When I think “trainwreck in slow motion,” I don’t think of Stray Souls. A trainwreck is devastating, especially the aftermath, but during the actual wreckage, you’re taken in and can’t look away. Stray Souls isn’t nearly as horrifying to behold, never mind inspiring any horror with its generic tale of spooky spirits. It’s the opposite, coming across as so terrible it often brought me joy. I’m not watching with morbid fascination, knowing that the end will snap me back to reality, but captivated by just how hilariously terrible it all is.
The story starts with a father who gets up from his stupor and proceeds to shotgun his entire family, almost like that one radio news story from P.T. They were all eating dismembered body parts, but when they’re all shot dead, aha! It was all a hallucination! Do you take control of this broken man and seek the truth, wondering what unnatural horror twisted you to murder those you love? Do you explore the darkness and intrusive thoughts inherent in every person, perhaps venturing on a path towards redemption, or fall into damnation?
No, but that would have made for a much more interesting premise.
"It’s by this point you notice something vital about Stray Souls – the presentation is awful."
Instead, cut to 18 years later where you control Daniel, a Metahuman (no, not that kind) who just inherited his grandmother’s house after she passed away. Daniel alternates between leaving his clothes all over the place like a slob and chatting up girls online, like Martha, who also coincidentally lives next door to him.
It’s not long before scary incidents occur, whether it’s a strange figure skulking about, odd noises coming from around the house or the classic power outage. What could be causing all of these – oh, it’s the ghost of his grandmother. Just out of the blue, revealed immediately and looks more comical than scary. Then she leaves. And returns to peek menacingly around corners. Then leaves again. And reappears. She’s trying her best here.
It’s by this point you notice something vital about Stray Souls – the presentation is awful. When Daniel sees the ghost of his grandmother, he goes from being scared at her twitching appearance to suddenly having a blank expression, like he’s en route to check the refrigerator. The grandmother is also just gone like she was never there in the first place. There’s no building of dread or creating an atmosphere of terror at the unknown past the first few minutes. It’s all a joke with no punchline.
It also gets worse.
"The game draws from other superior horror titles but seemingly can’t decide what it wants to be."
After these occurrences, Daniel contacts Martha – with their messages typed ahead of each other if you skip forward too quickly – and subsequently embarks on a journey to cure his haunting. Sorry, what I meant was going to the cemetery to see his family’s grave and running through the woods while attacked by terrifying creatures as Martha sets off fireworks in the distance to celebrate Daniel’s birthday. Hurray.
Upon controlling Daniel in the woods, I had the biggest personal jumpscare when pressing R1, which brings out The Gun. Why does Daniel now have a gun, and why is it a gold Desert Eagle? How is he suddenly so good at using a gun? Don’t worry, it belonged to Martha and, I kid you not, that’s the short version of the story. The duo then take off to a nearby police station to find clues about their father and how to stop their grandmother. Or something.
The game draws from other superior horror titles but seemingly can’t decide what it wants to be. Does Stray Souls want to be a psychological horror, like Silent Hill, where you must evade terrifying otherworldly creatures? It fails at this because the monsters in question just inexplicably pop up – the reason why is somewhat explained in perhaps the dumbest, most underwhelming lore revelation – and easily fall to a hail of bullets.
"Since there’s no real reason to be scared, there’s no point even shooting anything at some sections where you can just run past and forget about any threats."
There are multiple ammo boxes (all conveniently of the same ammo as your gun) and medkits in the woods, all similar and arranged carefully enough to remind you that this is a video game. Even if you run out of bullets, Daniel can execute a dodge-roll to evade almost every attack. No stamina is required either.
Since there’s no real reason to be scared, there’s no point even shooting anything at some sections where you can just run past and forget about any threats. This isn’t always the case, but the AI being dumb enough to never really outmaneuver or outwit you, forget posing any real danger, ruins that. Don’t tell me to “Try and survive” when my opponents can’t even get past each other without stumbling around.
There’s also a police station with its dark hallways, narrow corners and locked doors that push you to backtrack continuously to find the way forward. Does it want to be Resident Evil? Possibly, but again, there’s no strategic management of resources or running away to conserve ammo. There’s no feeling of surviving against all odds.
Even when it comes to puzzles, Stray Souls’ best work is probably in the house, after which it devolves into gathering items and keys and opening doors (and not even in a fun or clever way). On two occasions, I had to follow Martha, who approached two different doors on two separate occasions, concluded they were locked and tasked me with doing the heavy lifting. Thanks, sis.
"The so-called “jokes” and witty responses are terrible and make games like Forspoken and Atomic Heart look like masterpieces."
Let’s talk about the siblings. The dialogue where Daniel talks to himself is bad enough – when he shoots monsters, he says things like “I got a bullet with your name on it” or “I got your birthday cake right here” with some of the worst voice cracks yet. However, the banter with Martha is simply horrendous. The so-called “jokes” and witty responses are terrible and make games like Forspoken and Atomic Heart look like masterpieces. Their exchanges feel utterly fake and more like how someone thinks siblings interact instead of how they actually would, that too in a life-or-death situation with supernatural forces seeking to kill them.
What’s not said is even worse. There’s no discussion about the horrors they’ve encountered or reacting to events that just took place. At one point, another ghost arrives to do nothing but add annoyingly loud jump scares. Neither Daniel nor Martha react – it may as well not happen, for as little as it adds to the experience. Given how pivotal that character is to both of them, you would think there’d be some emotional breakdowns or disbelief, but nothing of the sort.
Adding to this are the facial animations. At first, they seem fine, if a little uncanny, but you eventually notice each character cycling through the same expressions. Daniel will have that same scared mumbling with every single horrific sight. He’ll also randomly yawn and purse his lips to the side. It’s just so odd and jarring, especially during combat.
There’s no intense expression of fighting for his life, though he does react to pain. So we know he’s human in that department, though taking damage does not affect his movement or posture. Characters don’t look at each other while talking, and there are even situations where Daniel doesn’t even look at his enemies while shooting them.
"Perhaps the only real positive to Stray Souls is the visuals. Unreal Engine 5 puts in work, with some solid-looking fog effects and foliage, the latter reacting naturally to the wind most of the time."
Speaking of combat, it’s…existent. Whether in the service of providing an entertaining shooting experience, adding to the horror or just for funsies, I’ll leave it to you. Except for the times when you suddenly can’t aim or shoot. I don’t know what triggers this bug or how to get rid of it.
When shooting, you don’t reload automatically when a magazine is empty, requiring you to stop aiming and press the reload button. There are times when Daniel won’t pick up ammo because he doesn’t need it, which is understandable given the limited amount of ammo to carry. Hit the prompt again, and he’ll inexplicably pick it up, the ammo seemingly vanishing into the ether.
There are weapon upgrades automatically unlocked as you progress through the story, like shooting faster, but otherwise, that’s all you get. You run into “bosses” occasionally, like the one giant creature who seemingly skated around and couldn’t damage Daniel’s body despite clearly flinging him away. At this point, I don’t know how to describe the experience other than “present.” There are some interesting enemy designs, but their tactics range from “spew stuff” to “run/shuffle towards the target and hope for the best.”
Perhaps the only real positive to Stray Souls is the visuals. Unreal Engine 5 puts in work, with some solid-looking fog effects and foliage, the latter reacting naturally to the wind most of the time. The lighting and shadows are solid, as are the atmospherics and effects, though there is the odd glitch and clipping at points.
"The less said about the sound, from the forgettable soundtrack and awful voice acting, the better."
Unfortunately, the character models aren’t always properly lit, with faces feeling overexposed despite the darkness of some environments. The camera can also get janky during up-close moments, perhaps the least surprising thing given everything else. At least the experience runs at a consistent frame rate.
One could go on with other annoyances, like how I couldn’t shoot a padlock to enter the police station without doing the whole song and dance with Martha, after which it could be shot. The flashlight also doesn’t point in the direction that Daniel is facing, but rather the camera’s. It led to an awkward moment where the flashlight was towards the camera, but the light source illuminated things behind the character. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but it’s just one of those things that outright breaks immersion. The less said about the sound, from the forgettable soundtrack and awful voice acting, the better.
Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Stray Souls was when I discovered some “lore” in the police station. While most lore tries to educate you on the surrounding environment and its history (which Stray Souls also does, and not in an interesting way), this lore piece reads like a Wikipedia page, providing some much-needed context. Daniel has “The Darkness”, seemingly from being haunted by his grandmother, and that’s caused some deterioration in Aspen Falls, where the woods and police station are located.
There’s a cult with an Inner Circle, and Martha stole a sacred gun, though they removed some of the essential parts, so it’s not as powerful (I think). It’s the same gun she gave Daniel, by the way. I still have no idea what to make of it. How does this lore document exist within the context of the game world? Is there an Alan Wake-like figure chronicling it all?
"It feels more like a showcase for Unreal Engine 5 with an abysmal game attached."
It doesn’t matter because reading this document elicits no reaction from Daniel or Martha. It doesn’t alter their fate or present some new path forward. Worst of all, some of the incidents described don’t even feel all that more interesting than the actual story, which is a heck of an achievement.
I know Stray Souls isn’t a triple-A blockbuster horror title, priced at $29.99 instead of the standard $70. However, it feels more like a showcase for Unreal Engine 5 with an abysmal game attached.
In summary, buy Black Tabby Games’ Slay the Princess instead. It’s a better horror game, a much better story with interesting characters, has a distinctly gorgeous 2D art style and is cheaper. Even if you receive Stray Souls for free, the few laughs you’ll get from the absurdity of it all and the solid graphics can’t overcome how terrible the gameplay experience is. It may not beat the likes of Skull Island: Rise of Kong or Gollum for Worst Game of the Year, but that speaks more to their utter lows than anything else.
This game was reviewed on PS5.
The visuals look good, whether it's the environmental textures or the lighting. Some decent puzzles in the beginning. Gunplay, when it works, is serviceable.
Combat as a whole is unpolished. The dialogue is laughable at best and mind-numbing at worst. Tries and fails to imitate better horror games. No real sense of horror or tension. Poor presentation and voice acting, with one of the worst protagonists ever. Boring exploration and progression. Dumb enemies and glitchy bosses.