Cute cats and not a lot more.
Stray is a shallow experience. Its gameplay consists of running, button prompted jumping, and solving extremely rudimentary puzzles. There is combat every now and then but it doesn’t bring much to the table either.
It’s a shame because the world of Stray is gorgeous: its cute cats and rickety robots making a home of the neon lit city streets. And much to my surprise, the underlying narrative premise was intriguing enough that I wanted to reach the answers at the end of the road.
Stray’s biggest weakness is that it fails to do anything at all with its gameplay despite the unique premise it holds.
In Stray you play as a cat. Separated from your kin at the very start, you must make your way through a run-down futuristic city inhabited by quirky robots but infested by mutant organisms.
After meeting your flying droid companion, B-12, you set about uncovering the secrets behind Walled City 99. The ultimate goal: open the gates of the city and learn what the outside holds.
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Narrative is ceded to the player through dialogue. Robots you interact with, both ones who serve as companions and those who simply populate the world, feed interesting new information about the world and its systems.
For instance, upon arriving in Midtown, you learn how it is harshly governed by Sentinels and Peacekeepers. Throughout your time exploring Midtown, you witness these cruel machines at work, arresting citizens and ruling with an iron whip.
During the course of Stray’s roughly 4-5 hour runtime, there are plenty of interactions between you - the cat - and the friendly robots who live in the city. These interactions are always a joy to witness due to unique dialogue. Most characters you meet, especially in the Slums, have their own little story.
Two friends playing catch across the rooftops with buckets of paint. A musician who doesn’t have any sheets of music to play. A grandma who loves to knit. Learning about these characters is a joy, and while some of the tasks they make you do are extremely rudimentary, you feel empowered to complete them due to the bond between cat and robot.
The game’s narrative elements are simple enough. But when put together they are intriguing and enjoyable enough to keep the player motivated to play on. And that is important because Stray’s core gameplay loop is a massive let down.
For a game that lets you play as a cat, one of the most nimble and agile creatures out there, the platforming in Stray is awful. The most egregious sin being that you can’t jump unless prompted to.
This strips the player of all freedom and creativity while traversing the urban jungle that is Walled City 99. Instead you must stick to an extremely linear path crafted by the developers.
This aspect of the game would have been so much fun and actually engaging if instead of telling the player “ok, you can jump here but not any of those other very plausible places,” the game just allowed the player to turn anything into a ledge. Stopping the player from wandering off would’ve been as simply as streamlining all the possible routes in a forward direction and none sideways.
I get that the developer’s intention was to make a more atmospheric and narrative focused title, but I can’t help point out what a mindless bore the platforming was, especially when it could have easily been so much better.
The combat is Stray is perhaps as rudimentary as it is unnecessary. In Chapter 7 (there are 12 in total) a robot you a working with called Doc will give you your one and only weapon: a Defluxor. Created with the sole purpose of killing zurks, the mutated organisms that infest the streets of the city, the Defluxor is essentially an extremely powerful flashlight.
To use it, simply hold down L1 and turn the camera in the direction of the enemy. To prevent players was abusing the system and keeping the Defluxor on at all times, it will overheat if used continuously for a short duration of time. The Defluxor is pretty strong, so this tweak makes sure it can’t be abused.
However despite this, combat is not very good. Zurks come at you in hordes and they are easy to run around. Their AI isn’t that good either, and out-manuevering them is a piece of cake. In many instances, you don’t have to actually face the zurks, you can simply run past them and onwards.
Later in the game, when you face off against machine enemies, the Defluxor loses its purpose and instead you must “defeat” them in unconventional ways: running circles around them or tricking them into locked rooms. However even here, there is only one way to take care of the enemies the game throughs at you, and once you have dealt with one foe, all that’s left is to rinse and repeat.
Stray feels like game where combat didn’t need to exist. If platforming was more than just linear button-prompted movement, then combat could have been replaced with obstacle courses or environmental puzzles that require you to think on your feet as enemies chase you around.
There are a healthy mix of puzzles in Stray. They come in a wide variety of forms from finding objects littered around the area, to deciphering visual hints to find the correct passcode. I can’t complain about the pacing of puzzles. They come at well-spaced intervals and they rarely feel tacked on.
However I do feel obliged to point out the shortcomings of these puzzles. They are extremely basic and easy to solve. I often found myself figuring out what the clues were and how I might proceed with deciphering a puzzle before it was even presented to me.
The mission structure in Stray also leaves a lot to be desired. They usually involve some simple platforming with a couple of combat encounters sprinkled in the middle before being made to solve an unimaginative puzzle at the end.
I tend to gravitate towards games with enjoyable gameplay. My two favourite games, Celeste and Spider-Man, have extremely strong core gameplay loops. So naturally Stray’s lack of any engaging gameplay mechanics - whether it’s platforming, combat, or puzzles - leaves me feeling empty inside.
Sure, BlueTwelve Studio chose to make a game that places greater emphasis on its world and story but its decision to not fully embrace that very focus leaves Stray with half-baked gameplay mechanics that sadly fail to inspire.
To its credit through, the world of Stray is absolutely gorgeous. Rain soaked streets shimmer under a sea of neon signs. The rare vista provides a breathtaking overview of the concrete jungle below.
Every locale is as beautiful as they are unique. The rundown buildings and littered streets of the Slums are a far cry from Antvillage, where houses and paths snake up the sides of a giant cylinder creating a lush treehouse like village.
My favourite part of the game-world has to be the Slums. You are free to take your time exploring its height and width, meeting new faces as you go. There are random activities to partake in, like rolling a basketball into a dust or spooking robots into dropping cans of paint off the rooftops. In this rare instance of minimal handholding, the game shines best.
The only drawback of Stray’s world, other than its poor utilisation as a sandbox for the player to run around in, is that sometimes objects in the distance take time to load in resulting in awkward instance of pop-in. It’s not bad by any means but I thought it would be worth pointing out.
Stray’s shorter runtime of around 4-5 hours on a first-playthrough was quite refreshing. In a climate dominated by games stretched out far beyond the limits of their enjoyability, it is nice to experience such a short and crisp title.
I also found an odd joy in ticking off some of the game’s easier PSN trophies. I found myself going out of the way and doing stuff like scrolling through all TV channels, dunking a basketball, ruin two robots’ mahjong game, and wearing a paper bag just to unlock certain trophies.
It’s not even that I wanted to go for a platinum, it was just some plain old nonsensical fun of seeing what absurd stuff I could get up to for a little dopamine rush when the trophy finally pops. I even tried playing billiards in the hope that it would unlock some cool little easter egg. I don’t know why. It just seemed fun.
When I finished the game and went through my notes in preparation for writing this review, I concluded that I would give the game a score of 2/5. Because despite its cool premise and wonderfully bizarre world, the gameplay systems just weren’t up to it. Platforming, combat, and puzzles were all for the most part mindless and overly basic.
But as I sit here and look back at my review, that score seems a bit harsh. Because my writing doesn’t seem to critique the game down to this score. I get that gameplay is not the game’s focal point but it still detracts quite a lot from the experience to the point where I can’t justify giving the game a 3/5.
I think it comes down to this. I did not like Stray all that much because I look for gameplay in my games. And without sufficiently engaging mechanics for me to toy around with, the game falls flat in my eyes.
Everyone out there has different tastes and preferences, and I think many people will find a lot to like about this game. So take my word with a large slice of perspective. Because to me, Stray is all style and no substance.