What makes an excellent adventure game? Is it the large, vibrant worlds mixed with details laden? Is it a great hero/heroine that has strong goals or can be sympathized with? Or is it the emotional story weaved together with a deeper meaning? Frankly, it’s a combination of all three. In the case of Stray, the latest game I had the chance to review for The Nerd Stash, two of those three pieces of criteria are true. The only thing that’s missing is a hero/heroine since, well, you’re a cat. But does that switch to a feline protagonist help this adventure stand above its contemporaries? Find out in my review of Stray!
A Cat’s Adventure Home
As we already discussed, Stray follows an orange cat as it travels with its family of other strays. After a traversal of a dam goes wrong, and you find yourself separated at the bottom of a chasm, you need to find a way out and return to your family. But while a misfortunate event may spell peril, nothing could prepare this furry protagonist for what lies under the Earth, away from prying eyes. What sort of underground life will our cat find, and can they do more than make their way back home? That’s for you to find out.
This premise of an underground civilization hidden from the outside world isn’t anything new in games, let alone the adventure genre as a whole, but where Stray sticks out its paw are in its world-building and true-to-life character writing. While I’ll touch more on how aesthetics influence our understanding of Stray’s world later, the various facets of this place you come to understand simply by examining your surroundings are breathtaking. All of that, without saying a single world (at least in a feasible language).
The characters you meet offer that bit of spoken dialogue that detracts from what could be dialogue-less, though it still offers plenty despite this preconceived fault. With every character you meet being a robot, a fact you likely deduced without even playing, BlueTwelve breathes immense life into each character to feel no different than a human counterpart. They all have their own emotions and have long achieved sentience by this point, reacting to the world around them and simply going about their lives as if nothing had changed. While looking at their faces, you wouldn’t expect anything immensely human; the game turns that expectation on its head.
As far as Stray’s overarching story was in my review, for the most part, it served to bring a strong narrative. Watching our feline friend find all sorts of new companions to work alongside and help them in pursuit of helping itself was a nice and wholesome journey. My issue comes with the ending, which, without veering into spoiler territory, is somewhat abrupt and seems more set up for a sequel than a fitting conclusion. Parts of the game were already setting up a sequel, so to have the end also serve that purpose feels redundant and ends things off on a mediocre note. Still, for what it did do right, you have to respect the dedication and layers of effort. It’s tough to make a world of characters who aren’t human feel human, yet Stray does that with flying colors.
Puzzles, Traversal, and a Hint of Platforming
As an agile cat, your movement naturally feels fluid and satisfying. Whether going up and down or speeding your way through longer streets and jumps, the main cat feels like a feline friend would while being uniquely enjoyable as a player. Abilities like being able to chain jumps play a part in this, but the realistic animations truly help sell the illusion that you’re a cat and not just some rigged model. While jumps sometimes felt a tad finicky as it took some effort to make certain jumps, these issues were few and far between.
The main issue I found when playing Stray instead came with difficulty, but hear me out before you want to tear me a new one. Yes, I understand this is a game where you play as a cat, and, naturally, puzzles weren’t going to be complex. It even does challenge every once in a while, particularly with finding safe codes. Though with most of the puzzles, it almost felt like the game was giving you the answer on a silver platter and screaming, “here’s the answer!”. This was true even during the finale, so it would’ve been nice to see more difficulty thrown into the mix.
But where that fault makes some parts of the game feel unexciting, it keeps things fresh with its variety. Stray goes anywhere from fast-paced action sequences to slower, strategical stealth sections seamlessly despite how drastically different those two states are. It never brings one after another and always feels like a natural progression in the pacing. I wish that among those sections, it perhaps challenged my brain a little more and made me think outside the box.
Finite Details on a Grand Scale
The bread and butter (or cat and catnip, for you thematic folks out there) of my review of Stray with how heavily it focuses on the atmosphere. There’s something to be said about how thorough details in the world are, from cracks in the concrete to the sheer sense of scale towering structures bring to the Earth’s underbelly. Adventure games often sacrifice finite details for a grander scale (or vice versa), but Stray manages to mix both effectively.
Yet it’s somehow the attention to detail for the main cat that proves most noteworthy. The developers could’ve only introduced nice animations and made your cat meow once in a while and called it a day, but instead opted to bring various mannerisms these animals have been known to do and bring them to center stage. Outside of the fact you can press a button to meow to your heart’s content (you can even get an achievement for doing it a hundred times), you can drink water from small pans, play around with toy balls around the world, brush up against robot’s legs, or even take naps if you’re so inclined. It’s something small that won’t be appreciated by most, but that attention to detail is commendable and emblematic of the rest of the experience.
Rounding it off is a great list of music tracks that harken back to a surprisingly underused music genre: industrial techno. In case what I said seems like gibberish, you might know the type of music best from Valve’s games Half-Life 2 and the Portal series, offering a strange but welcome twist to electronic beats. Sometimes it leans more towards pure techno than anything else, but it feels more than fitting in a ruined world inhabited solely by mechanical beings. In case you’re an audiophile like myself, Dead City is a personal favorite track of mine for its ominous intro followed by a much faster beat around halfway in.
For an adventure game purely about a cat (let alone an indie developer’s debut project), Stray achieves so much in such a small, sweet package during my review. Its world-building, characters, animations, pacing, and atmosphere all show an immense amount of detail that arguably rivals the environmental detail of triple-A titles, let alone gameplay and story. It brings a deeper meaning to connection and finding our place in the world, a lesson anyone could come to learn from. It’s not a game free of faults, but Stray crafts a feline-centric journey that any cat or adventure fan should experience at least once.
- Great world-building
- Character writing is top notch
- Mostly great story
- Realistic cat animations
- Plenty of gameplay variety
- Beautiful visuals Musical tracks feel nostalgic yet of their own
- Dedicated meow button
- Unsatisfying ending
- Minor polish issues
- Difficulty feels non-existent at times