There is much buzz around Stray right now because it’s coming out during a pretty dry streak for new releases, and more importantly how you can play as an incredibly cute cat. Unfortunately, what a lot of people will discover this week is that it forgets that very quickly and gets incredibly… wild. I wasn’t expecting to play as a robot and zap mutant blobs for example.
The following contains spoilers for Stray‘s game elements (how you play rather than why you do it) without even addressing the story itself.
StrayThe opening is just wonderful. With no intrusive nonsense, no tiring cutscenes, the camera glides smoothly over four kittens living in the overgrown remains of a dam before settling behind the red-headed critter of the collection, putting you in control. The first thing you do is interact with your brothers and sisters, each of which is a beautiful moment nice observed cat behavior. The animations are perfect and anyone with decency will admire the screen.
After a little sleep, the four cats embark on a journey, traversing the ruins of what was once a massive structure, leaping from concrete blocks to massive pipes, trotting down railings and poking around in a very feline manner. It’s only when you follow your three siblings onto a large pipe that a cutscene kicks in, and Ginger (as I call him) claws, slips, and then falls way, way down. It’s really traumatic!
Ginger wakes up in what appears to be a sewer pipe, injured, and walks with another superbly observed limp before falling and resting some more. At this point, your kitty is feeling so vulnerable, so fragile, and as a player, it’s imperative to do whatever it takes to protect the little guy.
This is clearly set in some kind of future, posthuman by the looks of it, with the rusting remains of robots found in your path. Then you first get glimpses of some pretty nasty creatures with pink blobs that feel like they’re more at home in there Inside. However, they scurry away so you can continue on your kitty path, jumping and running around, searching for safety and, as a player, desperately wondering how to reunite the little fella with his family.
Then you will find the flying robot. Well it isn’t quite As silly as it may sound, considering that being a cat in a world seemingly inhabited only by AI lifeforms would otherwise have trouble communicating. B-12, your robotic companion, appears to be able to talk to cats and robots alike, and also possesses the amazing ability to “digitize” physical objects and then rematerialize them when needed. So yes, he is a talking inventory.
Stray, at this point becomes a game about a cat in an underground robot city that helps the locals with their menial tasks. And even here I’m cool. You’re still – despite now wearing a giant robo-saddle – a cat, and while I haven’t yet met a cat that would willingly help anyone do anything, it’s still fun to play. Your role is really never more than finding third-person platforming routes to a destination, and bouncing around the sprawling urban areas gives you plenty of freedom. Even the ability to role-play as a cat, that is: ignore your chores and just find cool places to sleep.
It starts to push credulity down from its five or six hours here at about an hour, as you optionally collect sheet music for a robot to play a guitar and seek “memories” for your amnesiac robo-pal, looking at floating pixel patterns and trying to find enough cans of energy drink to buy items in a store…yeah yeah I know it’s already broken down into playful game-play nonsense, but like I said you’re doing it all by me babbling around as a kitten .
It’s after that long stretch, a little over halfway I’d say Stray abandons almost all notions of being a cat sim and simply descends into any other third-person action game.
You help a robot find the equipment he needs to complete a weapon that can take on the Zurks. These are the absurdly named alien blobs that appear to have mutated at some point since mankind’s demise. The further you advance, the more fleshy straps you see stretched through tunnels and up the sides of buildings, taking this cute cat-me-do into a realm of visceral horror motifs that feels so oddly out of place. These will grow Eggs, the Eggs will spawn Zurks, and you must assassinate them with a purple light.
It is L1 to fire the beam of light emitted by B-12 hovers over your cat’s body, at this point there’s really no pretense that you’re controlling anything other than the machine. And you zap what might as well be aliens. In gray corridors. Can you see the problem?
Even later, it’s on to fleeing enemy drones that cast a web of blue light in front of them. Go in and it will turn green, then if you stay too long it will turn red and they will start shooting bullets at you. Bullets fired from hovering drones in gray ruins…
I’m amazed. How could a game so wonderful at giving us a kitten to play with find itself in this place with such precise and delightful observations of kitten behavior? It’s certainly not because something was missing.
I would have been happy if it had continued the way it started for five or six hours. Just being a cat, exploring an abandoned city, looking for routes through the remains. I might need to find a drink here and there, and perhaps as a player I could piece together some of the history of the place, to the cat’s apparent indifference. Hell, if it had to go sci-fi badly, I might come across surviving computers and traps, something I could cat-like dodge. Honestly, I would have left out the robots altogether, since their real job is to present fetch quests. But even if it kept them, it didn’t have to slide that far down the slippery slope to Gametown.
I won’t even go into how much I do hated the end. That can be for another day. Let’s just say it’s my son quiet angry at how awful it was two days later. It really nailed how much the game left the beautiful place it started and when you’ve finished the game you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Stray could have been just magical from start to finish. Instead, it’s magical at the beginning and then slowly collapses into the gray robotic swamp of most other games. In the beginning I played roleplaying games! I meowed at locked doors, purposely walked in the wrong direction to explore nooks and crannies, and haughtily ignored an urgent task of finding a place to sleep. By the end, I’d almost completely forgotten that I was a cat and might as well have been a spaceship, despite all the difference it made. And that sucks.