I was misled, in the best possible way, by the hype for Stray. There was an air leading into its release of it being a kind of “Cat Simulator”, featuring groundbreaking “you’re just a little kitty cat!!!” gameplay complete with memetic Press X To Meow a la Untitled Goose Game. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I enjoyed Untitled Goose Game – but I’ve become somewhat cynical about the kind of challenge-less meandering that plagues so many “wholesome” releases featuring cute animals. I’m relieved to tell you that Stray is no Cat Simulator, but instead one of the most charming, engaging, and exciting single-player narrative games I’ve played in years.
But it also is, kind of, a cat simulator. You play as a little orange cat and you do indeed have your dedicated meow button. You fall from your arboreal home into a post-apocalyptic city, and as you wander you’ll nap in some cozy hollows and scratch some furniture. It’s all optional, though, meowing included; it’s just a grounding in a foreign, confusing world, letting you discover how it all functions from a fixed, quadrupedal perspective. You know what a cat can do, and even you ingratiate yourself with the robot Companions and Outsiders wanting to escape the city, who are very confused by your presence and form — you have a base from which to work.
It’s also a very narratively consistent way of enforcing a silent protagonist — all dialogue is filtered through a little drone companion, who can understand and interpret the other robots around you. The emotional and intriguing story happens both in spite of and because of you: as a cat, you can’t understand any of this, but you still feel things. I did cry at one point. It’s powerful (or emotionally manipulative, depending on your perspective) in the way that movies about animals often are.
Cats aside, there’s a lot of Half Life 2 DNA in Stray. It’s a series of linear action sequences broken up by some wandering around dialog-driven hub areas. The main enemies, hyper-evolved-bacteria creatures called Zurks, fling themselves at you with a screech very reminiscent of headcrabs. I actually first had this thought mere moments before I hit a switch to call a slow moving elevator and had to fend off hordes of them while the lift descended. There’s a canal level, a boat level, a subway level. There’s also the isolated, foreboding tone, which is contrasted by the hope and levity that the still-functioning Companions bring. The level design also keeps things constantly fresh — there’s stealth puzzle sequences, there’s some physics-based platforming, you’ll receive a powerful weapon to fight the Zurks and then have it taken away a couple levels later. None of these mechanics are especially innovative or mind-blowingly original, just like they weren’t in Half Life 2, but they’re so well executed and competent, and at a total of a quick 5-8 hours depending on your obsessiveness about collectibles, nothing outstays its welcome.
That’s not to say there aren’t some great gameplay ideas here — the parkour sidesteps my biggest frustration with essentially every game featuring a direct movement system I’ve played: falling off. While I think there’s space for games where executing a difficult movement can be a thrill in and of itself, I’ve definitely felt frustrated when my character has flung themselves off a building because a context-sensitive button decided to do something different this time. In Stray, you press a button to jump to the ledge in the direction you’re holding, and if you can’t make it, you can’t do it. You also can’t accidentally walk off a building. It’s safe, but it makes exploration in the hub areas a joy rather than a challenge as you nimbly bound up air conditioning vents on the sides of buildings and saunter through railings.
While Stray’s environment and character design are absolutely gorgeous and charming, with graphical fidelity to match, there is the occasional reminder that its budget is not on par with AAA titles. There are a fair few filler NPCs that only deliver a single line, and for some items that you can present to them, every single NPC bar the intended recipient will say exactly the same thing. It can leave the world feeling a little static at times. The collectibles also feel largely shoehorned in and unnecessary: your drone companion’s memories, triggered by a blue glow on certain objects, are an example of a good collectible where, much like the memories in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, they expand the lore of the world you’re in and help you grasp the full breadth of the story. In contrast, at one point you’re asked to collect three different-coloured plants, which I spent more than 20 minutes doing, and was rewarded with no interesting dialog and an in-game badge necessary only to gain a specific achievement. I’ll take a pass on that, thanks.
I had an absolutely fantastic time with Stray. It’s beautiful to look at and listen to, a joy to play, and has some sincere heart behind it. I can’t recommend playing it enough; if you’re subscribed to the new Playstation Plus Extra tier, it’s literally free. There are some visible seams, and those expecting something lighthearted and breezy may be disappointed, but I think Stray is very much worth your time.
Ben reviewed Stray using a retail PlayStation 5 copy purchased from the PlayStation Store.
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