Welcome to Aspen Falls. A foggy but quaint little town in the Midwest that you’ve never heard of. You’ve just moved into the house left to you by a grandmother you never knew you had. But creepy things are afoot in your new house and both Aspen Falls and your family lineage are home to dark secrets that have come clawing at your door. What happened to this town? What happened to your family? And just what the hell is up with all that fog?!
To its credit, Stray Souls, from developer Jukai Studio, is an action-horror game that’s trying to fill the hole left in the psychological-horror genre by the absence of a new Silent Hill. It has all the hallmarks you’d expect: a moody atmosphere, a cursed town, a deep back story, and monsters galore. But can it match up to its many inspirations or is it has it gone astray?
Now it is a horror game, but Stray Souls feels like it’s not quite sure what type of horror game it wants to be; or maybe during production the goals shifted and certain issues were discovered without enough time to change them? To say that Stray Souls feels uneven is an understatement. Its initial haunted house premise, with jump scares and light puzzle solving, quickly gives way to a full-on guns blasting approach that dilutes much of the horror with action.
Unfortunately, Stray Souls gives way to a horror of an entirely different sort… It’s not just bad, it’s surreally bad. But before we get into how Stray Souls goes, well, astray, let’s take a look at what it does sort of well.
The story is actually intriguing, with plenty of written notes and diary entries to flesh out the nightmare infesting this world. These moments were some of the game’s strongest, especially when I found myself picking up notes in a foggy, haunted area, foreshadowing what was to come and ratcheting up the tension. It helps that the voice acting is fairly sold – most of the time.
Monster designs are a strong point as well, with some creepy multi-limbed nightmares out to kill you. In fact, the overall visual design for the world feels impressive for a small team, with some great environmental effects such as howling rain and heavy, shifting fog that permeates most of the game, especially the forest level, which is quite striking and atmospheric. Overall the environments are nicely modelled and detailed – the caveat being several people familiar with Unreal Engine development have pointed out these are often tweaked store assets.
Combat is also straightforward and competent enough, functioning as a simplified 3rd person shooter. You only get one weapon, an occult relic that can kill anything thrown your way. You aim down the sights to shoot and can dodge roll to avoid attacks like a pro. Sprinting may not be fast, but it’s faster than the monsters, which helps to give you enough room to move during encounters.
So where does Stray Souls go wrong? The answer is, sadly, with just about everything else.
Despite an intriguing premise, the story ends up being poorly told. So much so, there’s an actual text file you can find in-game which provides a synopsis of the entire plot – as though the developers realised at some point that they hadn’t told it well and decided to help you out. Sadly, this proves all but vital to understanding the background mythos and in-game events as the game barely makes mention of elements like ghostly possession otherwise.
This poorly structured and incoherent design also applies to character behaviour. For instance, when Daniel first experiences paranormal events in his home, instead of running back out the door, he heads to his computer to tell Martha, a girl whom he just met on a dating app not five minutes ago, all about it. Later, when Daniel goes ahead on his own in the spooky forest carrying the only weapon, leaving Martha behind and defenceless, he calls her to tell her about the monsters that have just attacked him, and she responds by telling him to keep going and she’ll meet him at the destination.
Mind-boggling moments like this permeate the game. When our characters aren’t splitting up for bizarre reasons, Martha often pops in and out of existence, her disembodied voice continuing to have a chat with you while traversing the environment until a cut scene ensues and she’s suddenly standing right next to you. I mentioned the voice acting is fairly solid, but the script and cutscene direction certainly are not.
Another issue is combat, while not actually bad, simply isn’t challenging. The only difficult section was the first boss fight and that isn’t all that hard to begin with. The rest of the enemies, including later bosses, pose almost no threat, making several gruesome and intimidating designs all but pointless. It’s difficult to be scared of enemies that move like decrepit mummies and who are, sometimes, more interested in exploring the corner of a room than eating you.
Another major faux pass, at least in the forest level, is that if you run from enemies, they seem to explode once you reach the limit of their patrol zone. Amusingly, this doesn’t affect them individually – only one creature from a group needs to reach that trigger to initiate a group self-destruct. It makes no sense and, given how effective the dodge roll is, it gives you little reason to fight when you can just cheese each section this way. It’s another issue that feels as though it never fixed and instead got a workaround – like how later levels fog-lock you into small areas until all enemies are dead. Oh, on top of all these issues, there’s also an occasional bug that prevents you from aiming and shooting that can pop up in any combat sequence.
Lastly, there’s the animation – the gloriously awful animation, especially for the faces. These are often simply, astoundingly, laugh-out-loud bad. Daniel’s facial expressions often make him look like a fish out of water gasping for breath, especially when something scary is in his way. In contrast, Martha loves to yawn at inappropriate times or, when exposed to something nasty, look like someone has just lit a firecracker next to her ear. These terrible, over-exaggerated animations aren’t reserved only for idle animations, they also pop up in major cut scenes and dialogue sequences.
With all that said, there’s a catch. As bad as Stray Souls objectively is, it was still quite entertaining in that B-grade “it’s so bad it’s good” kind of way. Much of the game had me laughing for all the wrong reasons but I was still entertained and compelled enough to see where the journey would go. Once I got into the mood of the game – not the psychological horror vibes the developers intended – I found myself engaged despite all of its ridiculousness and gameplay missteps.
Make no mistake, Stray Souls is bad, but it’s entertaining and kind of fun all the same and, honestly, I’m worried too many patches to correct these issues might be to its detriment. While I would have liked a proper closure to the story – it feels like a setup for a sequel – I found myself invested in the outcome and, dare I say it, became fond of all the hilarious animations, especially those wild idle ones. They’re just a part of the game’s janky charm and while I may not revisit it in the future, I can’t deny that it was a bit of a blast while it lasted.
Stray Souls was reviewed on Xbox Series S|X using a code provided to gameblur by the publisher. It is also available on PC, Xbox One, and PS4/5.
Stray Souls (Xbox Series) ReviewStray Souls (Xbox Series) Review
- Interesting premise and mythology
- Voice acting is good (most of the time)
- Awfully bad and hilarious animations
- Fantastic use of fog and some great environment design
- Narrative and logic breaks abound
- Too easy
- A frequent bug that prevents you from shooting
- Those idle animations