It’s a quick one this week as John and Lorelai sit down to go over the news and that games
Going into Stray, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I kept myself mostly ignorant of everything since the teaser trailer a couple years ago, and jumped in fresh. There’s a good chance that some folks out there expected a straightforwardly whimsical cat simulator, which honestly after playing Stray, would have been so much more boring of a game (Unless there were collectable mice or something). Its unique setting, and sometimes harrowing story, makes for a thoughtful experience that really highlights the player’s limited input as a totally normal, unmodified, and non-magical cat. You work with what you’ve got, and even in this world, when you work with others, it’s more than enough.
Overall, this is a short and (bitter)sweet game. You play a stray cat separated from your colony and lost in a somewhat derelict enclosed-on-all-sides city of friendly yet cautious droids, and horrible mutated and overgrown fleas called Zurks that attack and swarm you if you wander too close. Luckily, the areas in which you’ll meet either of these inhabitants are separate and well-defined, which means the chapters and areas in which you can casually explore are not underscored by latent monster anxiety.
And there’s a lot to explore! The three main story hubs are built vertically in a way that you ascend with little jumps (the starting city most of all, with a real running-along-the-rooftops quality to it) but they’re also navigable by long roads and alleys, which make sprinting and weaving feel extra satisfying. There are things to find along the way, like sheet music for a street musician, or trinkets to barter for other, more important items. I was left wishing there was a little more collecting to do, because while the exploration is engaging on its own, it feels empty without more points of interest. The exploration itself could also be more freeform – your vertical movement is based on interacting with prompts towards specific jump points, but it’s still mostly smooth and fun to pounce around.
You’re not the only stray looking for a way out and back to the surface. Though you’ve quite literally fallen into the city from the outside, the concept of “Outside” is only known to the citizenry as either conspiracy or futility; a fable painted on brightly-colored beach-themed postcards. It’s a constantly hanging desire for some, and because the droids have no frame of reference for the limits of a kitty cat, those who are working on a way out will solicit your help in one way or another without judgment.
You also quickly gain the companionship of a little drone named B-12, who guides you through the dark and mysterious streets by managing your inventory and helping to translate between you and the droids of the city. Throughout the game, you can unlock memories that flesh out B-12’s own personal history and the history of the city, but also information about the outside, and why everyone is trapped within, gazing up at an endless and fabricated night sky. Your bond with this drone is emotional and practical, and it forms the foundation of the story and your big key motivation for getting out of the city. B12’s involvement with the story and dialogue with other characters is also written in such a way that your shortcomings as a silent protagonist aren’t so dramatic – B12 is very much your partner in crime.
A lot of your typical cat abilities – meowing, scratching at a door, knocking stuff over, fitting into tight spaces – are used as mechanics in evading enemies, escaping, or getting the attention of other characters. Even as a cat, your unique role in the story feels natural, and your presence flows gracefully into the world around you.
Obviously, the game is designed simplistically to utilize your particular abilities in a fun way, but there is a brief combat interlude where you actually fight those mutated fleas mentioned earlier. Nothing too dramatic, just a big special UV flashlight that makes Zurks explode on contact. It’s a fun, classic weakness to have your little bad guys vulnerable to sunlight, and it makes sense that they would multiply to such unmanageable numbers in this city that’s completely cut off from the outside. It’s certainly a reprieve from other sections of the game where you have to dodge and weave around them, especially in tight spaces, especially if you’re like me and you don’t handle fast-paced tension very well. It’s a little awkward to use, as you run up, blast them, run in circles while it recharges, blast them again, and so on. It is a little disruptive to an otherwise fairly non-violent game, but it’s only for one sequence so it doesn’t wear out its welcome too badly.
Aesthetically, Stray is excellent. Despite only having a few environments, the world is fleshed out with neon lights, impressive vistas, dynamic lighting, unique characters, and spaces with personal effects that reflect the personalities of the droids that inhabit them, and their persistent culture influenced by a humanity that’s no longer here. Everything from movement, to visual design, to simplified facial expressions convey a lot of identity and charisma. So much of this world is conveyed through the environment, and the writing that supports it is just as uncluttered – a comfortable amount of exposition, a lot of depth and emotion in not a lot of words.
Stray is a very good game and genuinely feels different from what I’ve been playing recently. From its neon-lit hopeful dystopia to its lush forgotten city streets, it’s cute and harrowing, dark and hopeful, and it’s sweet and refreshing to play a non-human helping other non-humans. The balance between all of these contrasting thematic elements is well done, and the gameplay is smooth and energetic. Its flaws are few and far between, and all the other pieces come together in a really thoughtful and compelling way. I don’t want to say too much here to spoil anything, but it’s worth the few hours to play through it. BlueTwelve Studio took their time with this game but it paid off — Stray has a ton of heart and it’s probably one of my personal games of the year.