Now here is a game that turned some heads. Stray was all over gaming communities when it released earlier this year. How could it not be, given that it’s a game about cats. The internet loves cats! But it’s exactly that fondness for dopey felines that had me apprehensive about trying the game for myself. Was this a traditional video game or yet another walking sim with a strong hook to it. The answer, it turned out, fell somewhere in-between.
As the internet has been keen to point out: in Stray you play as a cat. A lovely orange cat, to be precise. During the tutorial you misjudge a jump and wind up plummeting into the depths of a strange city. One inhabited by robots who regard the concept of an outside world as a myth. Now trapped in this city as well, you team up with an amnesiac drone to discover if, maybe, there is a way to escape.
The difficulty in creating games around very specific concepts is that gameplay tends to run out of ideas. Playing as a cat sounds novel, but how much can you realistically do as a cat? How much of that can be transformed into actual game mechanics? Catlateral Damage is a good example. It’s a game where you play as a cat, but only in the sense that you see a paw as you push physics objects around. Cats knocking stuff over is a well-known, goofy thing they do, but as a gameplay mechanic it carries maybe an hour an of entertainment.
Stray is instead framed as a third-person platformer with puzzle mechanics. You climb all over the robot city by leaping from place to place, either to run errands for other characters or as linear obstacle courses between story beats. Puzzles will call on typical cat activities, like scratching things, knocking stuff over, and meowing. You distract robots by meowing at them at just the right time for them to mess up a task. Or destroy the cables of an important machine by sharpening your nails on them.
The story does eventually get too involved for typical cat behavior, though. Most of the funny cat shenanigans stem from your own player freedom, while in the actual gameplay you rigorously follow orders that no self-respecting cat would ever humor. This is where your drone comes in. It stores any items you find away, let’s you show or use those items in their appropriate locations, and translates dialogue from robot to cat.
Gameplay is very contextual though. Places you can jump between are even more preset than the early Assassin’s Creed games, as Stray will just not let you go in any direction but forward. There is no skill involved in jumping around, you just press the button to leap from one context-sensitive spot to the next. You then press a context-sensitive button to push or scratch at a puzzle item. Or, in more advanced cases, press a button to have your drone buddy interact with an object for you. This gets somewhat annoying in puzzles, when prompts for what buttons to press spoil the solutions.
That sounds bad, but I do love how much effort was put into making you feel like a cat. The animations as you hop around are solid and the protagonist, through all their shenanigans, is just so darn cute. You can fall asleep on things, cuddle up against robots, and meow on command. You can even meow in cutscenes, just to jarringly interrupt emotional moments. It’s silly, but very cat-like indeed.
Some parts of the game do also get challenging. There are these headcrab-like enemies that will try to latch unto and swarm you, which can quickly lead to a Game Over. Your only hope is to run away from them or trick them into falling down the level, both which are pretty challenging to pull off. There are also stealth segments that punish mistakes hard. I tried rushing through these a few times and got smacked every time.
In the more open-ended levels, it’s also fun trying to find your way around. The city maps are complicated, both vertically and horizontally. You can climb so many different in so many different ways, with (optional) items and secrets tucked away all over. Even in the more linear maps, it pays to be perceptive. Little hidden paths can often lead to collectible memories, which expand on the city’s lore and give you a neat little reward if you find them all.
Speaking of lore, I was actually very impressed with the story and atmosphere of Stray. There are a lot of signs that something is wrong in the city. The robots have taken to mimicking human behaviors, as humanity itself has mysteriously vanished without biological trace. Their cities and buildings yet stand, but have been repurposed by robots who can only guess at their original purposes. They revere the humans in a way, which is both charming and somewhat unsettling. A deconstruction of our cultural habits, stripped of their actual purposes.
Strong visual directing compensates for graphics that aren’t exactly in line with current-gen capabilities. Your robot buddy has a habit of clipping into walls, floors, and other scenery, and the textures look rough all around. However, the lighting does a lot to set a mood for the game and obscure its graphical shortcomings. There are a lot of beautiful vistas as you survey the neon-lit cityscapes. Navigating your way through that city has a melancholic feel to it, amplified by the game’s excellent soundscape.
On another note, the design of the robots is also very appealing indeed. They’re an expressive lot, in spite of their mechanical nature. It’s particularly cute when you manage to fluster them, such as by suddenly cuddling up to the tin cans or by interrupting their activities.
So yes, Stray is more than just a gimmicky walking sim. It’s an atmospheric game, with puzzles, action, and stealth mixed into it. Some of its gameplay is on the simple side, with platforming being way more context-sensitive than I would have liked. The game is also understandably short, at 4 hours and 45 minutes for a blind run through the game with 100% completion. I had a great time with it though and will undoubtedly replay it again sometime.