|Platforms||PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, PC (reviewed)|
|Release Date||July 19, 2022|
In sifting through various online forums and reading journalistic critiques of the gaming industry, I’ve often heard people complain about a lack of creativity in games these days. I’ve often felt that, while these concerns tend to be overblown on the whole—all sorts of games, AAA and indie alike, try brand new things or evolve existing concepts—there’s no question that we see plenty of similar concepts and environments, and many of the big franchise that dominate the headlines typically opt for familiarity over financially riskier design choices. But every now and then, a game brings us a remarkably fresh and invigorating concept, and Stray, a new game from developer BlueTwelve Studio, is one such game. Stray is built around a simple yet delightful concept: what would it be like to roam around a strange, alluring sci-fi world…as a cat?
Stray is an overall very family-friendly game. There is no foul language or drug use present here, nor any sexual impropriety. There is no blood or gore either, although your player character cat can die, namely from being shot by lasers or munched on by little one-eyed fleshy creatures; some very young children could get scared during these tense sequences, but I expect that most kids should be able to handle them. The only other negative element worth noting is the presence of one puzzle which requires you to figure out how to steal a couple of items without getting caught.
You begin the game as one of a small group of cats living in a long-abandoned factory that nature has already partially reclaimed. As you go about your feline business one day wandering the facility, a rusty pipe breaks under your feet and sends you tumbling down into a deep hole in the factory. After surviving the fall with just a temporary limp—quite an impressive feat for such a small creature, even one known for often landing right-side up—you find yourself in a dark, closed-off city populated entirely by sentient AI-driven robots. Your goal is now to make your way through this strange environment and back to the surface.
Along your journey, you encounter a cast of simple yet quirky characters. Your main buddy is a little floating robot named B12—a nod to the game’s development studio—who sits inside a small pouch on your back and tags along on your adventure. Despite not remembering much about himself, he nonetheless serves as a capable guide and translator, allowing you to make sense of the strange symbols on the walls and the otherwise unintelligible speech of the other robots. He also provides a few other practical benefits, such as the ability to digitize objects into an inventory and shine a flashlight into dark spaces. He’s not the most dynamic of AI companions I’ve seen in games, but he’s a cute little guy that I grew fond of before long, and his backstory slowly unfolds as you progress.
The other robotic friends you meet have their own distinct, but rather one-note personalities. They all emulate their human creators in various ways, such as forming familial bonds with one another, even adopting concepts like parenthood despite the obvious biological differences between themselves and actual humans. Those most important to the story yearn to see the world beyond the city in which they find themselves trapped. I appreciate that the game fills its world with enough NPCs—and crucially, NPCs with brief but unique dialogue text—to make the world feel vibrant, but I wish that we got more time with at least a few of these characters. Outside of B12, none of the other characters get enough screentime to display much in the way of characterization or character development. As a result, the fate of these characters didn’t matter much to me, which diminished my enjoyment of the overall story.
Gameplay through most of Stray involves basic platforming along with a handful of environmental puzzles and brief chase sequences. Platforming proves remarkably forgiving, as jumping is always performed by pressing a button when a prompt appears near specific platforms and ledges, and you always make that jump. While this system restricts your movement relative to many other games, it also helps ensure that the platforming looks and feels polished, which goes a long way in selling the overall experience. I consistently enjoyed watching my cat’s animations as I leaped across rooftops and clambered along pipes.
The chase sequences exist more for atmosphere than for anything else; all you typically have to do is follow the linear path laid before you and mash a button if the little creatures trying to eat you manage to hop onto your back. The puzzles, however, make interesting use of a cat’s limited capabilities. While you lack hands, you can flip levers by jumping on them, and while you lack the physical strength to move large objects, you can knock small objects off ledges and grab cloth with your claws, as cats are wont to do. I came away impressed at how well the developer translated a cat’s behavior into functional gameplay mechanics.
Beyond that, however, the game offers little else in the way of gameplay. You have an inventory courtesy of B12’s ability to digitize objects; a few of the items you collect are used for puzzles and must be acquired through clever means, but others you come across as part of natural progression and are simply given to NPCs to advance to the next story beat. The game also lacks any sort of combat. On the one hand, this feels like a missed opportunity; Stray utilizes a cat’s athleticism and behavioral quirks for gameplay so well that I would have loved to see it make use of its hunting ability too. But on the other hand, the game is still good without any combat, as the generally laid-back gameplay makes it accessible for a wide audience. It still contains moments of tension even without combat, namely during the chase scenes and in a brief stealth sequence toward the end of the game.
While I have a few gripes with Stray, I applaud the ways in which it crafts a cohesive and enjoyable experience out of the unique concept of playing a platforming/puzzle game as a cat. Its simple mechanics and lack of much objectionable content make it accessible to kids or other gaming newbies, and the game as a whole is tightly packed and free of any filler that would distract from the core gameplay and environmental storytelling.
The Bottom Line
Stray successfully translates the typical behavior of a cat into a fun and cohesive gameplay experience set within an intriguing sci-fi world.