I’ve long envied my cat’s dexterity. She could effortlessly strut on top of a fence. She could make any mistake look intentional. She could contort her body to sit inside of anything made of glass or cardboard. As a child I was better at catching a ball with my face rather than my hands, so naturally I’d fantasize that I was a cat with more capable motor skills. I’m surprised it took people this long to make a video game based on that natural skillset unique to cats.
Yes, everything you’ve heard about this game’s cuteness is true. You can take a nap on a pillow. You can rub on the legs of an unsuspecting NPC. You can spam the meow button to your heart’s content, which of course I did throughout my 5-hour playthrough.
There’s a mostly enjoyable game tacked on to this meow simulator as well. However, I also have a few nagging problems with it. Just like a real cat, Stray both delights me and annoys me, and I feel guilty for pointing out the annoying bits.
The core of Stray’s gameplay is solid: explore the rooftops and alleyways of a post-human world so that you can make it back to your lost cat family. The jumping is contextual, meaning you can’t ever miss a jump. It makes sense; you’re a cat, after all. The real challenge isn’t making your jumps, it’s finding how to get to your destination. Stray makes you move around the world the way a real cat would, by jumping through windows and slinking along pipes. This is the most I ever “felt like Catman” — I mean, like a cat. The game alternates between linear paths and sprawling open environments, and I love exploring every inch of the Platforming litterbox — I mean, sandbox. Some light puzzle solving is thrown in as well, and I giggle at every bit of mischief I can find, like stepping on a keyboard to “accidentally” activate a robot or sitting on a wall-mounted security camera to make it fall. I also appreciate that the devs set me loose to play more nonlinearly, finding quest items before an NPC actually asks me about it.
Though that’s also where my troubles with the game begin. Unfortunately, the core Platforming / Exploring gameplay gets muddied by other ideas that don’t exactly gel with me. You have some chase sequences that were, at best, inoffensive. But I can’t say the same for the stealth sections. I understand that cats would be good at avoiding enemies, but this cat’s slow moveset didn’t feel well suited for quickly dealing with robot sentries that could hear a meow from five rooms away.
Stray’s story gets muddied in the same way. It starts out well enough: the cat finds a small drone companion who can interact with the robot NPCs, and I felt compelled to find this drone’s lost memories. However, the robots treat me like the protagonist of some epic Adventure, and over time this gave me severe Ludonarrative dissonance, enough to prevent me from getting completely immersed in the plot. The mystery was satisfying enough to solve, but the impact of the story’s emotional blows felt blunted by the fact that… a cat would never understand any of this, much less care about it.
Stray’s commitment to visual realism both hurts it and helps it. I’m beyond impressed with how realistic the cat moves — its little trot, its swishing tail, the bounding jumps — its 100% cat. The rusty walls and glitching neon signs perfectly convey a melancholic grunge. It whiskered me — I mean whisked me away to another world. And yet all that realism sets up the expectation that the story will give the cat a more realistic role as well. If the cat was going to save these robot NPCs, it would be entirely accidental, like the McGuffin to save their society looked like fish, and that’s why I picked it up. I still liked the story in a general sense, but I felt that BlueTwelve studios’ writers sometimes forgot their protagonist was a cat.
Stray earned its “buy it” recommendation from me the moment I first saw the cat move. As a game it falls short of true greatness, but BlueTwelve Studio shows enough promise in their creative level design that I still etched them onto my “Keep Track of These Indie Devs” List.