What’s this? I cry as I emerge blinking from the wank cellar. A game? An actual new game with some buzz around it and graphics and absolutely no motherfucking deckbuilding? Rise from your graves, industry correspondents! The drought is over! The sun has risen on a new age of – oh I finished it in four hours. Well that was hardly worth turning off the wank cellar air conditioning. Yes, it’s Stray, a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk adventure thingummy-bollock with the central selling point that you play as a cutey wutey ickle wickle kitty witty and there’s a special dedicated meow button. I think a game where you play as a cat is unprecedented – non-anthropomorphic cat I hasten to add, before you Blinx the Time Sweeper loyalists come hassle my bollock sockets – dog people have had Okami and that one level from Call of Duty Ghosts but until now there’s never been an equivalent for the Garfield readers of the world. Probably because video games are by nature task-oriented and while a dog will follow commands as long as you feed them or praise them or continue to be in the same room as them, your average cat wouldn’t lift a paw to plug its own life support machine back in if it thought you were commanding it to do so.
But anyway. As Stray opens our cutey wutey ickle wickle protago-wotagonist wakes up in some kind of overgrown abandoned industrial facility with three of their siblings and immediately we move and control very convincingly like a cat because the only thing we can do is walk up to one of the other cats and then press the contextual “spaz out for no reason” button. After dutifully spazzing out at them all one by one, the game proper begins and we travel through the facility largely by pressing forwards and looking for the contextual “jump to here” button. Shortly we lose our footing and plummet down a big dark pit as our siblings watch and do bugger all to help because they’re cats. “See if I ever spaz out at those ungrateful motherfuckers again,” you seem to say as you awaken in a sewer and begin an adventure through a walled-off cyberpunk city to find a way back outside. Initially by pressing forwards and looking for the contextual “jump to here” button. And all the time I’m doing it I’m silently praying “Please don’t be a fucking walking sim. For fuck’s sake. I’ve been waiting all summer. Introduce a core mechanic where we have to dodge roll when an enemy robot tries to squirt us with the water bottle.”
As the chain of contextual prompt hunts continued it wasn’t looking good. It’s rather inconsistent with what we can and can’t jump onto. Being a nimble little cat by rights we should be able to navigate any terrain more hospitable than the side of an opened baked bean tin, and sometimes we can but sometimes we just can’t because they forgot to put a contextual jump prompt there. Over time things improve, however, our hero makes friends with a cutey wutey ickle wickle droney wone so now we can interact with the robots that populate the city as well as collect inventory items and solve puzzles, and some parts of the game take place in open ended hub towns full of sidequests and scavenger hunts. And yet, we never really settle on a strong core game mechanic to focus on. Sometimes we do inventory puzzles in classic adventure game style, sometimes we run away from monsters, sometimes we fight the monsters with a deadly flashlight, and then we drop all that and some stealth elements creep in when we go up against an evil oppressive regime, which I guess was closer to what I was hoping for from a game where you play as a cat. A sneaky impish stealth traversal game where we infuriate a big scary guard by jumping onto a shelf out of their reach and pushing their dead mother’s ashes onto their head.
But whatever gameplay is indulged Stray remains a slave to the contextual button prompt. And sometimes it plays a naughty joke because it’s trained you to always hit the button prompts but every now and again you find one that just makes the cat curl up and go to sleep. Which is as annoying as it is completely on brand. I guess it’s for people who want to do the self-imposed narcolepsy challenge. Come to think of it, the lack of a strong core to the gameplay means there’s quite a few things you only do for its own sake, like the sidequests in the open ended bits. There’s one where you have to find hidden song pages for a street musician, but there’s nothing the game can reward us with for doing it. There’s no RPG system where we can put experience points into our sassiness or adorability stats so all you really get is the chance to hear a few snatches of shitty chiptune music which I could have gotten at home by sticking my head in a box of mobile phones from the early 2000s. Yahtz, what are you on about? Why would a cat game have RPG elements? You picturing yourself holding the hilt of the buster sword between your adorable toe beans? Thank you for lurching clumsily in the general direction of my next point, viewer.
See, when the game does open up into fetch quest town and fight the oppressive regime on sea, I get a sense that our status as a cat is becoming more and more incongruous with where the story’s trying to take us. I don’t know what these friendly robots are seeing when they flag me down and ask me to collect three cans of Red Bull but apparently it isn’t a fucking cat with no opposable thumbs and a blank look on its face. Reminds me of that time I got home from wisdom tooth surgery and was found crying in the garden because the squirrels wouldn’t bum me a cigarette. So it gets even sillier when we actually bring him the red bull cans. There’s this whole thread in the second half of the game where we join the plucky resistance against the oppressive regime and when we show up at our rebel contact’s house they’re all like “Aha, you must be our new recruit, prepare to show your devotion to the cause!” instead of “Why has this stray cat wandered into my house? Get the fuck away from the curtains.” Makes me feel like at this point the protagonist could be anything. A squirrel. A roomba. A bottle of HP sauce carried on the back of a very ambitious ant.
I don’t even know if this is a point against the game. I guess it’s kinda funny. And it might be playing up the whole theme where the robots are imitating human behaviour without fully understanding it, but towards the end the plot tries to have powerful emotional moments that don’t really work with a cat. Like, a character pushes you through a door and goes “I’ll hold them off! All the hopes of the resistance lie with you, now!” and then we cut to the cat’s reaction shot and it just looks nonplussed because it’s a fucking cat and it would probably have betrayed the entire cause for a belly rub. This also affects the emotional payoff of the ending – WOO WOO SPOILERS BEYOND THIS POINT STOP WATCHING NOW OR RELINQUISH YOUR RIGHT TO CALL ME A DICK – when your droney wone sacrifices itself deady wead so that you alone can escape. I mean, the drone was the sentient one and the cat was just the thing it was riding around, it’s like sacrificing yourself for your fucking wheelchair. I guess it was freeing the robots as well but the drone still delivers a heartfelt deathbed speech that bounces right off your stupid gormless cat face like a poorly aimed frisbee. And then in the final shot before the credits the cat looks back over its shoulder as if to say “What the fuck was that all about? Why was my squeaky toy trying to have a moment?”