There’s a lot of buzz about Stray right now, by dint of its coming out during a pretty dry patch for new releases, and more importantly, how you get to play as an incredibly cute cat. Unfortunately, what I think a lot of people are about to discover this week, is that it very quickly forgets about that, and turns incredibly…gamey. I was not expecting to be playing as a robot, zapping mutant blobs, for instance.
The following contains spoilers for Stray’s game elements (how you play, rather than why you do it), without getting into the story itself at all.
Stray’s opening is just wonderful. Without any fussy nonsense, no tiresome cutscenes, the camera gently swoops over four kittens living in the overgrown remains of a dam, before settling behind the ginger critter of the collection, and gives you control. The first thing you do is interact with your brothers and sisters, each a gorgeous moment of beautifully observed kitty behaviour. The animations are perfect, and anyone of any decency will be awwing at the screen.
After a little sleep, the four cats head off on a journey, crossing the ruins of what was once an enormous structure, jumping from concrete block to massive pipe, trotting down railings, and poking about in a very cat-like fashion. It’s only when you follow your three siblings onto one large pipe that a cutscene kicks in, and Ginger (as I’m calling him) scrabbles, slips, then falls far, far below. It’s genuinely traumatic!
Waking up in what looks like a sewer pipe, Ginger is injured, walking with yet another superbly observed limp, before falling down and resting some more. At this point your kitten feels so vulnerable, so fragile, and as a player it’s imperative to do everything you can to keep the little guy safe.
This is clearly set in some sort of future, post-human by the looks of things, with the rusting remains of robots found on your path. Then, in glimpses at first, you see some rather unpleasant pink-blob creatures that feel like they’d be more at home in Inside. They scurry away, however, so you can carry on your kitty way, jumping and dashing about, looking for safety, and as a player, desperately wondering how you’ll reunite the little guy with his family.
Then you find the flying robot. Now, this isn’t quite as daft as it sounds, given that as a cat in a world seemingly only lived in by AI lifeforms, you’d otherwise struggle to communicate. B-12, your robot companion, appears to be able to speak to cats and robots alike, and also possesses the astonishing ability to “digitize” physical objects, then rematerialize them when needed. So yeah, he’s a talking inventory.
Stray, at this point, becomes a game about a cat in an underground robot city, helping out the locals with their menial tasks. And, even here, I’m cool. You’re still — albeit now wearing an enormous robo-saddle — a cat, and while I’ve yet to meet the cat that would willingly help anyone to do anything, it’s still fun to play. Your role is really never more than finding third-person platform routes to a destination, and jumping about the sprawling city areas offers you a great deal of freedom. Even the ability to roleplay as a cat, which is to say: ignoring your tasks and just finding cool places to sleep.
It starts to push credulity here at around the one-hour mark of its five or six hours, as you’re optionally gathering sheet music for a robot to play on a guitar, and seeking out “memories” for your amnesiac robo-chum by looking at floaty pixel patterns, and trying to find enough cans of energy drink to buy objects from a shop…Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s already collapsed into gamey game-game nonsense, but as I say, you do all this by pratting around as a kitten.
It’s after that lengthy section, just over halfway, that I’d say Stray abandons almost all notions of being a cat-sim, and just descends into every other third-person action game.
You help a robot find the equipment he needs to complete a weapon that can take on the Zurks. These are the preposterously-named alien-like blobs that have apparently mutated into existence at some point since the death of humanity. The further you progress, the more of the fleshy webbing you see strung through tunnels and on the sides of buildings, taking this cutesy cat-me-do into a realm of visceral horror motifs that feels so weirdly incongruous. These grow eggs, the eggs spawn Zurks, and you have to murder them up with a purple light.
It’s L1 to fire the light beam, emitted from B-12 hovering above your cat body, at which point there’s really no pretense that you’re controlling anything other than the machine. And you’re zapping what may as well be aliens. In grey corridors. Can you see the issue?
Later still, this moves on to running away from enemy drones, who cast a net of blue light before them. Cross into it and it switches green, then if you stay too long it’s red and they start firing bullets at you. Bullets, fired from floating drones, in grey ruins…
I’m dumbfounded by this. How did a game that was so wonderfully good at giving us a kitty-cat to play as, with such precise and delightful observations of kitten behaviour, find itself in this place? It’s certainly not because it was wanting for anything.
I would have been delighted if it just carried on as it began for its five or six hours. Just being a cat, exploring an abandoned city, looking for routes through the remains. Maybe I’d need to find a drink here and there, and perhaps I–as the player–could piece together something of the history of the place, to the cat’s obvious indifference. Heck, if it desperately needed to go sci-fi, maybe I would stumble on surviving computers and traps, something to evade in a cat-like way. Honestly, I’d have ditched the robots entirely, since their real role is to present fetch quests. But even keeping them, it didn’t need to slide so far down the slippery slope to gametown.
I won’t even get into how much I hated the ending. That can be for another day. Let’s just say my son is still furious about how awful it was two days later. It really encapsulated how much the game had abandoned the lovely place it started in, and if you’ve completed the game, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Stray could have been just magical from start to finish. Instead, it’s magical at the start, then slowly collapses into the grey roboty mire of Most Other Games. At the start, I’d been roleplaying! I was meowing at locked doors, deliberately going in the wrong direction to explore nooks and crannies, haughtily ignoring a pressing task to find a place to nap. By the end I’d almost entirely forgotten I was a cat, and may as well have been a spaceship for all the difference it made. And that sucks.