrade. Individual weapons also level up with use to improve their effectiveness, and encourage you to specialise. Exploration is an enjoyable experience in Stray Blade, as there’s plenty to find and uncover among the ruins. The world is pretty enough if a little generic, but the art style is reminiscent of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which is a plus.
Unfortunately though, the combat just isn’t there. Enemies have either yellow or blue attack indicators. The former require you to dodge while the latter need to be parried. Simple enough, right? The issue is that the combat is horribly unresponsive. The dodge isn’t precise even when locked on, so it’s difficult to get behind an enemy for a backstab, and if you miss a parry or run out of energy (stamina) it leaves you open.
Without these shortcomings, Stray Blade would be a pretty accessible, even entry-level, Soulslike, but the inconsistencies in combat make it much harder than it needs to be. It’s not helped by the fact that enemies can attack right through your combos, and you can’t correct a move mid-swing if you realise your mistake. It’s all a bit messy and chaotic, which is a shame as there’s potential here for certain. At this point it’s also not polished enough. Enemies rubber-band all over the place, the physics don’t connect right, or enemies can reset themselves mid-flight if you kite them too far from their starting position.
Both Farran and Boji can upgrade along separate skill trees, though Farran’s is huge and a little daunting. Most of the skills require a blueprint to unlock, which you’ll find while exploring and fighting. Materials drop like candy, and you’ll rarely be short of what you need to make an improvement.
Make no mistake, Stray Blade is diving into a pretty packed pool and it’s going to have to do something special to stand out. Its buddy and upgrade systems might be enough to carry it for many people, but like all Soulslikes it will be judged on its combat first, and right now that needs some work if it’s going to be ready for the big show. If Point Blank Games can pull it off, they could have a surprise hit on their hands come April.
Stray Blade is set to release on PC, PS5, and Xbox on April 20.