Even now, I still can’t help but being blown away by the sheer level of popularity generated by Stray. It’s gameplay trailer back in June (2022) very obviously took the internet by storm, so it was a bit of a shock to me to discover it had teaser trailers dating back to 2020. One only needs to look at the amount of news articles generated in two months about the game after the June gameplay trailer compared with the two years following the teaser. Clearly, something about the looks of the game really resonated with the internet.
In truth, I am reminded of something I said in my review for Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag way back in the day. It feels almost like cheating to just take two things the internet loves and smash them together. The internet likes cyberpunk, it’s pretty in the vogue right now, and the internet fucking L O V E S cats. So, cat + cyberpunk seems like a pretty clear recipe for a winner.
Of course, there’s more to it than that. We’ve had games where you play as what can only be described as an actual normal animal before, games like Shelter spring to mind. We’ve also had games in which we play in a cyberpunk world and even ones where you play as a sort of crazy, hopped-up, random creature in strange madcap worlds. But there really is something to be said about the combination of throwing what is literally just a normal cat into a crazy cyberpunk world.
On its own it’s a pretty interesting juxtaposition. The insanity of a human-created sci-fi world, neon lights, robots, a futuristic city constructed with future technology and where some of that same technology has gone badly wrong. All of this experienced through the eyes of a creature which would neither understand nor really care about how or why the world is like it is. As long as there’s a comfy nap spot and a sunbeam or two, who cares about there being loads of robots who are undergoing a crisis of identity y’know? That sunbeam won’t get slept in by itself!
In Stray you take on the role of a cutesy, widdle puddy-tat and from the start it has to be said that one of the main things that the trailer seemed to promise has been delivered on exceptionally well. You move and explore and act pretty much as you would expect a cat to. You can jump up and down difficult terrain with ease and you can move nimbly and quickly through narrow gaps and spaces, but it’s never to the point of being super-powered. You are, after all, just a cat, doing cat things. Such as the fact that you have a dedicated button to let out a wee chirrup-y meow or that there is an achievement for scratching something in every level, because of-fucking-course that’s what a cat would do (and incidentally the achievement to make your cat sleep for an HOUR of real life time is taking absolutely obscene amounts of piss given that the game is only like 4-6 hours long).
The game starts with you playing around with a few of your fellow cats before you end up separated from them and trapped in a gradually collapsing cyberpunk city and you begin to work on trying to escape, potentially saving the robot denizens from the place in the process.
Where some issues do start to raise their head is that all the jumping and traversal, while looking very convincingly cat-like, is all done via contextual button prompts, rather than a more natural “jump whenever you want”. While this works for the most part it does mean that a common, and justified, complaint is that it isn’t always super consistent what you can and cannot jump onto and you will sometimes find yourself wanting to jump onto an object and the game will simply tell you that you can’t because fuck you, that’s why.
As the game progresses you also engage in a more action-y sequences with chase sequences, a sort of mini-combat bit (which does make sense in the context, don’t worry) and stealth elements as you have to avoid an oppressive robot regime. For the most part though, these bits and pieces are somewhat isolated from the rest of the game, in the same way that the chase sequences of horror games might be. It’s not a problem per-se but it does mean that none of them really exist as a “core” mechanic, and are more side-shows than anything else.
The closest thing to what feels like core gameplay is when you enter a couple of hub worlds and you can explore around them doing little side-quests, finding collectibles and doing puzzles and the like. During these segments you also get to meet a number of robot characters who populate the slowly disintegrating city. Early-on in the game you obtain a drone companion character who translates for these robots and allows you to communicate with them.
Underneath the surface layer of “cute cat tries to escape world it doesn’t understand” there’s a few quite interesting things going on. The absence of the humans is an obvious and overstated theme, but then the fact that all the robots are starting to try to mimic and replicate human behaviours without seeming to fully understand them or why. It’s kind of neat and points to some absolutely great world-building.
In fact, this might be one of Stray’s strongest points. In terms of presentation it really cannot be faulted. The cat moves and acts exactly like a cat, it looks adorable, to the point that sharing it with female friends practically counts as a “come hither” gesture, and then the cyberpunk world you inhabit is also just pretty interesting to explore and experience. At times it really looks very gorgeous, in a dilapidated way of course, and the earnest behaviours of the robots, who are simultaneously dismayed by being trapped and hopeful of a better future, is just kind of endearing.
Where the game starts to unravel slightly is in something I’ve already said that may have slipped under the radar: “side quests”. You see, I actually don’t mind the side quest to collect 8 pieces of sheet music for an aspiring robot musician, because it felt kind of engaging and a fun diversion, even if completing it doesn’t really reward you with anything, the reward was naturally the gratitude of the character.
What I DID mind though was the fact that this aspiring robot musician asked you for help with this in the first place.
For a game which absolutely 100% sold itself on the premise of “actual, real cat in uncaring cyberpunk dystopia” the other characters in the game do not seem to be fully on board with this premise. At one point when you first meet a character in the first hub he asks you to go and collect 4 notebooks which he will be able to compile together and use to repair a transmitter and it felt quite simply ludicrous.
Like, no. No, I do not want to go and help you repair your robot transmitter. Instead, I want to chase my tail for 5 minutes and then lick my arse for half an hour.
The term for this is apparently “ludonarrative dissonance” and it, unfortunately, does not seem to be very deliberate. It simply consistently does not make sense that you encounter a series of robots in a plucky resistance who all immediately believe you are there to help out and provide you with tasks to perform, rather than just immediately dismissing you because, y’know, you’re a fucking cat.
It feels like a missed trick really where I feel like it would have made much more sense in any number of places for the cat to “complete” these quests without actually intending to do so. Like perhaps the cat ends up in a library of some sort with a mouse-hunting mini-game and in the process accidentally scrounges up the notebooks for his drone companion to bring back to the robot resistance. Or in the process of shoving things off shelves you knock off a few very important story-related items.
The thing is, the latter even actually happens within the game so there was clearly some attempt at it, but it’s then followed by a robot telling you to collect three cans of red bull for it, and the effect is somewhat ruined.
There’s also a few more heart-felt story moments which occur later in the game which also suffer from this same problem, where the effect of trying to deliver more emotional story beats are somewhat defeated by the fact that the one experiencing them is probably just thinking about wanting someone to scratch its ears.
As much as I’m joking around about it, I do think that this whole thing actually somewhat ruins a good chunk of the game because it starts feeling like the protagonist could have been literally anything or anyone. Like the robots could have been interacting with the drone directly and it was only after-the-fact that devs BlueTwelve Studios added in the aspect that the main character is also a cat. Again, it’s not precisely a problem that the cat does do these things and solves the problems of the robot denizens. The problem is that it felt like a main selling point that you were just an ordinary cat, but this whole thing is just dropped by the wayside whenever it becomes inconvenient for the whole video game thing that’s going on around it.
I hasten to add, it’s not just me being pedantic about this either. It really does feel like by the latter third of the game that much of what made it unique is no longer really a focus any longer because you could literally just have been any other kind of adventure game protagonist.
On the topic of “latter third” I also have to admit to having been a tiny bit disappointed by the length of the game. Admittedly it felt tight and nicely designed and contained, with every story beat leading sensibly to the next one. There was no flab and no unnecessary filler. However, it is also undeniably very, VERY short. I lingered over it and took a significant amount of time in a few places where I really didn’t need to, and I still came out of it in about 6 hours. In fact, this is a game where one of the base achievements is to complete it in less than 2 hours… So, this is something achievable by someone who isn’t a professional speed-runner either.
That is… Not a long game. I’d say it’s still worthwhile because the experience of it is unique enough and engaging enough while you are in it to actually be worth the time and money spent. However, there is no denying that that you do not get an awful lot of bang for your buck here.
I have to admit the more I think about it, the more I’m not sure how much I’d recommend Stray. It’s certainly a fun little experience, harmless overall, but I find that I’m struggling to think of much better praise than that.
· Lovely world-building and level design is a pleasure to explore and learn about
· Interesting and novel theme of normal animal in confusing sci-fi world carries a lot of the experience
· Overall competent and engaging story and writing
· You know what, yes, it’s cute and fun to play as a cute little cat…
· Robots regularly apparently mistake cute cat for action hero with opposable thumbs
· Mechanics are slightly uninspiring and slave to the contextual button prompt
· Very, VERY short
· Just overall pretty overrated and overhyped