A Noobs Review – Stray

This year I have been blessed with the amount of ‘me’ games that I have been able to play. Stray, I am pleased to admit, is one of them. Without playing it, it is easy to think of it as nothing more than ‘that cat game’. That is how I thought of it before. I had hope that it would be great but expected charm and not a lot more. However – for me at least – it was so much more than that.

+ The Protagonist

In Stray, we play as a ginger tabby cat. Not a talking cat. Not a person that has been transformed into a cat. Not a magical cat. Just your regular old, run-of-the-mill, carefree street cat. Other aspects of story and play get added as you go, but the cat is still a cat, if a very smart and loyal one.

Throughout this game we traverse through different environments of this fictional dystopia, exploring, learning and taking in the surroundings. We are a speechless outsider, observing and interacting as we go. We aren’t one of them, and my playable character also sharing these qualities with me (the player) created a uniquely immersive experience that hit me on a genius level. This would have been a different game if we were playing as one of the robots that inhabits the city. 

Then there is the cat itself. The animations are beautifully made and transition seamlessly. Everything, from the swagger and agility to the curiosity and behavior screams ‘real cat’. The interactions with other cats, the scratching at objects and rubbing on peoples legs were things that didn’t need to be included, but do wonders for immersion. In some games, going off the beaten path feels strange because you are on a mission to save the world or on urgent business, and stopping to talk to someone or play a mini game breaks the narrative. You do it, because it’s a game, but it feel wrong. Here though, we are a cat. If we see a perfect nap spot, we are 100% going to take it. Because that’s what cats do. We are emotive and adorable without feeling like a caricature, and it is just a pleasure to control this excellent boi.

+ The World Building

Urban and Cyberpunk settings don’t often appeal to me that much and for that reason I was here for the cat, nothing more. To my surprise, it didn’t take long for me to be completely invested in this world, desperate to explore to learn more of what life is like here and why. While ignorant past Noob felt like rolling her eyes at the idea of there being robots in this game, present Noob was delighted to meow at every single one I happened upon. You can learn a lot by interacting with everything you can, exploring the areas, taking notice of the details and putting the pieces together. Although it is a story of robots, it is more relatable than expected. Dealing with issues like pollution and poverty, two very real things, the game managed to keep me in a state of melancholy while also making me think.

+ The Aesthetic

Like I mentioned above, I didn’t expect the setting to really jive with me. Although I haven’t experienced a lot of it, I felt like I was burning out of the dark, dreary cityscape with colorful neon lights. All I had to do was play to realize that I was wrong. This game is stunning and the use of colors kept my brain twinkling in awe. Moving onto a new area always brought something new and interesting, and the beauty within the damaged and broken parallels with the themes of hope that are scattered throughout. Robots are robots, and while they seem sentient, everything they learned is from the humans. The way this is creatively used brought me so much joy. Abandoned apartments layered in rugs, linens, books and plants, creating the most stylish shabby chic décor. It isn’t practical but it doesn’t need to be. Every robot adopting their own style based on what they can find. Lights, lights and more lights. From the intricate interiors, to the wide shots of places you are discovering and have been, there is a beauty to this game that is not only pleasing to the player but really adds to the world building. The biggest crime that there is no photo mode (although maybe that is for the best, I might still be playing to this day).

+ The Difficulty

This is a very easy game, and I think that decision suits it very well. It allows for the flow of exploration without the frustration that can come in other games. Having said that, if you aren’t into exploring as much as I am you don’t have to. It isn’t difficult to figure out what you have to do next so if you want to mainline the story that is also entirely fine. Any puzzling is very minor, which makes the game very accessible to experienced gamers and new players alike.

+/- The Controls

I am personally very happy with the controls but I know a lot of people were underwhelmed. This is no precision platformer and I am glad that it doesn’t try or pretend to be. You can’t jump freely, only where the game allows. One could see this as a lack of freedom, or you could see it as a time saving and quality preserving mechanic. I didn’t waste any time trying to make jumps that maybe, just maybe, I could make. And I wasn’t taken out of the experience by janky animations caused by jumping places that were never intended because I was never allowed to. The levels are hand crafted with verticality in mind and the simple but intuitive controls were additive for me. The fact that there is an on demand meow button is just icing on the cake. 

+ The Details

I talked about some of the details in the protagonist and aesthetic sections, but it deserves to be its own positive mark. My favorite detail is how every NPC has their own little personality. Most of them have their own hobbies and styles. When you meow at them, they all have their own reaction to you. It only flashes across their face for a second, but it is there and that was enough to ensure that I meowed at every single NPC that I met.

+ The Collectibles

There were no pointless collectibles. They took the form of memories, and every one that you found added some more context to the world. They weren’t too difficult to find (I think this is the first game ever that I found them all by myself) and they encouraged exploration which, to me, is the highlight of the game. Exploration, rewarded with story, which then encourages more exploration is a dream game loop for me and it was executed to perfection.

+ The Level Design

This game felt like a living and breathing city. I explained a lot of why it works in the Aesthetic and Controls sections above, but I want to give a shout out to the open world areas. I expected more of a linear game so arriving in the slums was a huge surprise. There is lots of exploring to be done and the entire level makes sense. It is unique, lived in, full of character, easy to maneuver and not too big to be overwhelming. And the same can be said for every other open world section in the game. There are nooks and crannies that you can only access due to being a cat. At first it can take a while to get used to the fact that bars aren’t a wall, you can walk through them or jump over them. It keeps things unusual and interesting. A different perspective.

+ The Pacing

I really enjoyed the pacing. Although I would have liked even more time in the open world sections, it would probably be to the detriment to the game. When you are ready to move on, the game is separated with chase/stealth/sort of combat sections that also do not feel like they last too long. The game in its entirety is relatively short, and throughout the entire game I was engaged enough to not put it down. 

+ The Surprises

There were things in this game that I did not expect to see at all, but it was all entertaining enough. Obviously this is very vague as to not ruin it, but I think you will know what I mean when you get there.

Overall, this is an awfully sad world with hidden havens dotted around that I couldn’t get enough of exploring. I loved my character and I loved my time with it. I don’t think there are any cheap emotional stabs which is something I always fear in games containing animals, and I couldn’t be happier with the time I spent with this game. In the end, everything in the game made sense and I was very satisfied with the conclusion. The game resonated with me, and not just because of the cat, which I would say is an achievement for ‘that cat game’. Pawsome all around (be grateful. I could have used so many more puns throughout this review).

+ The Protagonist

+ The World Building

+ The Aesthetic

+ The Difficulty

+/- The Controls

+ The Details

+ The Collectibles

+ The Level Design

+ The Pacing

+ The Surprises

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