a stunning sci-fi fable that forfeits its full potential

Everybody wants to be a cat. If there is one constant in this entropic, boiling nightmare that we live in, it’s that the internet loves cats – and Stray deals in some serious millennial meme bait.

Stray – the most wishlisted game on Steam – offers up this fantasy on a plate as you play as a cat on a dystopian adventure inside a city that takes serious visual inspiration from Kowloon Walled City. The idea has captured the hearts and minds of anyone even close to video games social media.

Sadly as a six-hour video game, and not a transient, viral idea, Stray isn’t all that successful. As much as it was novel to paw and meow through a city filled with thoughtful robots, the experience started to grate long before the end of its runtime.

Stray, Credit: BlueTwelve Studio.
Stray, Credit: BlueTwelve Studio.

Stray gets a lot of things right. The game’s dystopian dioramas are teeming with memorable cat crannies. Environments burst with color and life, from busy bars and hat shops to programmer’s nests. Through its art direction, Stray really works its way into your imagination as you try and divine what the world looks like outside of the Walled City that you’ve been thrust into. I would love to see the concept art ASAP, and more side stories in this rich cyberpunk reality.

Feline movement is fluid and refined, too. It feels really nice to hop up on ledges and scramble around the place, but this is an automated process, so don’t expect any moment-to-moment challenge. This is fine, of course, or at least it would be if Stray was committed to being a low-key exploration game with a strong undercurrent narrative. But several abrupt sections of linearity disrupt the flow, and force you to contend with some seriously tropey game design.

The enemies in Stray are these blobby little bugs called Zurks, and you’ll have to (begrudgingly) leave the rich open-world areas to run away from them in several tiresome chase sequences. These sections feel particularly old school, and very distant from the rest of the game, which usually trades in mindful exploration and clever puzzles. They only get more frustrating the further you get into it Stray, too. Eventually you get an awkward-to-control light gun to pop Zurks with, and then there’s an escort mission, and finally some forced stealth. For a game that feels so inspired and artsy, it was confusing to watch Stray tumble into the depths of that particular design ravine.

Stray, Credit: BlueTwelve Studio.
Stray, Credit: BlueTwelve Studio.

Having any antagonizing force whatsoever felt like a bit of an afterthought, honestly. This is because Stray is at its very best when it’s calm, and you’re meandering through the paraphernalia of an imagined future. It’s so easy to be charmed by the robots who inhabit The Slums, Antvillage and Midtown – I sure talked to each and every one of them. They are all quirky, endearing characters, former cleaning units who have gained a form of sentience through the materials and practices of their masters. It proves to be a really smart way to talk about human behavior, especially from the perspective of a lost, helpful cat that they all, in quaint fashion, are enamored with.

Watching the robots play house is interesting, and sometimes profound and emotional. Your companion in the game is B-12, a drone interpreter who translates their language and helps the eponymous stray with puzzles. You can unlock memories for B-12, which constitute Stray‘s secret collectibles, and add flavor to the game’s scintillating mech society. “Hair is not a necessary ingredient for a successful barbershop,” reads one that you can discover above an automaton salon.

It’s not quite as smart or as careful with its commentary as something like Nier: Automaticbut Stray‘s worldbuilding is impressive, and easily the strongest part of the game. The human characteristics and community rituals that start to show up among the robot population make for some heartwarming moments, even if Stray doesn’t follow many of its best threads to their inevitable conclusions.

Stray, Credit: BlueTwelve Studio.
Stray, Credit: BlueTwelve Studio.

There’s a character called Zbaltazar who you find surrounded by mystic CRTs in screensaver union, and an “All you can eat GPU-don bar” where the robots eat wire bundles in mysterious liquid. There’s even a robot musician who you can find and gift sheet music to, and they’ll play sweet songs as you cuddle into a pillow. One of them sounded a bit like a modulated version of ‘Lover’s Rock’ by TV Girl.

These were some of the coolest game scenes I’ve had the pleasure of exploring in a while, the lo-fi score augmenting every nook. But this went hand in hand with some cringe apocalypse graffiti and some cultural references that felt like they were there to poke fun rather than invoke potential meaning. Unfortunately, the most thoughtful parts of Stray feel undermined by some invasive chaff and poor pacing.

If there was as much focus on storytelling or encounter design as there was intricate cat behaviors, then Stray could have been something we’d remember long down the road. There’s a part where the game pivots into surreal horror territory with robot corps embalmed in walls flush with eyes, but sadly, it fails to ride this fascinating turn towards anything satisfying.

At one point, when I realized I was going to have to stop exploring side stories in Stray‘s brilliant open-world slum, I stalled and started following a peculiar robot with a strange animation cycle as they walked around the area, picking up scrap and talking to people. My imagination was stoked, and I was begging for some emergent storytelling, but instead I had to go and run through a swamp full of ‘Zurks’ to progress the story, so eventually I gave up on them. At times, Stray can feel like a big kibble bag of missed opportunity.

Stray launches on July 19 for PC, PS4 and PS5. This review was played on PS5.

The Verdict

It’s a shame that Stray feels so pared down from its warm, exploratory core. The trappings of what a top-shelf video game ‘should’ be only seem to siphon its joy. Stray is a beautiful game, and a fun cat simulator with some smart ideas, but one that misses its true potential thanks to an unnecessary helping of trope-ish design, and an unwillingness to ruminate on its most intriguing characters and themes. I wish Stray could have been more experimental and less linear, and I hope BlueTwelve gets the chance to expand this clearly ripe world in a more thoughtful direction.

Pros

  • Takes a place in a rich, well-realized world
  • Exquisite kitty cat simulation
  • Cool characters and some thoughtful commentary

Cons

  • Falls prey to some of the worst design tropes
  • Doesn’t follow through with its best ideas
  • Lots of missed potential in the narrative department
  • Pointless, frustrating enemies

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.