Stray – Zero Punctuation – The Escapist

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What is that? I cry as I come out of the Wichkeller blinking. A game? A true new game with some buzz and graphics and absolutely no motherly deck building? Rise from your graves, industry correspondents! The drought is over! The sun has risen in a new age of – oh, I finished it in four hours. Well, it was hardly worth turning off the jerk-cellar air-conditioning system. Yes, it’s Stray, a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk adventure thing with a key selling point that you play as a cute wutey ickle wickle kitty witty, and there’s a special meow button. I think a game where you play as a cat is unparalleled – a non-anthropomorphic cat I’d like to quickly add before you come Blinx the Time Sweeper loyalists and tease my assholes – dog people had okami and this one level of Call of Duty Ghosts but until now there has never been an equivalent for the Garfield readers of this world. Probably because video games are task-oriented by nature, and while a dog follows commands as long as you feed them or praise them or continue to be in the same room as them, your average cat wouldn’t lift a paw to plug their own life support device back on, if it thought you told it to.

But anyway. When Stray wakes up our cute, wutey ickle wrap protago wotagonist he wakes up with three of his siblings in some kind of overgrown abandoned industrial facility and immediately we move and control like a cat very convincingly because the only thing we can do is to walk up to one of the other cats and then press the “Spaz for no reason” contextual button. After dutifully spitting them all out one by one, the actual game begins and we mostly travel through the facility by pressing forward and looking for the contextual “Jump Here” button. Shortly after, we lose our footing and fall into a large dark pit while our siblings look on and do whatever they can to help because they are cats. “See if I ever turn on those ungrateful motherfuckers again,” you seem to be saying as you wake up in a sewer and begin an adventure through a cyberpunk walled city to find a way back out. First, by pressing forward and looking for the contextual “Jump Here” button. And the whole time I do that, I’m silently praying, “Please don’t be a bloody walking Sim. For heaven’s sake. I’ve been waiting all summer. Introduce a core mechanic where we have to dodge a roll when an enemy robot tries to splash us with the water bottle.”

As the chain of contextual prompt hunts continued, things weren’t looking good. It’s quite inconsistent with what we can and cannot jump on. Being nimble little cats by nature, we should be able to navigate any terrain more hospitable than the side of an opened can of baked beans, and sometimes we can, but sometimes we just can’t , because they forgot to put a contextual jump prompt there. However, things improve over time, our hero befriends a cute Wutey ickle wickle droney wone, so now we can interact with the robots that populate the city, as well as collect inventory items and solve puzzles and find some parts of the game instead of open-ended hub cities full of side quests and scavenger hunts. And yet we never really commit to a strong core game mechanic to focus on. Sometimes we’ll solve inventory puzzles in the style of a classic adventure game, sometimes we’ll run away from monsters, sometimes we’ll fight the monsters with a deadly flashlight, and then we’ll drop all of that and some stealth elements creep in as we face off against an evil regime of oppression . which I felt was closer to what I was hoping for from a game where you play as a cat. A sneaky mischievous stealth traversal game in which we’ll infuriate a big spooky guard by jumping onto a shelf out of her reach and pushing her dead mother’s ashes onto her head.

But whatever gameplay you indulge in, Stray remains a slave to contextual prompting. And sometimes it plays a naughty joke because it taught you to always press the button prompts, but every once in a while you find one that just makes the cat curl up and fall asleep. That’s as annoying as it’s totally on brand. I think it’s for people who want to take on the self-imposed narcolepsy challenge. When I think about it, the lack of a strong core to the gameplay means there are some things you just do for their own sake, like the side quests in the open parts. There is one where you have to find hidden song pages for a street musician, but the game can’t reward us with anything. There’s no RPG system where we can put experience points into our naughty or lovable stats, so you really only get a chance to hear a few scraps of crappy chiptune music that I could have gotten at home by playing stuck my head in a box of cell phones from the early 2000s. Yahtz, what are you talking about? Why would a cat game have RPG elements? Do you picture yourself holding the hilt of the buster sword between your adorable toe beans? Thanks for stumbling awkwardly in the general direction of my next point, viewer.

You see, as the game opens up into a fetch quest town and fights the oppressive regime at sea, I get the feeling that our status as a cat is becoming increasingly incongruous with where the story is trying to take us. I don’t know what those friendly robots are seeing when they stop me and ask me to collect three cans of Red Bull, but apparently it’s not a damn cat with no opposable thumbs and a blank expression on its face. Reminds me of the time I came home from wisdom tooth surgery and was found crying in the yard because the squirrels wouldn’t blow my cigarette out. It gets even sillier when we actually bring him the Red Bull cans. There’s this whole thread in the second half of the game where we join the brave resistance against the oppressive regime and when we show up at our rebel contact’s house, they all say, ‘Aha, you must be our new recruit, get ready pretend to show your devotion to the cause!” rather than “Why did that stray cat wander into my house? Get the fuck away from the curtains.” I feel like the protagonist could be anything at this point. A squirrel. A Roomba. A bottle of HP sauce on the back of a very ambitious ant.

I don’t even know if that’s a point against the game. I think it’s kind of funny. And it could play up the whole theme where the robots mimic human behavior without fully understanding it, but towards the end the storyline tries to have strong emotional moments that don’t really work with a cat. For example, a character pushes you through a door and says, “I’m going to stop them! All the resistance’s hopes are on you now!” and then we cut to the reaction shot of the cat and she just looks stunned because she’s a freaking cat and probably would have given the whole thing away for a tummy rub. This also impacts the emotional payoff of the ending – WOO WOO SPOILER ON THIS POINT STOP NOW OR LEAVE YOUR RIGHT TO CALL ME A TAIL – when your Droney Wone sacrifices himself dead grass so you can escape alone. I mean the drone was the sentient one and the cat was just what it rode around, it’s like sacrificing yourself for your damn wheelchair. I guess it freed the robots too, but the drone still delivers a heartfelt deathbed speech that ricochets right off your stupid cat face like a poorly aimed frisbee. And then, in the final shot before the credits roll, the cat looks back over its shoulder as if to say, “What the hell was that? Why was my squeaky toy trying to take a moment?”

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