Stray Souls - Stray The Hell Away (Review)
Released: October 25th, 2023
Developer: Jukai Studio
Publisher: Jukai Studio, Alawar, Versus Evil
Systems: PC, PS4/5 (reviewed), Xbox One/X/S
Stray Souls is like someone decided Silent Hill would be better if Silent Hill was worse.
A vulgar mockery of my favorite game of all time, this dirty disaster may share a composer with Silent Hill 2 but it sure as fucking shit ain’t Silent Hill 2. If it had even the slightest shred of self awareness, it could have maybe passed itself off as a parody - a thoroughly pathetic parody, but at least one that could halfway explain its awfulness.
Perhaps the only unequivocal positive thing to say is that it swindled all the spiteful little shits who supported the director’s bigoted (and spinelessly communicated) views. Those gullible twats wasted thirty dollars and it’s funny they did so. Just goes to show how easily manipulated the alt-right’s little followers are - they’ll buy anything once they’ve been easily convinced it’ll “trigger the libs.”
I hope their performative display of contempt for the LGBTQ+ and Black communities was worth buying a dysfunctional borderline asset flip. Morons.
Stray Souls only clawed out a measure of notability to begin with because Jukai Games somehow tricked legendary game composer Akira Yamaoka into getting involved. His music is the lone competent element, but the very fact he is associated with this… thing… is sad.
In an ideal world he could sue the developers for defamation, such is the stain on his good name.
It’s not merely a bad piece of media, it’s a disgusting monument to hack game development, incorporating A.I. art and a selection of monsters bought from the Unreal Asset Store and clumsily thrown into environments. One wonders, in fact, exactly what content in Stray Souls is actually bespoke. Does it do anything original?
Well, I’ll say this - when it comes to being a buggy, broken pile of cold cum, Stray Souls may deserve plaudits for originality.
Mercifully, the game’s appallingly busted nature meant that I didn’t have to play it for very long. My version is softlocked and can no longer be continued thanks to a glitch that made one puzzle unfinishable. With only one save slot to use, Stray Souls autosaved after achieving this unwinnable state.
Honestly? It felt like blessed freedom, as I sure as hell wasn’t going to restart the entire horrible experience.
I’m going to hold off on describing exactly how the game got dead-ended until later into the review - I think you’ll find it all the more delicious after getting to appreciate the totality of Stray Souls' failure.
One assumes its story is another of the precious few aspects that weren’t bought or generated via plagiarizing algorithms, but I hesitate to call it “original,” cobbled together as it is from the most banal of horror tropes. It’s so hackneyed you can easily tell it was directed by a former Bloober Team developer.
Daniel, one of the whiniest protagonists in gaming history, has inherited a house from a grandmother he didn’t know he had. He’s pretty quickly haunted by the bloody hilarious character model of a “creepy” old lady whose face is frozen into a dorky grin while she staggers around like a tweaking marionette.
Cue a tour of stereotypical horror locations as Daniel goes on a stupid quest to learn the truth about his dingus family armed only with a golden handgun and such comically radical, rapidly shifting facial animations he looks like he’s experiencing ten different allergies at once. His frequent outbursts, which randomly sound like he’s on the verge of tears, are astounding.
The writing and acting is bad, if I’m not being clear enough.
Stray Souls is built on a rudimentary action-horror framework taking place across small levels that offer bare bones combat against prepackaged monsters and inane puzzles so poorly presented to the player that several of them provide no useful clues, sometimes only relaying the amazingly vague objective of “solve the puzzle.”
I’m pretty sure some of the puzzles are only completed by guessing the answer. Others obfuscate the tools used to solve them by making important objects uninteractive until after the puzzle’s started or outright telling you they aren’t important until they are.
That last point is indicative of how Stray Souls fails at audience communication. It doesn’t know how to explain what anything is or does, or when an item changes from useless to useful. It simply waits for our bellend of a protagonist to need stuff, at which point he’ll start interacting with it. This is one of many evident traits of a game that was barely developed.
The skeletal combat system involves particularly unintelligent enemies hazily wandering toward you while you casually fill them with bullets from your handgun. I don’t know if other weapons are available because things became unwinnable before I saw any, and it doesn’t matter. Combat is boring, with the only real challenge being the unwieldy aiming controls and a frequent bug in which Daniel forgets how to perform attacks until he takes damage.
Is he even called Daniel? I’ve forgotten. I don’t give enough of a dick to so much as Google it though, so I’m gonna keep using it.
You have one defensive move, a dodge roll so effective you can breeze past most encounters by spamming it to resemble the world’s shittiest Sonic the Hedgehog impersonator. Every time you roll, the camera attempts to closely follow you from behind rather than fix in place, meaning you frequently get to see the void under a level’s floor textures or the bug-eyed interior of our pitiful protagonist’s character model.
The game itself claims combat is largely optional, but it never tells you which encounters aren’t unless they’re explicit boss battles. Considering how easy combat is, and the immensely liberal number of ammo pickups, it’s not a big deal. You don’t roll away from fights to save resources or because they’re dangerous, you do it to avoid engaging with the dreary chore as much as possible.
Perhaps the most exquisitely illustrative display of Stray Souls’ sweeping stupidity is its first boss fight.
The Wendigo can be bought for $44.99 from UnrealEngine.com and it’s a pretty decent looking asset. The problem with using it, however, is that if you just drop it into your game without accounting for its size, if you don’t give it anything resembling a halfway dependable A.I. routine, and if you have no respect for the concept of playtesting, your epic fight sequence becomes a fucking mess.
Firstly, the creature doesn’t know how to attack unless it’s hit first, which is funny because thanks to the bug I mentioned earlier the player character regularly has the same issue. Our hapless boss seems to lose its hostility frequently, going into bizarre patterns where it keeps backing away after gingerly stepping forwards. It also has very little sense of direction, often aiming its attacks next to your position, or sometimes entirely away from it.
Because of the monster’s size relative to everything else, a lot of its attacks simply miss, and thanks to some utterly arcane hitboxes, even making physical contact doesn’t guarantee an attack will register. The boss can literally jump right on top of the player and their character might awkwardly clip through its limbs rather than take damage.
I’ve fought this boss a few times to get an understanding of how borked it truly is. It’s a fight that never initiates until you take the first free hit, in which you can often safely stand still while your character’s idle animations make him yawn at the big scary monster, and it boasts offense that so rarely makes contact it’s lucky to score a hit 25% of the time.
Just downright embarrassing.
Technically, Stray Souls is not an asset flip. The developer at least mildly tried to arrange all its purchased content in some sort of meaningful order with a fully presented story. However, it hasn’t worked even close to hard enough to ensure these disparate assets mesh together. It might be above the truly lazy practice of asset flipping, but only barely, and with such little evidenced effort as to render the difference practically inconsequential.
Besides which, what kind of aspiring high profile horror creator doesn’t want their own assortment of unique and original monsters? Where is the goddamn self respect!?
So, here’s how the game became unwinnable for me.
It was one of Stray Souls’ many trite puzzles - you work out a code to put into a keypad to unlock a door. A puzzle so overdone that you’d have to be a new class of fuckup to fuck it up. Anyway, I get the code and find out I can’t engage with the keypad. I’m hammering the interaction button but nothing’s happening, I’m not even getting a prompt. However, I eventually notice that while I can’t officially use the pad, I can highlight and press the buttons in the dumbest way possible.
For some bizarre reason, if I got one of the pad's miniscule keys in the very middle of the screen, it would light up. Pressing the usual activation button on my controller still did nothing, so I just hammered all of them until I discovered that the trigger used for shooting managed to work.
So far, so ridiculous, but because the game was already such a tremendous shitshow I figured this was how Stray Souls decided keypads worked, so I went with it.
Inputting the code this way sucked. The protagonist never stands the fuck still, and the camera always moves to stick to his back, so the highlighted key kept changing as I tried to press the one I wanted. To get around this, I aimed my gun at the keypad and shot the keys instead, which worked but was still a nightmare because aiming has exaggerated weapon sway.
I finally put the code in. Nothing happened.
After checking a video online to make doubly sure I had the correct code, I saw that the keypad actually should be interacted with in a normal way using the normal controls, and my game had simply screwed up basic keypad interactivity with thoroughly weird results.
Reloading the save did nothing to fix it. With my entire game now dead in the water, I closed the program and smiled with relief. Sweet freedom.
Need I say it also looks dreadful, features laughably stiff animations, performs atrociously with constant stuttering, and boasts bush-league sound balancing? Well, I said it.
Stray Souls is easily one of the worst horror games ever made. The fascistic interests of its director aside, this is a defective product duct taped into a barely coherent mess of prepurchased assets, algorithmically generated art, and bargain bin genre tropes.
To play it is to cringe at a rare extremity of creative shamelessness. This stunning example of maladroit artistic negligence struggles to achieve the deeply grounded bar of “playable” yet has the insulting nerve to try and claim a desperate connection to Silent Hill. The temerity of this crime against spookiness is off the charts.
How dare Stray Souls? How fucking dare it?