As anyone who’s ever owned a cat will tell you, you can’t get them to do anything. You can’t get them to play “catch,” you can’t get them to come when you call them, you can’t get them to pick up a pizza on their way home from work even though it’s on their way… Heck, I’ve never owned a cat and even I know getting them to do stuff is like herding cats. Well, you need not be a former, current, or wannabe cat owner to appreciate the third-person action / adventure game Stray (PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, PC), and not just because you get to tell a cat what to do and the cat has to do it. It’s just too bad that’s not all you do.
you play as a cat who’s separated from their clowder when, while out for a family stroll, a pipe you jump onto breaks, sending you sprawling into the sewers. If you have any hope of finding your way home, you’ll have to make your way through a futuristic city, populated only by humandoi (and clothes-wearing) humanoid robots, which you do by jumping, climbing, clawing, knocking things over, meowing really loud — y’know, cat stuff.
Or, at least that’s how Stray starts out. In the beginning, it’s all about how you get around. How you jump up onto ledges and walk along pipes and scoot under things. It’s also about figuring out how to open new pathways; say, by knocking over a board that then forms a bridge, or scratching a window shade until it falls off and you can jump out the window, or by knocking a paint can off a ledge and into a skylight so you can go through it. And in this regard, the game is rather clever.
Even having these moments be rather safe, and more about figuring out how to get somewhere, as opposed to challenging your reflexes, works for Stray. You can only jump onto something if a button prompt appears on it (assuming, of course, you don’t turn this option off), which means you can’t fall to your death. So you have that going for you.
I also applaud Stray‘s simplicity.
You can’t customize the cat, or level up their abilities, and there’s no deep combo system to memorize and then instantly forget when you get attacked by a swarm of blobby things.
Which reminds me: avoid the blobby things. Those things will kill you.
Stray even manages to be entertaining when you do things that aren’t exactly cat-like. While a real cat might knock a paint can off a ledge, breaking a sylight, most wouldn’t think to pick up a small metal bucket and drop it into an exhaust fan, breaking it so they can get into someone’s apartment. Realism is not Stray‘s strong suit. Which is fine; this is not a cat simulation game anymore than Halo is a complex battle simulation with a steep learning curve.
But while these moments of exploration are the best parts of Stray, they’re unfortunately not the only parts. About an hour or so in, you’re joined on your adventure by B-12, a robot drone who (unlike the cat) talks, and also has you trying to figure out what’s going on, as opposed to your original mission of just getting home, linked though they may be.
Now, some of the B-12’s functions are helpful.
Like its built-in flashlight. But the further away Stray gets from being catty, the less interesting it becomes (relatively speaking). Granted, much of it is still as inventive as the parts in which you’re helping the cat get around, especially if you enjoy situational puzzles like the kind they had in Resident Evil Village. But not always, and never in a way that’s as engaging as when you’re scurrying across rooftops.
This is especially true when you’re on a rooftop infested with the rat-bots, who blindly chase you, and your only advantages is B-12’s ability to hack door controls.
It’s not just the gameplay, though. There are times when B-12 tries to figure out where the humans who built the city have gone, but it’s the kind of post-apocalyptic, dystopian, cyberpunk story we’ve seen, read, and played numerous times before (it’s especially Biomutant-y).
More importantly, it’s a story best left untold. Much like when we found out how Wolverine got his adamantium claws, Stray is far more interesting when we don’t know the backstory.
if I didn’t know better — and I don’t — it almost seems like the good people at BlueTwelve Studios who made Stray originally planned to go full-on cat with this, but decided that wouldn’t work for a whole game. And maybe it wouldn’t, but it could’ve easily worked for a short one, and I, for one, would’ve loved to see them try.
But whatever. It is what it is, and the fact that how Stray starts is way better than how it ends is too bad but also not that big of a deal. Because even when you have to do something out-of-character for a cat — like, say, finding the key or combination to a safe — the parts where you get where the safe is located, and then somewhere afterwards, still has you doing the cat stuff that is the highlight of this clever and compelling game.