Do you get it? Because the game is popular, like a ‘hit’, but ‘paws’ sounds like ‘pause’ and you ‘hit’ the ‘pause’ ‘button’? You get it. It’s funny. Stray is a game people have anticipated for a very long time. ‘The game where you play as a cat’ has been on people’s minds since it was first shown off in 2020, and comes to us from small french studio BlueTwelve, founded by a pair of ex-Ubisoft devs, and is published by the ever-growing Annapurna.
Out of all the games I’ve played so far this year, Stray strangely feels like the most surprising mix of nostalgia and refreshment. In the first twenty minutes or so, before the introduction of B-12, this game reminds me of the old wacky PS3 games of old, the likes of Flower, Journey and of course Tokyo Jungle. This was present to the point where I almost felt a little disappointed when B-12, and thereby dialogue as a mechanic, is added into the game. The addition of dialogue really threw me for a loop, and throughout the game I found myself wondering if it would be better to have you not understand what is being said by anyone, as it stands the addition of dialogue only serves to take you out of the… fur? Cats don’t wear shoes… of the protagonist, as it’s never implied that the cat can understand english, only you; the player. I found myself constantly thinking of Ico, a game which achieves this very well outside of cutscenes. You don’t speak to the girl and your only communication is basic movements, something like that would have helped make you feel more like you’re playing as the cat is a meaningful choice in the story, and would have made the player feel smarter for understanding what’s going on.
But that’s enough of me ranting about a minor aspect of the game that doesn’t affect the overall gameplay experience, and before we start talking about the game properly I do want to preface this review with the main thing that players may dislike about this game; the length. This game takes about five hours to beat if you don’t go for all the side content (and we recommend doing the side-content, the more time you can spend in this world the better) and whilst I thought that it was the perfect length, with every gameplay section being perfectly polished, some could find this underwhelming.
So let’s get into Stray, and see how the adventure of this fantastic feline fares.
The world has been over for a very long time, humans have died out, and all that remains is robots emulating human lives in underground human bunkers. It’s never made clear what happened, what made the humans build these walled cities or why they died out, but there are hints throughout the game. Giant bacteria infest the deepest parts of the city, at one point a disease is mentioned in relation to humans, and little details hint at various possibilities; signs mention not allowing sound, perhaps monsters from a quiet place killed the humans, or maybe the 16 hour clocks hint at problems with the earth’s rotation. Whatever happened to the humans, it doesn’t matter now. There’s a group of robots who want to escape to the surface, and they want to help you get there, as you prove there is life on the surface. You’ll meet a selection of colorful characters who will help you on your way and by the end you’ll want to see them get to the surface with you… hopefully.
As I mentioned previously, the pacing of this game is great, and the story is no exception, you’re introduced to groups and characters quickly and easily and get straight into the good stuff every time. A lot of writers can take notes that you can create compelling groups and compelling one-note characters without 10+ minutes of dialogue each time (I’m looking at you Dying Light 2 and Neon White). The story is a pretty basic ‘get out of the hole’ story, but the interesting world keeps it going, the story is, on a technical level, is the weakest part of the game, but you don’t feel it because everything else about the game is great, and the story is just a vehicle for the rest of what’s on offer. So let’s talk about that. One final point first, though; a moment of disappointment I had was the very ending, which I won’t spoil, but I felt left too many threads open to feel like a real ending.
On a basic level the best way to describe the gameplay of Stray as being a full-3D version of games like Limbo or Little Nightmares, this new wave of puzzle platformers is just hit after hit, and this is no exception. Before I get into gameplay properly, I wanted to talk about the main thing people are bringing up about the gameplay experience, because I think it’s a really silly point. Yes, there is no dedicated jump. There is a contextual jump, and people have decided that this means you have less control over the character, when all it actually means if that you can’t just jump on the spot for no reason. This makes total sense, the game is built around it and if you had a traditional jump they wouldn’t be able to achieve the cat-like behaviour of jumping sleekly on thin objects or small walls, you can still jump on just as many things, it just snaps you to the objects instead of having you stand around on them, it wouldn’t work for this four-legged character in the game they’ve made and the development team absolutely made the right choice here. Also, if you’ve never played a game without a dedicated jump button before them you’ve probably just not played many games. Anyway, onto the meat of the gameplay.
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The gameplay is simple but very effective, it involves a lot of problem solving and puzzle configuring, there are the occasional shake-ups in gameplay, particularly in the first half with the bug-creatures where chase scenes and an eventual weapon make things fresh here and there. The game always knows when to shake things up a little and always knows when to give you something standard, a big new mechanic like stealth is always followed up by a section of regular ‘find a way into room and press lever’ puzzles, and it works really well. One thing that’s very impressive is animations and consistency, other than some iffy NPC ai pathfinding, the animations all look great and, at least on the main character, transition between animations very smoothly. I also took note of how never, not once did the snapping to ledges that the game relies on lead to clipping or other errors, I would not have expected it but this game does carry an insane level of polish, so is it that surprising really?
Art and Music
In case I hadn’t already made it clear, this is where the game shines. This world is palpable and visceral, every single inch of every area of the game, particularly the three open areas where side-content can be found, is bursting with detail. The lighting is colorful, reflective and highlights areas and objects wonderfully. The post-processing effects are subtle and effective. One of the best decisions in the game was to make there be no UI fixed to the camera, everything is part of the world or attatched to objects within it, not quite on the level of Dead Space, but pretty close, and it helps create a deeper sense of immersion; every moment could be a desktop wallpaper or wall print.
Stray will be hard to beat this year in terms of pure atmosphere and art design, with memorable, recognisable and cute character and enemy designs, varied and detailed environments and charming animations on the robots, and well-researched animations on the protagonist, creating a deeper sense of being a stranger in a strange land.
The sound design isn’t perfect, it does the job, using maybe one too many stock sounds, and featuring one too many bugs; sounds not playing or playing way too loud for instance, but it never takes away from the overall experience. The music, though? That’s something worth writing home about. It’s not perfect, with tracks occasionally restarting randomly and distractingly, but each track is so good to hear it’s not really a bother. The Music not only perfectly sets each scene, but stands on it’s own as a listenable composition, I’d listen to this in my spare time. I wish I knew more about music theory so I could make some more meaningful commentary on it, but trust me, it’s a highlight.
I’m already tempted to play the game again, if only just to wander around midtown, watching the water drip from the pipes, the neon light reflecting off the puddles as a nearby robot’s face flickers whilst it talks to it’s friend. The visuals of this game will stay with me for the rest of the year, you could say that they won’t stray from my mind, eh?
Stray won’t be a must-buy for everyone, some could be put off by some of the facts of the gameplay simplicity or the short length, but for most people I’d say this is one of the best titles of the year and well worth playing. It’s simple, but creates a big effect with what it does do. Puzzle solving is accessible to all with simple to learn mechanics that won’t have you scratching your head yet is still satisfying.
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