I used to be a dog person until I met my cat King in a parking lot. I had just finished a shift at my retail job when I saw him scurry under a shipping container that was left in the parking lot. I called out to him and he jumped into my car. He was meowing up a storm on the whole car ride home.
I barely knew him and I already felt a special bond. Before this moment, I would have called myself a dog person. It was this moment that made the new puzzle platformer Stray especially meaningful for me.
Stray is a love letter to our furry feline friends. Cats often times are left with an NPC role in video games or used as a marketing beat when they can be pet in a game. Stray finally gives cats the their time to be the main character as you help one stray cat find their way home after they fall into a new world.
GIVING GAMEPLAY PURRSONALITY
From the moment this game starts, it tells you right away that this is a game for people who know how cats operate. The tutorial of the game has the player doing cat things like grooming, sleeping, stretching and knocking objects off surfaces. Stray nails down the characterization of the nameless main character. From their silent traversal to effortless leaping abilities, developer BlueTwelve Studio has made a viable cat simulator. If you’ve ever wondered how your cat makes it to the top of your fridge, this is the game for you. I have to admit: it was pretty thrilling to walk into strangers’ homes and knock things off their surfaces. Or scratching on someone’s door hoping that it would be answered.
Traversal by platforming is an important part of the game. With in the first 10 minutes, the game teaches you the spatial awareness your cat has to help you determine what objects you can jump on and how far you can jump. If there’s a surface you can jump onto, an ‘X’ icon will hover over it allowing you to jump right to it through a set animation rather than having to perfect your jump height and placement. It’s control decisions like this that establish the type of game this is. The game is all about getting from Point A to Point B in the least stressful way possible. It’s these types of choices that make this more accessible to cat lovers who may not necessarily play other platformers like Cuphead of even Mario.
Solving puzzles is the other tentpole of the game. The simplicity of the puzzles also contribute to establishing what the game is and who it’s for. Puzzle solving is limited to the capabilities of a house cat, so it’s a lot of moving objects to activate something else or tracking down objects to trade for other objects. There wasn’t any part of the game that I got hung up on. There’s enough signposting to tell you where to go and there’s design choices that help important objects stand out. The game does a great job at teaching what you can and can’t do as a cat.
At one point in the game, you need to get inside a laundromat with a locked front door. It instantly reminded me of my own cat who will do anything in his power to get past a closed door.
TAKING IN THE PURRTY WORLD
Stray features a number of beautiful and varied landscapes. You’ll see environments heavily inspired by slum neighborhoods of the world or cityscapes that give Tokyo vibes. There’s one portion of the game that features nightmarish environments and creatures that felt strangely out of place. I would have loved to see photo mode in game like this.
Although Stray does a masterful job at animating the cat main character to seem like a cat, their appearance is a stark contrast to how the rest of the game looks. The environments are graphically detailed and feel alive. However, the cat has a more stylistic look to it that feels somewhere between uncanny valley and hyper realistic like the game’s environments. This was especially noticeable for me during cutscenes when these different elements were interacting with each other.
You’ll meet a drone friend early on aptly named B12 that serves as a translator and commentator throughout your adventures. B12 will also give you hints as to where to go to next. You’ll help B12 uncover their own past as you progress through the game.
The world is populated by emotive robots called Companions who have human names. Their design and personalities provide a quirky undertone to what’s otherwise a mysterious and dreary post apocalyptic world. The Companions play a pivotal role in the story as some of them assist with getting you back home. Helping them so they can help you is one of the game’s key elements.
A PAWSITIVE PRESENTATION
Cutscenes in Stray are reminiscent of the PlayStation 2 and Xbox generation of games. When going from gameplay to a cutscene, the screen will go from full screen to widescreen with the insertion of black bars. This design choice instantly brought me back to playing Bully or a Grand Theft Auto. Even some of the camera work during these cutscenes reminds of those games. It’s a reminder that this is an indie game made by a studio that’s newer to the scene.
Sound design was one of my favorite things about Stray. The soundtrack felt like lo-fi beats to study to at some points and otherworldly at others with the use of ethereal digital sounds. Every track felt like it matched whatever was going on in the story.
Cat lovers will thoroughly enjoy Stray as I did. It was almost therapeutic to play as my own cat sat in my lap during play sessions. Stray succeeds in being a cat simulator but it struggles to be anything memorable beyond being “the cat game.” It’s fun to jump in boxes or figuring out how a cat might think when needing to make it to the top of a tall building. However, there weren’t any pivotal gameplay moments or story beats that will stick with me.