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Stray - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Vertical levels utilize cat's climbing and jumping skills
  • Well-hidden secrets
  • Vibrant, beautiful environments
  • Polished and glitch free!

WHAT I DISLIKE

  • Very little gameplay freedom
  • Can't customize cat
  • Cat cannot attack

Overall Impression : B-
[OVERALL IMPRESSION]

Stray - cover

Developer:
Blue Twelve Studio

Publisher:
Annapurna Interactive

Platforms:
PC (via Steam),
PlayStation 4 | 5 < (via PSN digital download)
(< indicates platform I played for review)

MSRP: $30 USD

Original release date:
19 July 2022

Genre:
sci-fi puzzle adventure

Player(s):
single player

Play time:
6 hours

ESRB Rating: E (for Everyone 10+) for:
animated blood, fantasy violence

Official site:
https://stray.game/

When some of the trailers for Stray started releasing on the internet a couple months ago, a couple of my co-workers were really enthusiastic about it. I took one look at the trailer, and pretty much had the entire game figured out. But the idea of playing as a literal cat (as opposed to an anthropomorphized cartoon mascot cat) seemed novel enough for me to toss the game on my Steam wishlist. I ended up buying it on PS5 though, since the price was the same and my aging PCs might not be able to render all the pretty, ray-traced neon lights of the game's cyberpunk dystopia setting.

Right off the bat, I was surprised that Stray does not feature any kind of customization for the cat. I had a bit of a Mandela effect going on in which I could have sworn that the trailers I watched earlier in the year showed customization. But no, we're all stuck with the same orange tabby cat. At the very least, I feel like the developers could have given the player the option to play as one of several pre-fab cat models. The game begins with 4 cats in a little colony, and it seems like the developers could easily have given players the option of which of the 4 cats we want to play with. Ah well. Not a big deal.

I wish there were options to customize the cat or play as different pre-made cat skins.

After being separated from the other 3 cat buddies, the one playable cat must navigate a walled-in dystopian cyberpunk city to find its way back out to its colony. This is done by progressing through a linear route through the environments and completing collections of 3 various types of activities:

  • Run away from hostile critters,
  • Explore small sections of the city populated with humanoid robots for keys, collectibles, and lore,
  • Do some light stealth.

Cyberpunk cat tower

The best parts of the game are easily the exploratory sections, as they are the most free-form and best utilize the novelty of the feline protagonist. The levels all have a significant vertical element to them, and the low-angle camera gives an impressive sense of scale. All the spaces are very small horizontally, never representing more than a single city block, but they are easily doubled or tripled in terms of traversable size when the vertical spaces are factored in. A simple, 3-story tenement building might as well be the Empire State Building from the perspective of your foot-tall feline avatar.

If the player isn't routinely looking up, climbing where you can, and squeezing into tight spaces, you'll likely miss a lot of the game's secrets and collectibles. Though if you are testing the verticality of all the spaces, you should find most (if not all) collectibles without much extra effort or thought.

A stray cat must navigate a cyberpunk city inhabited by robots.

This gameplay would probably be a lot more impressive if not for the fact that it isn't doing anything that every other open world adventure game since Assassin's Creed has been doing: climbing and rooftop parkour. Even though the levels are 3-dimensional, paths to the heights are usually clearly signposted and railoaded, and the cat can only jump or climb onto places that specifically have "jump to" prompts. There are no leaps of faith for this cat. All the challenge is simply observational: is there a clearly-visible path to the place I want to go?

If I were going to make a game about being a cat, I think I would make it a much more free-form parkour game. My vision of a cat game would be more of a platformer, and less of a 3-D walking sim with light environmental puzzles.

Stray also does not ask for much in the way of logic. Puzzles are straight-forward "find the key or switch" tasks in which the key or switch is usually the one and only item in the immediate surroundings that is interactable. The larger village sections are a bit more involved, as they will occasionally ask the player to fetch a set of 2 or more keys in order to progress. But again, the location of said keys is always clearly marked, and it's just a matter of observing and identifying the path to it.

Players can occasionally have fun by role-playing as an annoying cat...

Although simple and straight-forward, these key-hunting tasks are elevated by a charming presentation. Not only do the environments look fantastic, but they are populated with robotic characters for the cat to talk to and, help, and occasionally annoy with stereotypical cat antics. I do wish that there were more context-sensitive reactions from some of the robots when the cat does things like sit on their computer keyboards, push bottles and cans off of ledges, and scratch at furniture. The game allows the player to do all of these things that real-life cats are infamous for (much to their owners' annoyance), but these activities rarely get a reaction from the other characters in the game.

... but most antics will fail to elicit a response from the characters.

That being said, the robots are likeable, and some show a surprising amount of personality despite the complete lack of audio dialogue or facial animation. Their faces are simply computerized displays that show simple emoticon faces and other icons to express specific emotional states. They are generally well-animated, and convey plenty of characterization through these digitized faces and simple body language.

Again, the feline perspective does provide a sense of scale to the player's interactions with the robots. The camera is low enough to the ground that the robots' faces may not be visible unless the robot is sitting, kneeling, or laying down, or if the player deliberately pans the camera up in order to specifically look at the robot's face.

Sci-Fi cat toys

The rest of the game is not particularly note-worthy. It's never bad. Production quality is high, objectives are straightforward, the cat does what I want it to, and I don't recall coming across any glitches the entire game.

There's no direct combat mechanics either, and there's only one brief section in which the player has any kind of offensive capability. So most of the game outside of the open village levels are bare-bones chase and stealth encounters. When confronted with hostile creatures, the cat has no recourse but to run away. The complete defenselessness of the cat is frustrating and uncharacteristic of cats. The cat cannot attack enemies with its claws, nor can it bite. This is despite the fact that the game includes many places where the cat can knead or scratch its claws to sharpen them, such as trees, furniture, rugs, and doors.

The cat can only run away from hostile critters.

I could easily see a system in which the cat can attack enemies with its claws, but repeated attacks would dull them, reducing their effectiveness until the cat is forced to run away. Then it could use the various "scratching post" objects in the game world to sharpen the claws and restore their effectiveness. This would give the player some defense against the enemy creatures, while still placing hard limits on how long you can stand your ground and fight before having to run away.

There is one level that gives the cat a weapon with a simple cool-down mechanic. It's really short and fairly simple. Just run backwards to funnel the enemies into tight groups, then take them all out with one short blast of the weapon.

The stealth is similarly simple and shallow. Robot guards project an illuminated cone of visibility directly onto the ground. As long as you stay out of the glowing parts of floor, you cannot be seen. If spotted, you can sometimes escape to higher platforms or hide in a cardboard box. Even if the sentries see you jump in the box, they will act as if they forgot all about you and resume their normal patrol. Despite being able to hide in cardboard boxes, it's not exactly Metal Gear Solid over here.

The player must sneak the cat past patrolling robot sentries.

Less futile than an open world grind-a-thon

The story is also a bit of a mixed bag for me. Without trying to spoil anything (not that there's much to spoil), I felt like the 3 or so conceptual threads never really come together in any meaningful way. It's all fine in terms of believability. All the explanations for what's going on make sense. It just doesn't make for a particularly interesting story. The only real revelation in the game's narrative is the fact that there are no big revelations. Everything is just kind of incidental and matter-of-fact.

I've read some theorizing and think pieces that try to link all the separate plot threads together, but they kind of go off in different directions, and all seem like the writers are really reaching for something -- anything -- to say about the game to make it seem deeper than it probably actually is.

Stray isn't exactly going to blow anybody's mind in either story or gameplay, but it's also not a bad way to spend the 6 or so hours it takes to complete the game. The $30 price tag might be a bit steep for what Stray offers, but it's a nice little diversion from the 100+ hour open world grind-a-thons that all the big publishers keep trying to shove down our throats, and which I play for 40 or more hours and still aren't even halfway through completing the main campaign. I'm all for playing (and finishing) more polished, 6-10 hour adventure puzzle platformers, whether they feature playable cats or not.

The puzzles and platforming aren't difficult, and the path forward is always clearly signposted.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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