It is not as though there is a shortage of games with animal protagonists. Whether it’s something a little more anthropomorphic, like Crash Bandicoot, or something based on myth and legends, like Okami, or perhaps something entirely different like Ocotodad or Untitled Goose Game, playing as an animal is really nothing new to the video game landscape. Yet, something about Stray feels different, or at least refreshing, and it deserves your five-ish hours of attention.
It’s not revolutionary gameplay. It isn’t anything you’ve not done before. The Cat Parkour is okay at best, when it comes down to it and you’re not really fighting or doing special moves. You are just a cat after all. You do get a fancy robot companion who helps you navigate and “fight” a little here and there. But really, what entices the player, and immerses the player is the movement and physics of the cat. They are incredibly realistic and fluid. The feeling of being a cat is really captured in every aspect of the gameplay. Even the mundane things that we normally side-eye cats for doing, like kneading their claws into a wall, feel incredible to do. And can lead to secrets in the game as well! Again, there’s no real combat. Most enemies require outrunning or outwitting, it seems. Which can feel fun as a cat, but perhaps can get old after a while.
There are puzzles, which make for an interesting experience as a cat. Imagine if your cat had the knowledge to stop a fan using a paint bucket. Or could carry electrical devices to their proper outlets. You know, the things we usually have our bi-pedal or speaking-role characters do. (Also if you tell me your cat can do these things I expect video proof. Actually, just send me unsolicited cat pics.) The Puzzles can often be pretty obvious, but can sometimes be challenging, or require some past knowledge that you’d better have been paying attention to a moment ago. You aren’t without hints, however. The stray’s robot can often give hints on where to go next, and speaking with some robots may reveal a clue or quest.
That said, while it is still fun, overall, it isn’t a whole lot to write home about.
At first, the game is rather drab. It is a dystopian setting, after all. But even in it’s dullness, the visuals of the game can be incredibly beautiful and absolutely unsettling. Without going into too much spoilery detail, there are just somethings that you don’t want to see in a high-resolution quality on your living room TV. And yet, to know that it is so beautifully rendered, along with the rest of the world, is still worth it. There are some cyberpunk-like moments in it too, so the neon bright lights gets to standout a little as well. As I said in the gameplay, the kitty-visuals are also stunning. The realness of the cats movements, fur and expressions come through vividly. So vividly, you don’t need to be a cat owner to guess what’s going through the little one’s mind. Equally as vivid, however, are the cute and squishy, yet somehow unsettling and terrifying monsters that plague the robot citizens–and you.
There’s no UI really, aside from the one that pops up when you interact with robots or objects. The game gives you the freedom to really experience the world without on-screen clutter.
This is arguably the best part of the game, in my eyes, at least for the maybe 2-and-a-half-ish hours I’ve probably played of it. There’s something refreshing about being part of a narrative that you know nothing about and, as far as you can tell from just being a cat, really has nothing to do with you. Yet here you are, trapped in some strange dystopia with robots living as humans and deadly cute monsters.
Again, the world is gritting and dirty and drab, most of the time. But when the splashes of color and “life” happen, it really happens. Things feel exciting, dangerous and tense. The robots are just as funny, witty and alive as you’d hope they’d be. The creatures, despite being described often as “cute” feel daunting, scary and suffocating.
I think to try to describe the world in this review really does a disservice to experiencing it yourself. There’s so much life in a lifeless setting. And putting the player in a cat’s paws really allows the player to think about things from a different perspective. Not to get all philosophical, but there’s something that begs the player to think about their world while experiencing and partaking in all-robotic society as a cat.
To be honest, I wish I could write more about the Story, but I know really so little, even for as much as I’ve progressed. It feels like there is going to be some massive reveal at the end, but I have no idea what it could be. Which is why I think the Story is as strong as the world, in that regard. Stray feels like it is trying to tell one of those myths or legends that serve as warnings to future generations. It is a little cryptic, and despite knowing (more or less) how we may have gotten to this dystopian future, we don’t know who caused it, or how to get out of it, or if there are any humans left to tell help solve the problem.
The story also serves, in my mind, as a way to celebrate humans, not just warn of their activities. The robots in the game are so impressed with the ingenuity, creativity, and general drive and perseverance of humans, so much so that they mimic them almost in every way. Right down to making stores and factories and having a police force.
It seems to me that the game’s message, if there is one, is that humans are complicated creatures. Unlike cats.
Also, you might be thinking about how a cat communicates with a bunch of robots, who may or may not speak English. I honestly would not think about it that much. It’s likely that this is simply the world’s smartest cat and their companion, the translating robot.
The sign of a cult classic is one that gets talked about in media outlets, and modded to hell. So far, Stray has both of those things going for it, and for good reason. Now, even I am taking the words I’m typing with a grain and a half of salt, since again, I haven’t quite finished the game myself yet. However, I absolutely think that this game is worth sitting down and streaming with friends, or putting up in the living room to play or watch get played with family. It is equal parts wholesome, horrific, cute and strange. You’ll laugh, you might cry, and you might adopt a cat.
Based on what I’ve played so far, I don’t think this game has much replayability. Or re-watchability. Unless maybe for speed running purposes. But otherwise, I don’t see this being a game to revisit. At least not right away. This may be one of those nostalgia games you revisit in a few years when you’re feeling like playing something single-player and puzzle-y.
$30 is a great price for this great piece of work, short as it is. And if you subscribe to Playstation Plus, you can get access to the game as part of your subscription, so no extra costs necessary! Lucky you, PS5 owner!
Overall, with some gameplay elements left wanting, Stray is a very good game to unwind and share with friends and family. With just enough thought-provoking narrative to get over the fact that you’re a freaking-adorable-cat, and enough tension and puzzle-solving to keep the wheels turning.