Strayed Lights Review - Screenshot 1 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

As soon as we booted up Strayed Lights, we were rooting for it. The sights and sounds were beautiful and haunting, making this freshman offering from developer Embers one of the most enchanting games we’ve played all year. Unfortunately, a string of visual bugs and long loading times marred what was otherwise a glorious experience.

The first moments of Strayed Lights mark the first moments in your character’s life. They start out as a flickering ember of energy and slowly bloom into a mature and powerful version of themselves. The game uses the initial shadowy version of the protagonist to introduce the unique combat mechanics that you’ll need to get a handle on if you’re going to survive in this strange alien world.

While the game has some attack mechanics, you’ll spend far more of your time playing defence rather than offence. Enemies will glow one of two colours and you’ll need to switch your own colour using the 'R' button to match it before parrying their incoming attack with the 'L' button. Get the timing right and you’ll drain their energy and heal yourself until you can unleash a powerful explosion of light that tears the enemy apart.

Strayed Lights Review - Screenshot 2 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

The controls aren’t always as precise as we would have liked, but once you get used to the occasionally sluggish timing of the combat, it is challenging and rewarding to play through. There is a third type of attack that can’t be parried which must instead be avoided by using the dash mechanic, but we found that to be too imprecise to be relied upon. When the controls finally do click, Strayed Lights becomes one of the most unique combat experiences you’ll find on any console.

Unfortunately, most of the combat plays out the exact same way. Outside of a few bosses, enemies only come in a handful of varieties with largely predictable attack patterns. Occasionally you’ll face a pair of different types, which poses a slightly more difficult encounter, but even by the end of the game, we were more likely to die by accidentally walking off a ledge during the game’s platforming sections than being killed by monsters.

The fact that you won’t die very often is a blessing since the load times in Strayed Lights are the real enemy here. There are also technical glitches throughout the game, such as frame rate issues, screen tearing, and stuttering cut scenes. These problems were much more common when playing in handheld mode, but even when docked the game had to pause to load the next section while we were in the middle of a jump, resulting in at least 30 seconds of us just floating in the air, uncertain if the game had crashed or not. The game never actually crashed on us but the bugs were frustrating enough to seriously impact our enjoyment.

Strayed Lights Review - Screenshot 3 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

Platforming is not this game’s strong suit, unfortunately. The character will only climb onto ledges if they hit the exact right spot, making some jumps awkward to attempt. The player floats toward ledges and will flail against them for a moment before they finally decide to climb up to the top, but it can be difficult to tell which structures can be climbed and which should be left alone.

While the environments are beautiful to look at, they’re often incredibly barren, which, when combined with the visual hiccups, makes the game feel a little unfinished and messy. It is so frustrating because Strayed Lights is simply stunning when you are just walking around the world, taking in the sights, or getting a screenshot using the game's photo mode. The use of colours to paint a picture is glorious and we loved the way the story unfolded without the use of a single word of dialogue. The animation and design on display here are top-notch.

Strayed Lights Review - Screenshot 4 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Handheld/Undocked)

The music also deserves praise. Austin Wintory, who composed the music for Journey and The Banner Saga series, has crafted a soundtrack that brings the visuals to life. It is haunting and uplifting at the right moments, feeling perfectly at home among the motes of colour and light that populate the world. In the absence of dialogue, the music of Strayed Lights helps give the characters their emotional weight.

As you explore the world, you collect shards of power that can be used to unlock or upgrade your character’s abilities. There are only a few of these, such as being able to parry any colour for a short period or unleashing a powerful melee attack against enemies. You can only use these abilities a few times per battle, but they can turn the tide, particularly if you’re struggling to get the timing right on your parries.

Strayed Lights isn't huge. Without unlocking every upgrade or getting every collectible, we finished the main story in around eight hours. The shorter playtime is a blessing in many ways; any longer and the repetitiveness of the combat would have become grating. However, it also means that you are unlocking new abilities right up to the very end, which prevents you from ever finding a real groove with the combat.

Strayed Lights Review - Screenshot 5 of 5
Captured on Nintendo Switch (Docked)

A lot of ambition clearly went into this game. From the storytelling to the combat to its music, it is an experience unlike any other and that is worth celebrating. Even with the numerous visual issues and the repetitive enemies, it is worth picking up Strayed Lights to experience for yourself just how different it is. Flawed and inconsistent but somehow still compelling and enchanting. If you can overlook its shortcomings, there is an absolute gem here.

Conclusion

Strayed Lights is something rare in the gaming industry; a game that genuinely surprises us. The combat is unique and accessible. The story is told in a subtle, heartfelt way. The music and visuals are stunning. However, a string of technical bugs, repetitive combat, and inconsistent platforming sections mar what would otherwise be a stellar offering from a new studio. If it ran better on the Switch, we would be giving it a much better score.