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Stray Review – This Feline’s Gone To Heaven

What kind of game is Stray? Is it a ‘cat simulator’? While the species of its protagonist is the source of much of its charm — and the does offer catlike activities such as taking naps and batting objects off ledges — a convincing portrayal of feline life doesn’t seem to be the point here. Real cats need to eat and use the litter box, and they don’t understand speech or solve puzzles.

One might be tempted to describe it as a platformer, as most of the game is spent traversing environments via a series of jumps, with an emphasis on climbing and verticality. But this is misleading: the jumps themselves are handled by contextual button-presses — you can’t fail them.  Fundamentally, Stray is an exploration game.

Beginning the game as a cat living a normal life in a post-apocalyptic world, you’re separated from your feline friends after falling down a hole. Suddenly, you’re in an underground cyberpunk city inhabited by a robot civilization for whom humans are only a distant memory. As you journey back to the surface, your progress is occasionally gated by environmental puzzles, locked doors, or hostile NPCs. But the core experience is more like a walking sim — or, rather, one made by hyper-intelligent cats. And much like a walking sim, the game divided players and critics.

Take the aforementioned jumping mechanics. Players who come in expecting precision platforming, let’s say in the stile of Super Mario Odyssey, will definitely leave disappointed. Not only does jumping lack any meaningful challenge — it’s downright clunky at times. I found it was often difficult to tell which gaps I could and couldn’t jump, and progress in a given direction was often barred by the unexplained absence of a jump prompt for a ledge that seemed clearly within reach.

Platforming annoyances aside, most of Stray’s moment-to-moment gameplay is functional if not exactly revolutionary. The bulk of the more interesting mechanics come up during linear traversal sections that connect the more open-ended exploration hubs. While these hubs will mostly have you looking for items or finding ways to sneak into buildings, the linear sections offer more variety in the form of puzzles, stealth, and even rudimentary combat.

These best moments are provided by the Zurks, a species of predatory monsters resembling a cutesy version of Half-Life’s infamous headcrabs. If they see or hear you, they’ll pursue and pounce. Some sections will have you simply running away from the creatures, while others will give you a weapon and task you with clearing them out. By far their most interesting use is when they’re incorporated into environmental puzzles. You might, for example, find them blocking your path and have to use your dedicated meow button (oh yeah, there is one!) to lure them into a fenced-off area, so they can be kept out of the way. None of these ideas are likely to blow a seasoned gamer away, but they’re functional and varied enough to keep things from becoming stale as you progress through Stray’s approximately five-hour story. 

But the real joy of Stray lies not in any of its mechanics, but in appreciating its world. Art direction, color and lighting, music and sound meld to place the player in a neon-lit purgatory that somehow manages to feel both cavernous and cozy. The choice of a cat protagonist is a stroke of genius, as it makes the city — which is somewhat small by modern video game city standards — feel like a massive place in which to get lost exploring every alley and rooftop.

Whatever else Stray may be — an exploration game, an orientalist fantasy, or a source of cute video clips — at its core it is a beautiful, poignant meditation on humanity’s mistakes and how future generations are left to pick up the pieces. As you climb, sneak, and pounce your way back to the surface, you’ll get to know a robotic society that’s made a life for itself in the rubble of human civilization. Some of these mechanical survivors have resigned themselves to an eternity underground, while others still dream of the world above.

Your role in the story is to rekindle hope for a people who’s largely lost it, working with them toward a better future. That none of the characters involved here are human (at least not in the usual sense) adds an extra layer of sci-fi interest, raising the possibility that worthwhile lives might be lived long after we and our descendants are gone. As we slowly make our way out of a pandemic and face a near future of ecological destruction and increasingly sophisticated AIs, it’s a story that’s likely to feel more and more relevant as time goes on. 

Stray: Stray’s beautiful environments, charming characters, and incisive story transcend its sometimes-clunky gameplay to offer an experience that any fan of story-oriented or experimental games should be eager to try. A strong contender for indie game of the year. KevinC

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