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How Stray Blade is aiming to make fantasy Action RPGs approachable and colourful again

By Aaron Potter. Posted

Maybe hardcore action RPGs have become a little too hardcore in recent years. That’s the sense we get after spending an hour or so with Stray Blade, developer Point Blank Games’ upcoming fantasy adventure that certainly presents itself as your typical riff on the Souls-like formula at first, but is in actual fact much more welcoming to players who don’t enjoy routinely getting their backside kicked. The likes of Elden Ring will always have its devotees, true, but this? This is less about ‘gittin gud’ almost instantly, and more about giving people the space to learn the craft of technical third-person combat over time, while still letting them feel like a badass ancient warrior.

Stray Blade’s vibrant art style is the biggest representation of this slightly more relaxed design ethos. It doesn’t aim to be dank, gritty, and realistic. Instead, there’s a storybook quality to it, with the land of Acrea presenting itself as – dare we say – inviting. This is very much an intentional choice to reflect how the game differs from other genre entries. “We’re very stylised and yet high-detail,” says Nicholas Zamo, brand manager at Point Blank Games. “Sometimes we get the reply that ‘Oh, this looks like mobile’, but connoisseurs of the genre are quick to say ‘Nu-uh, this is not possible’.” Stray Blade’s softer aesthetic compared to certain other action RPGs is all done in the effort to make you feel comfortable in its world, rather than constantly wanting to fight your way out of it.

From oversized spiders and fearsome knights to spiky squirrels that attempt to cut away at you using their sweeping tails, Stray Blade has more than enough enemy types to keep players guessing, despite its inherent approachability. It offers up a good excuse to experiment with different combat tactics, whether you’re someone who prefers to dodge around foes at the risk of losing stamina, or are willing to perfect the incredibly tight timing window to pull off a perfect parry. Point Blank Games has been smart enough to provide options, and that extends to a wide range of weapon types.

Crucially, though, Stray Blade doesn’t let players equip ranged weapons. These are instead reserved solely for enemies that will try to pick you off from afar, in effect forcing you to plan your approach tactically when having to get up close. “We decided we wanted our players to really feel the heat of the moment,” Zamo explains. “And they won’t feel the heat of the moment if, after defeating two or three guys, to take down the last one they can just back off and use their bow to shoot him.” In other words, playing ranged is seen as a coward’s way out, and Stray Blade doesn’t allow for that.

“Because of that, we’ve also tried to make combat very fair, even when things go wrong,” continues Zamo, in reference to the ways Point Blank has ensured no player should get stuck on a combat challenge for too long.

“If there’s an encounter that you find too difficult, and you grind all the healing berries, most likely your next run won’t be the same. It’s not like in Dark Souls or older Souls games where you have just one linear level or route of progression, because encounters change here from one death to the other.”

While your nameless warrior is the one who’ll be engaging in up-close precision attacks, trying to dodge, parry, and regain footing when fighting tough foes, some help is provided by your trusty Xhinnon wolf companion Boji, who you meet early on. He rebalances your inability to use ranged attacks somewhat, thanks to his arcane blasts that can stun enemies. He can also distract them as and when you need to, while handily being able to revive you if you die. Boji’s abilities (much like the player character’s) are tied to specific meters, however, so not exhausting them is a delicate balance.

This balance will no doubt improve as your bond with Boji grows and both your talent trees expand. “That’s the idea behind Boji in combat,” Zamo continues. “Later on, when you defeat the bosses, he’ll also learn passive abilities that you cannot control. Sometimes he jumps into the fight and pounces on the face of enemies, locking down one, but it’s always about helping you crowd-control enemies and never dealing the damage.”

Stray Blade’s more whimsical approach to third-person action set in a high-fantasy land is no doubt refreshing within the current landscape. The vibes it’s putting out hew much closer to something like, say, Kingdoms of Amalur, as opposed to those grim-dark titles that can be far less forgiving. There’s no bones about it – Point Blank Games does want players to encounter and overcome rigorous challenges, but the studio has also attempted to balance these tests out with adaptive encounters, a non-lethal companion, and an intriguing world to explore.

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