There is a lot of surre om Stray right now, because it’s coming out during a fairly dry update for new releases, and more importantly, how you’ll get to play as an incredibly cute cat. Unfortunately, what I think many people are about to discover this week is that it forgets it very quickly, and becomes incredibly … gamey. I did not expect to play as a robot, such as zapping mutant blobs.
The following contains spoilers for Straytheir game elements (how you play, rather than why you do it), without getting into the story itself at all.
StrayThe opening is just amazing. With no fussy nonsense, no boring movie sequences, the camera gently sweeps over four kittens living in the overgrown remains of a dam, before sitting behind the ginger animal in the collection, giving you control. The first thing you do is interact with your brothers and sisters, every single beautiful moment beautifully observed cat behavior. The animations are perfect and everyone of any decency will be admired on screen.
After a bit of sleep, the four cats go on a journey, cross the ruins of what was once a huge structure, jump from concrete blocks to solid pipes, trudge down railings and poke around in a very feline-like way. It is only when you follow your three siblings into a big pipe that a movie clip hits, and Ginger (as I call him) rattles, slips and falls so far, far below. It’s genuinely traumatic!
When Ginger wakes up in what looks like a sewer pipe, Ginger is injured, and walks with another beautifully observed limp, before she falls down and rests a bit more. At this point, your kitten feels so vulnerable, so fragile, and as a player, it’s important to do everything you can to keep that little guy safe.
This is clearly set in a sort of future, post-human of the look of things, with rusting remnants of robots found on your way. So, in a flash to begin with, you see some pretty nasty pink-blob creatures who feel like they would be more at home in Inside. However, they whiz away, so you can continue with your kittens, jump and run around, looking for security, and who play desperately wondering how to reunite the little guy with his family.
Then you will find the flying robot. Well, this is not it pretty as silly as it sounds, given that you as a cat in a world that apparently only lives in AI life forms, would otherwise struggle to communicate. The B-12, your robot buddy, seems to be able to talk to both cats and robots, and also has the astonishing ability to “digitize” physical objects, then rematerialize them when needed. So yes, he is a talking inventory.
Stray, at this point, becomes a game about a cat in an underground robot city, helping the locals with their simple tasks. And even here I’m cool. You’re still – albeit now wearing a huge robo – a cat, and even though I’ve not yet met the cat who will willingly help anyone to do anything, it’s still fun to play. Your role is really never more than finding routes for third-party platforms to a destination, and jumping around in the vast urban areas gives you a lot of freedom. Even the ability to role-play as a cat, that is: ignore your tasks and just find cool places to sleep.
It starts to push good faith here at around the one-hour limit of five or six hours, as you possibly collect notes that a robot can play on a guitar, and search for “memories” for your robo mate with memory loss. looking at liquid pixel patterns, trying to find enough boxes of energy drinks to buy items from a store … Yes, yes, I know, it’s already collapsed into gamey game-game-nonsense, but as I say, you do everything this by talking around like a kitten.
It’s after the long part, a little over halfway, I would say Stray leaves almost all notions of being a cat-sim, and just goes down in every other third-person action game.
You help a robot find the equipment he needs to complete a weapon that can take on Zurks. These are the absurdly named alien-like blobs that have apparently mutated into existence at some point since the death of mankind. The farther you go, the more of the fleshy webbing you see drawn through tunnels and on the sides of buildings, taking this cute cat-me-do into a realm of visceral horror motifs that feel so strangely incongruent. These grow eggs, the eggs spawn Zurks, and you have to kill them with a purple light.
It is L1 to fire the light beam emitted from the B-12 hover over your cat’s body, and then there is really no pretext that you control anything other than the machine. And you zap what could just as easily be aliens. In gray corridors. Can you see the problem?
Later, this goes on to run away from the enemy drones, which throw a net of blue light in front of them. Cross into it and it turns green, so if you stay too long it is red and they start firing bullets at you. Bullets, fired from floating drones, in gray ruins …
I’m dumb about this. How did a game that was so wonderfully good at giving us a kitten to play, with such precise and delightful observations of the kitten’s behavior, find itself in this place? It’s certainly not because it wanted something.
I would have been happy if it just continued as it began in its five to six hours. Just being a cat, exploring an abandoned city, looking for routes through the remains. Maybe I had to find a drink here and there, and maybe I – as a player – could put together some of the history of the place, to the cat’s obvious indifference. Heck, if it desperately needed to go sci-fi, I might stumble across surviving computers and traps, something to avoid in a cat-like way. Honestly, I would have dropped the robots completely, since their real role is to present pickup missions. But even holding them, it did not have to slide so far down the slippery slope to the gametown.
I do not even want to get into how much I hated the end. It could be another day. Let’s just say my son is still furious at how awful it was two days later. It really encapsulated how much the game had left the beautiful place it started, and if you’ve finished the game, you know exactly what I mean.
Stray could only have been magical from start to finish. Instead, it’s magical at first, then slowly collapses into the gray robot bog of Most Other Games. In the beginning, I played role-playing games! I meowed on locked doors, deliberately went in the wrong direction to explore nooks and crannies, and arrogantly ignored an urgent task of finding a place to sleep. In the end, I had almost completely forgotten that I was a cat, and could just as easily have been a spaceship for all the difference it made. And it sucks.