I’ve always been a dog person. Much of my family is allergic to cats, so I was never around them growing up. And why would I want to be when dogs are so awesome, playful, and loyal? My only pets have been dogs, and I adore them, so I’ve never wondered about being on the other side of the aisle in one of humanity’s least important societal divides. Of course, I enjoy cute cat videos on the internet (who doesn’t?), but outside of that, I don’t plan on crossing party lines anytime soon.
That makes me probably the worst person to review Stray, a game tailor-made for people who love cats. So, of course I decided to do just that.
BlueTwelve and Annapurna Interactive’s Stray has made the rounds on cat-owning gamer Twitter (which is shockingly large), as it stars an adorable cat and lets players explore a postapocalyptic world with all the weird cat mannerisms cat owners are accustomed to. From the detailed cat animations to all the small, pointless interactions players can have with the environment, it’s clear that Stray is made for people who want to see their cat’s weirdest habits visualized in a playable way on the screen.
As someone who has never owned a cat or even been around them for that long, it was evident from the start that I, a dog loyalist, am not this game’s target demographic. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if Stray could convert me. I took the game for a spin, accidentally getting the trophy for dying nine times along the way. But has my perspective on cats changed at all?
The cat’s out of the bag
Stray goes for the heart right out the gate. The first thing you have to do is interact with a couple of cats, and you’ll see them purr, pet, lick, and play with each other. While the opening’s purpose is clearly to show players how deep Stray’s understanding of cats goes, I didn’t get much out of it. OK, I’m not a heartless monster — it’s cute as hell. It just hit me more as a basic tutorial than a heart-melting introduction.
[Editor’s note: No, I’m pretty sure you’re a heartless monster.]
From there, I quickly learned that Stray is a relatively simple adventure platformer interested in showing how a realistic cat can work as a playable character. The best parts of Stray for me didn’t actually have to do with the cat mechanics; it’s the visuals and worldbuilding instead. Stray is a gorgeous game on PS5, as the sealed-off city it takes place in is lush with color, from the rundown slums to the control room that manages everything. The “small guy, big world” setup always works well as a game setting, and that’s even more true when that small guy is a furry creature that you just want to pet.
Stray also tells a somewhat somber tale about how humanity destroyed itself and how one’s legacy can also live through actions and creations. That’s what I expect to stay with me more than the cute cat interactions. In fact, I was actually let down by Stray as a platformer and cat game.
You can only jump where and when the game wants you to once a button icon appears on screen, making it feel slightly more restrictive than it should. Puzzles never get terribly exciting, with many relying on the cat knocking down items or scratching walls and curtains, as cats do. Still, it seems to run out of mild inconveniences to gamify about halfway through the adventure.
For those who spend time around cats all day, it’s clear that these mechanics are in-jokes that let players do what their cat does to annoy them. As a dog person, though, some of these gags are foreign to me. Sure, the erratic behaviors make for some cute moments, but don’t you want to play as a badass dog that can run fast, follow scents, hear things from far away, and even fight if need be? That’s what I’m talking about!
[Editor’s note: You’re killing me.]
There were times where I felt like I was on the outside looking in, with certain feline nuances not really registering. That took some impact out of the game, as I felt like I couldn’t quite connect with the in-jokes the game is built on. Maybe I am actually a heartless monster. Oh no.
After beating Stray, a couple of funny cat moments still stick out, like when the feline protagonist walks on a keyboard to accidentally solve a puzzle or when it nervously slunk to the ground when a backpack gets wrapped around it. I will admit that I find cats more adorable now than I did when I started playing Stray — don’t you dare tell any dog I said that. But those occasional moments of kitty cuteness weren’t enough to cut through some of my more base critiques of the game, which feels a little lacking as an adventure title (Now, if I were playing a game where a dog was wagging its tail and flipping on its back to be pet when meeting new people, that’d be a different story).
Stray has resonated with a lot of people, and I don’t blame them for loving it — every video game doesn’t need to be for everyone! Still, I always appreciate getting fresh perspectives on games from people who aren’t squarely the target demographic. It helps uncloud my biases and better see flaws I might have otherwise ignored. We all come from different backgrounds and experiences — mine just happens to be one where cats couldn’t be around, and dogs happily (and superiorly) filled the void. And speaking from that perspective, Stray‘s moment-to-moment gameplay can underwhelm if you want to play it less as a cat person and more as an adventure game enthusiast.
So, have I become a cat person after playing Stray? No, not really. The adventure feels a little too simple and reliant on references to really win over those who aren’t already big into cats. Still, I don’t regret wandering around the streets of a megacity as a cat that’s really freaking cute! Look at its little paws!
OK, maybe Stray wasn’t entirely ineffective.
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