Stray Review

Cats have a tendency to land on their feet, but Stray slips up on the landing.

by Shaun Cichacki
Stray Review

*Content Warning: This review contains descriptions of slightly traumatic events that happen in Stray*

Stray is the newest indie darling that had taken the world by storm for years, and ever since its initial showing back in 2020, it’s been something that feline fanatics couldn’t wait to get their hands on. However, with actions that happen throughout the story, they may have isolated their intended audience within its opening moments. While this title is absolute eye and ear candy, many moments may have you sweating, crying, or feeling upset, to the point where you may not even want to finish this game.

When Stray was initially shown off, players were expecting a title where you could explore the world as a cat, and get into plenty of shenanigans, and that is delivered slightly. You’ll find plenty of times where it feels great to control your feline friend, but other points that feel lost in translation. While the good may outweigh the bad for the most part, you’ll find some parts of this adventure feel like they could have used a little while longer in the oven before being let out into the world.

Let’s get into the details of what Stray excels at, and the points where it feels like the developers may have overlooked some things that could feel like a sin to those that they are aiming to please. Here are our thoughts on Stray, and the adventure that follows alongside it.

The Cat Is Out Of The Bag

Stray-Ps5

If you’ve been keeping an eye on this title for a while, it’s been a bit confusing to know exactly what Stray is. While most that have seen the game have expected a light-hearted adventure of a small feline in a new city, you’d be partially correct. Light-hearted is something that is thrown out of the window quite quickly, after one of the most heartwarming intro sequences in recent memory. You are placed in control of your playable feline, as you are inside of a small, enclosed area where you’ll get to interact with your friends/family.

You’ll be able to play with the other cats, snuggle up to them, and meow to your heart’s content while a thunderstorm rages outside. You’re warm, dry, and safe, and it’s great to see something like that, especially as you awake to a beautiful, sunny day the following morning. You’ll set out on your adventure, alongside 3 other cats, where you’ll learn the basics of movement. Your feline friend is great to control, with snappy responsiveness, and fluid movements all across the board.

But then: tragedy sets in. Normally, fans of video games and movies have one cardinal rule to follow, and that is: don’t hurt the animal. John Wick was driven by his anger because of what the robbers did to his dog, I Am Legend had one of the most emotional endings in history because of the pain that was brought onto Robert by the loss of his dog. Stray uses this trope within 10 minutes of starting the game, and I normally wouldn’t mention something along these lines, but the scene that follows could be deemed traumatic for those that have recently lost a pet, or have an injured animal at home.

*CONTENT WARNING BEGINS HERE*

Your kitty friend tries to make a jump onto a sagging pipe, which breaks and sends you falling into a hole that starts the game off. While watching them hang on, ala the Lion King, is bad enough, watching them fall into the hole, tumbling down through the rubble until resting in a heap is quite horrible to watch. However, it’s the following part that almost had me turn off the game, as you take control of your ferocious feline, hobbling through a sewer with a lame back leg. You fall, and your kitty tries to stand up, legs trembling and shaking, only to collapse once more. While this part is fairly short, lasting maybe a total of 2 to 3 minutes, it’s incredibly jarring and feels incredibly out of place. Why the kitty couldn’t just slide, much like it does multiple times through the duration of the game, makes no sense and feels like a horrible and cheap way to elicit an emotional response out of the player.

While this is an incredibly emotional scene, it could be forgiven if they had used this tactic once in the game, as a way to drive the player to feel like they must do whatever they can to keep the cat out of harm’s way, but it happens multiple times in the story, each time with you controlling your feline friend as they hobble along and collapse, and it’s quite distressing, rather than emotional after a while.

There are also multiple ways that your cat can die, and you are actually awarded a trophy for letting them die 9 times, which feels slightly tone deaf when you are catering to the idea of cat-lovers playing your title. You’ll also find that specific enemy will not stop attacking your cat, even after they have been killed which feels weirdly masochistic in the grander scheme of things. Zurks. an enemy type in the game, can latch onto your feline, slow you down and eventually kill you, which is a horrible thing to watch, alongside drones that will continue to shoot you even after you have died. A fade-out would have been appreciated, especially for those that are sensitive to the thought of watching an animal, digital or not, be hurt or killed.

*CONTENT WARNING ENDS HERE*

Small Kitty, Big City

Stray-City-Life

Now that we’ve covered one of the harder spots in Stray, we can get back into where this game excels: traversal and exploration. Once the calm has hit, and the storm has left, you’re stuck in a new world that you know nothing about, and there is plenty to enjoy while you make your way around the world in the paws of your feline friend. You’ll be able to use your curiosity to your advantage, as you navigate around, scratching and smacking different puzzle pieces into place to complete an objective. It’s something that will bring a smile to your face, no matter how often you’ll end up doing it.

There are also small contextual spots where you’ll be able to let your kitty do what they do best, be it on a carpet, a couch leg, a tapestry on the wall, and more. You’ll find special spots around the world where you’ll be able to use the L2 and R2 buttons to scratch up specific spots, take a little cat nap, or rub up on the legs of an unsuspecting robot and watch their reaction. It’s such a fun gesture, and something that you would hope to find, and these types of moments are delivered in spades.

The worlds that you will explore are also out of this world, in the best way possible. You’ll never forget your first time walking into the city, watching the robots run away from you because they are unaware of what you are, or what your true intentions in their world beneath the surface really are. You’ll come across plenty of different areas to explore, both vertically and on the ground, with one of the most adorable fast travel systems to be found in a video game to date. You’ll want to take the time and explore, as there are plenty of little secrets to be found, robots to interact with, and a world that seems to evolve with you as you continue to play.

One moment, you’ll find yourself in the dark depths of the slums, and the next thing you’ll know, you’ll be walking through the halls of what looks to be a canceled game in the Silent Hill franchise, as the game does take a hard left turn into a surprising horror element. It’s a unique twist, but it’s a shame that this segment comes to a close as quickly as it does, as it feels that this puzzle-horror hybrid fits the game quite well, compared to it’s more action-heavy sections.

Speaking of action, you’ll need to avoid action for the majority of the game, as you don’t have much in the way of defensive tactics for your little friend. While you may be able to use your claws to scratch up different objects that you come across in the world, you do not have any way to defend yourself against the troublesome Zurks that lurk in the shadows. You’ll find yourself on the run from them, frantically slamming on the circle button to remove them from yourself if you happen to get caught, until a little bit later in the game. However, with as quickly as you receive a defensive item, it is just as quickly taken away from you, and that leads us to our next point.

Meow-tle Gear Solid

Stealth-In-Stray

As quickly as your journey starts, it comes to an end. Things move quickly in this world, and it’s not just thanks to your four legs. As soon as the story comes to a boiling point, it’s just about done, leaving you tilting your head, wondering if there was meant to be something else. During my time with this review, I went through and completed the game twice, just to see if there was something that I had missed, but as it turns out, you may just find yourself zipping through this game in no time.

During the first playthrough, with over 50% of collectibles found, and not rushing, the game was complete in about four hours. You’ll be able to cruise through this game quickly, even if you are not trying to rush because you get absorbed into the story, and it suddenly comes to a quick halt at the end, when you finish off the final level and are treated to the ending, leaving you in a bit of disbelief that you’ve already finished the story off.

The story of Stray is surprisingly good, however, there are many points that could be expanded upon, as the twists and turns that follow through the story happen and end just as quickly as the next. It’s not going to win any awards with the story it sets out to tell, and it isn’t the most memorable plot in the land, but you’ll certainly find a few things here and there that make you think about the repercussions of what could happen next.

All of this is wrapped up in multiple different types of adventure, with some outshining others. Creeping around the map, avoiding drones, breaking into buildings, and more are some of the most fun stealth gameplay segments that have been featured in a game, but the action segments leave some to be desired. Puzzles, on the other hand, are excellently crafted and will require you to use your cat-like exploration tactics to find all of the clues. Once you find out how to make things tick, you’ll find immense joy in the solutions that you come across, and it’s one of the best parts of this game.

Since there is no way to defend yourself before you receive a specific item, the action boils down to a game of cat and mouse, with the roles reversed. The Zurks, small crab/tick-like creatures that will pursue you to the end of the world, or at least until you come across a light source, offer ways to dispose of you, but you have no choice but to run away. You’ll be able to use parts of the environments at times to escape, but for the majority of your encounters with them, you’ll just need to run as if your life depends on it.

It would have been great to have some form of defense, even if it was using your claws to keep them at bay, but you are stuck with no other option until you get a special item around the quarter point of the game. But, as mentioned before, you’ll lose the opportunity to use this special weapon quickly, so it almost feels shoehorned in for a specific section, and that’s it. It would be great if these ideas were fleshed out further than they were, as the groundwork for some excellent ideas lies here, but they never reach their full potential.

Does Stray Scratch An Itch For You?

Stray-Big-City

The biggest downfall for Stray is overambition. As the first title for this company, it tried and succeeded in many different ways. However, with the variety of different gameplay types, some are bound to stick better than others, and some may just downright not work very well at all. If Stray would have stuck to a puzzle/platformer game, it may have felt like a completely different title and may have allowed them more time to fully polish things up. If they would have lent a little more into the action portions of the game, and given you a way to defend yourself more than a 30-minute portion of the game, it may have succeeded more there.

There are a few oversights that make this title lose some of its luster, and while it’s a great first attempt at building a new world, there are a few things that feel out of place, and strange in the long run. It feels like the game was built around something different, and then they decided to drop a cat in at some point and call it ready to go. Besides the traversal methods that are employed here, it feels like you could put any animal, creature, or human in place of the main character and you would be able to play the game just about the same, and that’s not what many people would be expecting in the long run.

However, for as much criticism that has been bestowed upon this game so far, we need to take a moment to highlight the visuals and the soundtrack. The soundtrack is excellently crafted, with electronic beats filling this cyberpunk world, and allowing for some extremely tense moments when things come to a full crescendo. You’ll find yourself exploring around the world while the drones of electronic music fill your veins, and it’s truly something exciting, especially when paired with the visuals.

The cities and levels that you find yourself in are extremely well detailed, with bright plumes of neon filling the air around you. You’ll find yourself entranced, and wanting to explore as many areas as you possibly can, just to see what you could be getting yourself into. You’ll also find plenty of unique robots spread throughout these lands, with some of them having more humility and humanity than some people you’ve met in your real life. You’ll also find some very humorous bits of dialog when you speak to these characters, so make sure that you’re taking the time out of your day to meet everyone around you.

You’ll also be able to complete different side quests, allowing you to explore areas that you didn’t know existed. Since you are a cat, there is no mini-map or anything of the sort for you to rely on, so you’ll want to speak to different robots around town for hints on where you may need to go next. It’s a very unique way of navigating the world and makes things more exciting when you finally find your destination. Just make sure you’re checking around, in the case of missing a collectible or any other object.

The Verdict

It’s hard to perfectly encapsulate what Stray really sets out to do, as it is a jack of all trades, but unfortunately a master of none of them. Certain parts of this game are near masterclass, like its stealth sections,  but it finds itself lost within its own identity too often, and misses the mark on more than one occasion. However, if you are a fan of cats, genuinely entertaining stealth and platforming, and humorous writing, this game may appeal to you in the long run, but if you are looking for a cute cat game with little stress, this may not be the title for you.

With its outstanding audio and visual design, paired alongside some uninspired gameplay that feels like it was created for a different title in the long run, Stray offers some enjoyable moments but is overshadowed by its own ambitions. If a sequel or DLC comes out for this game, they would be wise to focus on the puzzle/platforming aspects and leave the action on the back burner, and they could have a true winner on their hands.

This game was reviewed using a copy of the game provided by the game's publisher,public relations company, developer or other for the express purpose of a review.

"meh"
meh

Stray

  • Score: 3 / 5
  • Available On: PC, PS4, PS5
  • Published By: Annapurna Interactive
  • Developed By: BlueTwelve Studio
  • Genre: Action Adventure
  • US Release Date: July 19, 2022
  • Reviewed On: PS5
  • Quote: "It's hard to perfectly encapsulate what Stray really sets out to do, as it is a jack of all trades, but unfortunately a master of none of them. Certain parts of this game are near masterclass, like its stealth sections, but it finds itself lost within its own identity too often, and misses the mark on more than one occasion."
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