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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A Noobs Review – My Time at Portia

My Time at Portia is a game with many flaws, but if you can look past them then it can be an absolute delight. I feel like Portia is ideal for the people who love Stardew Valley/Harvest Moon type games but find the farming tedious after a while. These aren’t the only type of people who might enjoy this game, but if that resonates with you then it could be worth a shot! Not only through the first few hours but throughout my entire playthrough, I was constantly surprised, confused and amused by the stuff I would find and the things that would happen, leading to the affectionate nickname of ‘My Weird Time at Portia’.

– Doesn’t know what it wants to be

When I first started playing My Time at Portia, I got the sense that it didn’t know what it wanted to be. Games like Stardew Valley have a lot to do. You can farm, craft, cook, mine, forage, fish, create relationships. I feel that all of these things are key to the slice-of-life farm sim genre that these games are part of, which is already quite a lot of things to do. Portia is similar in that sense, except, add a main story, side quests left right and centre, dungeon crawling, named boss fights, a full on skill tree with three entirely seperate sections to go down, a photo menu, a workshop manual, a research system, a fluctuating economy, social mini games, regular mini games, festival mini games. It is a lot, and for a while the main thought going through my head was ‘What on earth is this game’.

+ Something for everyone

Though the absolute muddle of things to do and potentially overwhelming vibes this game gives out, the bright side is there is probably something for everyone. If you are like me and enjoy the systematic collection of things and ticking things off lists, you can do that. If you like making friends with everyone in town, you can do that. If you like spending your time decorating your home rather than completing commissions, you can do that. If you like dungeon crawling and fighting for loot.. I can’t say that I recommend it but it is there. More on that later!

– The jank

Before you even think about playing this game there is something that you have to accept. This game is Janky. And I mean Janky. Sometimes characters speak out loud, sometimes they dont, when they do it is generally awful. Sometimes they will say the right words, sometimes they will say something entirely different, sometimes they won’t actually be there while they are talking. Sometimes the camera will focus on weird things. NPCs are constantly stuck on the environment and will occasionally teleport. Photo quests break often. Mounts become unmountable. The game does a lot and generally it works, but with love, I do have to say that it can be quite a mess.

+ The jank

On the other hand, if this game didn’t have its Jank then I don’t think it would be half as memorable than if it were perfect and smooth. If you have a mount they are going to be running around in the background of every cutscene. When you get past how awful some of the cutscenes are they become hilarious and you look forward to the next one. When creating my character I couldn’t figure out how to change her name on console so she ended up being Linda. I gave her some pink cheeks that looked nice in the character creation menu. As soon as we got into the game though, it turns out those pink cheeks basically glow. Every day in game, something in the world is going wrong and it was a constant source of glee for me. A lot of the Jank is graphical or in the animations, and they can be the best.

– The combat

Okay… if there is something that I have to give my biggest criticism in this game, it is the combat. I don’t enjoy combat at the best of times but I can usually appreciate it if done well. It isn’t the end of the world since this game isn’t about combat, but you have to do it often enough that it can become frustrating and tedious. There is no feedback, or at least it tries to give you feedback through visual effects, which in the end just feel like a mess on the screen. I genuinely cannot tell when I am getting hit. There are numbers popping up but there is no feeling to it at all. Sometimes you can hit through or be hit through walls. Sometimes the enemy ends up in the air and doesn’t come back to the ground. Timing doesn’t feel like it matters much and when it does it can be frustrating. Hit boxes are hit and miss. AI companions will run at enemies and agro them when you are trying to draw them out one at a time. Thankfully, if you die during a boss fight you will respawn without their health being replenished. This is a mercy that I am grateful for, but it almost feels like confirmation of an awareness that the combat isn’t the best. Throughout the main story you will be put into multiple combat scenarios. As long as you keep plenty of health replenishing items in your inventory then you can tank your way through without too much pain. It can be a huge drag though.

+ Low stakes

I think what I love the most about this game are the low stakes. Sure, there are optimal ways to play and you can min/max if that is how you like to do it. But if not, there aren’t really any punishments for going slow. The only things that are timed are daily commissions (which you can choose to do) and very few quests/side quests. Other than that.. go nuts. Fancy spending an entire week in the mines? Go for it. As long as you have set your machines away there is really no reason to come home at night, so you can pass out at 3am doing whatever you were doing and wake up with full stamina the next day without losing anything. This all makes it really easy to pick this game back up even if you haven’t played for a month. I really appreciate it when I compare it to say, Stardew Valley, where I don’t want to boot up my game without my notebook in hand because I need to stick to my plan.

+ Crafting

I believe Crafting is a really clever way to solve the problem that I mentioned in the intro. By the end, I usually find farming really tedious in these games. Having to water everything every day, plant them at the right time, harvest and replant, then if you miss the window you have to wait an entire year. I always pray for rainy days so that I can go and do other things. Instead, in this game you have to gather materials and process them, to then craft them into different items. Different materials can be processed in different ways, so it is up to you to manage what you have, what you need, and that is the loop rather than plant, water, harvest, repeat. It is much more flexible and, for me at least, enjoyable.

+ Progression

The fact that I already enjoy the crafting is doubled when paired with progression in this game. Throughout the main story you will get many different commissions to help make the city a better place. If there is something I love in a game, it is an environment that evolves over time. Not only does Portia do that, but it only does so thanks to your efforts. Building bridges will allow you to access new areas. Building busses will unlock fast travel. You will build buildings and areas that from that moment onwards will be a permanent part of the town. It never stops being satisfying. On top of this, the crafting progression itself also feels nicely done and natural to me. Once you are able to build everything available, you know that you will then need to upgrade your equiptment to unlock more options. If you have options available that you dont yet have the materials to build, you know that your next quests are going to unlock an area that allows you to access new resources. It is a cycle that repeats throughout the game and works very well.

+/- Relationships

I don’t really know where to place relationships here. There are things I really like and things that I really dislike about them. On the positive side, relationships bloom themselves as you progress through the story, which I think is very naturally done. As you help improve the town, the townsfolk will like you more. As you do commissions for individuals they will like you even more. Then as you grow relationships with them you will start to get cute little side quests which I found to be a nice touch. Becoming friends with certain vendors will get you discounts, and you will occasionally receive gifts from your buddies.

The relationship system is let down in two ways in my opinion. Firstly, I don’t think it’s very fun. There is the traditional system of giving the person daily gifts that they like which isn’t bad, but it isn’t great. Then there are some more unique systems, most of which didn’t land for me. Some characters have their own minigames you can play, some can spar (see combat above to explain why this doesn’t hit) and once you become their friend you can go on playdates (or proper dates if you are romancing). After I had done two dates I was already bored of the system and just wanted go back to old fashioned gift giving. Secondly, when it comes to romance, I don’t feel like there are many good options, specifically for husbands. I didn’t really want to marry anyone. Six of the options are identical. Having kids is as far as you can go down the family route and they don’t grow up from being a toddler. So relationships in general in this game are a really mixed bag for me.

+ Attention to detail

The attention to detail in this game is great. While some systems feel unnecessary, there are others that add to the overall charm of the game. My favorite thing is that anything you are holding, your character will be holding it in their hand. If it’s big they will carry it over their head. Most accessories that you can wear for stats you can also see on your character. They didn’t have to do these things but it really adds to the experience, and it will always be funny running along carrying a giant poop above your head.

– Navigating crafting

Navigating the crafting systems does not flow well, and while you do get used to it, it could be better (and I believe they may have solved this in the sequel). For example, if you are assembling a big product, having the ingredients in your inventory will not do. They have to be directly in your hand to place them. Eventually you get some automation options but it is so late in the game and unintuitive that I have to mark the game down for it. When I don’t play for a while, the hardest part is reacquainting myself with all my stuff since I need to know where to grab things from.

+/- Festivals

Something else to watch out for in this game are the festivals. Many slice-of-life games have them.. But none of them have them quite like this.

++++ Pinky

And the final positive point of this game, saving the best till last. Pinky. 

There are a lot of reasons to like this game and many surprises along the way. As long as you know that you are going into a very imperfect experience and are open to some fun, there is such a good time to be had. If you like what you heard above then you should definitely jump in. If you claim the free games on the Epic store you may already own it, or it is currently on the PS Plus Extra Tier and Xbox Game Pass. The Sequel ‘My Time at Sandrock’ is in Early Access right now so it is the perfect time to jump into the series.

  • – Doesnt know what it wants to be
  • + Something for everyone
  • – Thejank
  • + The jank
  • – The combat
  • + Low stakes
  • + Crafting
  • + Progression
  • +/- Relationships
  • + Attention to detail
  • – Navigating crafting
  • +/- Festivals
  • + Pinky
I did stream my first few weeks in Portia, I’ll leave this here in case anyone is in need of misadventures.

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