Although it doesn't offer much of a challenge, you'll hardly care; traipsing through BlueTwelve's lovingly-crafted cat adventure game on four feet is a pleasure, and the game's pacing, art design, and overall look and feel make it one of the best games to come out so far this year.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll keep saying it for as long as it’s true – thank goodness for indie developers. In a gaming landscape that’s starting to look more and more like Hollywood, where lifeless sequels and trend-following $60 servings of nothing have become the norm, it’s the indie devs (and their publishers) keeping games from becoming just another commodity.
It used to be developers like Blizzard and Bungie, Maxis and Sid Meier, who were pushing the boundaries of what games could be, but nowadays that mantle has been taken up by indie developers like Acid Nerve (Death’s Door), and Supergiant (Hades), studios willing to do more than churn out another clone of something that’s been proven successful. I’m happy to report that after playing Stray, we can add BlueTwelve to that list. Founded by a couple of Ubisoft alumni, their freshman title gives us an adventure game with a fresh perspective – literally.
It’s no secret the internet loves cats, and I’ve seen more than a couple of social media users suggesting that Stray isn’t really special – that the only reason that anyone is talking about it is because the main character is in fact a feline. While that may very well be true, after spending a few hours padding around the lovingly-rendered world of Stray, it’s pretty hard to dismiss it as mere pandering. The beautiful environments, smooth controls and animations, and compelling narrative all work in its favor – and you get to play as a cat.
One of Stray’s biggest strengths – one shared by many other indie titles – is its relatively tight focus. Unlike triple-A titles that clearly have a checklist of successful game mechanics to include, Stray sticks to doing just a few things, and this allows it to really nail those aspects of the game.
The first thing that stood out to me was the look of the game. While it doesn’t have the highest-res models around, the art design is excellent – the world and its characters look colorful and alive, and that incredible attention to detail is evident throughout the whole game. Not only do the environments look great, but they also feel lived-in and genuine (albeit in an exaggerated, dystopian trash heap sort of way).
This attention to detail extends to the animations as well: the cat you play as really moves like a cat. The way it looks sprinting around corners, the casual leaping from object to object – it’s all incredibly satisfying. The robots are wonderfully expressive, and I found myself really caring about them as the game went on. There are a few stiff animations here and there, but it doesn’t detract from the overall experience of Stray’s visuals. These visuals matter a lot, too, because much of your time in Stray will be spent wandering around, looking for puzzle pieces or figuring out where to go next.
That’s not to say that Stray is a walking simulator, or a chill puzzle solver – there’s plenty of danger lurking in the darker corners of the game’s sewers and alleyways. I’d estimate that about a third of the game is spent in either action or stealth sequences. The action bits require you to avoid death-by-cute-monster while making your way through some kind of dark and spooky area, while the stealth sections are more puzzle-like in that you need to find the correct way past the patrolling drones.
These sequences felt like the perfect length – every time I was sick of monsters or sneaking and ready to see a friendly (robot) face again, I soon found myself back in a more populated area. While the combat and stealth sections make up about half of the game’s levels, most players won’t spend nearly as long in them as they will in the game’s more laid-back sections. The other half of the game involves chatting up robots as you run errands and solve puzzles, and this is where Stray really hits its stride.
You visit a handful of robot towns throughout the game, and each one is unique, visually and culturally. I had a blast talking to the various NPCs, learning more about the world as I wondered why all these robots weren’t weirded out by a cat running errands for them. I’m usually the type of player to stick to the main path in anything that isn’t an RPG – collectibles and NPC dialog aren’t usually enough to draw me off the route to the finish line – but I found myself exploring every nook and cranny of Stray’s robo-settlements, speaking with the denizens and looking for secrets.
It’s a good thing that the game world is so immersive and fun to explore, because for many players, Stray’s appeal won’t be its difficult gameplay – because there isn’t any. With the exception of a handful of puzzles, nothing in Stray ever truly challenged me; the game’s most difficult puzzles only a couple of minutes to solve, and most of the challenge was simply in finding what I was looking for.
Additionally, the game’s traversal mechanics don’t allow for failure. Instead, you move a la Fallen Order and Horizon: Zero Dawn, with prompts appearing to jump when you’re close enough to and facing a potential jump point. There is no timing or aiming required – when you press the button, the cat will leap to the jump target. The decision to make the jumping fool-proof was apparently a carefully considered decision, and the Bluetwelve devs ultimately decided that people failing jumps didn’t feel very cat-like.
Maybe their cats are slicker than the ones I’ve had, but my cats have failed plenty of jumps – and it’s usually pretty funny. While I understand the decision to make the game more accessible, I personally would have preferred that the platforming was actual platforming, rather than simply a matter of figuring out where you’re supposed to jump to next. Not only would it have made the stealth and action sequences more interesting, but it would have given the game significantly more replay value (since it would make speed runs interesting) – as it stands, most players will probably put Stray down for good once they’ve found all the secrets, and most players will finish the game in less than 10 hours.
My only other complaint is with the game’s checkpoint system. If you fail in a stealth or action sequence, you frequently won’t get to retry the part you just failed. Instead, you’ll often find yourself multiple sections back. Thankfully, the game isn’t difficult enough that this was a problem in my playthrough, but more casual players may find it irritating to have to sneak past the same enemies over and over before they can retry a section they’re struggling with.
Still, unless you absolutely require your games to be difficult in order for them to be fun, the game’s strengths – its story, its setting, the unique experience of playing as a cat – far outweigh its frustrating checkpoint system and somewhat uninteresting platforming. I’ve always wanted to enjoy more casual titles, but generally, games with no real danger fail to grab me. Stray is the first game in the broad spectrum of “chill ‘n pretty” titles that has managed to hold my attention for any length of time. I was incredibly impressed with Stray, and I can’t wait to see what Bluetwelve cooks up next. Racoon game, anyone?
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Unabashed FromSoftware fanboy still learning to take his time with games (and everything else, really). The time he doesn't spend on games is spent on music, books, or occasionally going outside.