Stray Review – A Fun World To Explore, But Shallow Gameplay Experience
Stray is a feline adventure title from developers BlueTwelve Studios and publishers AnnaPurna Interactive. The game released July 19th on both PC and PlayStation 4 & 5. I got a chance to complete a full playthrough of the game thanks to a review copy from AnnaPurna Interactive. Here’s my thoughts on the game in HTR’s Stray review.
- Platforms: PlayStation 4 & 5, PC.
- Engine: Unreal.
- Mode: Single-player, third-person.
- Price: $29.99 USD.
- Game Reviewed On: PC and Steam Deck.
Stray Goes West
When I was a kid in the 90’s there was a semi-popular genre of film that was specifically centered on animal adventures. Films in this genre followed a simple premise in which animals would embark on some form of epic journey to get somewhere or reunite with family they got separated from. Throughout the journey the animals would face various challenges and would meet a cast of zany characters they would help on their way.
Stray takes the animal adventure formula and puts it into video game form. In it you play as a stray cat. You start the game with your family of cats in a lush area called the Outside. This area is full of life and nature. You and your family are exploring it one day when calamity strikes. Due to story-related factors you wind up separated from your family and must embark on a journey to reunite with them.
The epic journey in Stray takes you through a number of locations across a long-forgotten, permanently locked-down, cyber-city residing under a large dome, which in contrast to the Outside, is devoid of much life. Each location inside the locked-down cybercity serves as its own chapter in the game’s story. To journey through each location (chapter) you platform, complete puzzles, and in some cases complete requests from the robot inhabitants.
Jumping and Puzzling
Stray‘s movement system is all done through third-person platforming. This platforming style is not the ‘jump-anywhere-you’d-like’ model. Instead it relies on using a visual button prompt system that shows where and when you can jump to something. Additionally you can hold jump to chain together platforming actions, allowing for faster movement. An easy way to think about its system is like an indie version of the Assassin’s Creed series’ climbing and mantling system.
Due to this design style there are no threats or stakes during the platforming sections since everything is done automatically after you push the jump prompt. You are simply looking for the right thing to jump to to advance further. This means that by design the game never really places you in danger (when there should be some). There are some moments were Stray will fall, but they are all scripted.
I will say the jumping system is a bit odd to use. It takes a little bit to wrap your head around. Coming from traditional platformers it is definitely a different experience to be triggering basically a stock animation each time you jump to something or across something. It is also a bit frustrating at times since you can easily jump to things you didn’t want to jump to if you are facing the wrong way. Eventually I did find myself adapting to it but it’s definitely a unique system I could see people not liking, or one they find frustrating.
Sprinkled in alongside the platforming mechanic is the occasional puzzle for Stray to solve. Things like rolling a barrel somewhere to reach a higher ledge or pushing a board across a gap to make a bridge are common puzzles you will encounter. These puzzles get slightly harder as you progress through the game, but never reach stumping-level and mostly remain fairly obvious and simple to complete.
Is There Combat?
I’ve been seeing this question a lot surrounding Stray and I want to address it in my review. There isn’t ‘combat’ in Stray. There is about one and a half chapters where you can actually defend yourself, but the rest of the time you can’t. The defense you can use in the few chapters comes in the form of a UV light you can shine. It is a very simple ‘combat’ system if you want to even consider it that.
Since combat isn’t a thing you instead rely on running or stealth depending on which enemy type you are facing (of which there are only two in the entire game). The enemies you encounter the most are the Zurks which are tick-like bugs that go frenzied when they see you. During two levels you can defend yourself against them using the light mentioned above. In the other levels you have to run from them in what is typically some type of chase sequence.
Besides the Zurks the other enemies you encounter are the Sentinels. The Sentinels are drones that fly around and shoot you if they see you. To get by the Sentinels you rely on using stealth. The game’s stealth system is very basic. You can jump into boxes to avoid being seen. Besides jumping into boxes the other stealth mechanic is to simply stand by objects to avoid being detected by their line-of-sight-system.
Surrounded by Robots
If you watched any of the game’s trailers or gameplay footage you may have noticed the world has no humans. This is by design for the story’s sake. What’s left behind in the locations are the human’s companion robots. Companion robots started existence with simple designs to complete tasks but became more complex over time. This complexity allowed them to adopt more humanistic aspects like language, appreciation of activities like music and bartering, and most important to us, sending Stray on quests.
The robots fill the game’s NPC roles fairly well. To avoid the Zurks and the destruction they’ve caused they’ve occupied safe areas under the dome in The Slums, Antvillage, and Midtown. These locations are home to safe zones where you are exploring more of the game’s lore and completing requests. These chapters were my favorite part of the game due to the free movement they allow (which I speak on below).
Alongside the NPC robots that occupy the world there is a companion bot you discover near the beginning of the game named B-12. B-12 serves as the middleman between Stray and the rest of the alien world. B-12 is as vital to the game as Stray, and does most of the game’s story and exposition heavy lifting (since Stray is just a cat which doesn’t speak). Once you have this bot you can unlock doors, grab and store items, and use a flashlight which adds new dynamics to the gameplay.
Exploration and Quests
Chapters in Stray are divided into two types: ones where you are in danger and ones where you are not. The chapters where you are in danger occur outside of the cities safe locations. The chapters where you are not in danger take place inside of the cities. Both types of chapters can be explored, but the safe areas are much bigger and offer chances at deeper exploration.
The cities are less linear and because of that they are the best part of the game. You have no threats against you so you can spend your time simply exploring and interacting with NPCs. Many of the NPCs you interact with share tidbits about the game’s lore and some require your help securing items for certain quests.
You spend a good chunk of gameplay time doing fetch or search quests for the robots you meet. These fetch quests usually chain together things that are happening in the story. For example early in the game you need to find notebooks to show to someone to get their help with something as part of the broader story. This means searching through a location to find the item then delivering it to them.
For the most part I enjoyed the fetch quest system. There are some fun sequences you need to complete throughout the game to advance through it. Some of these quest sequences impact the level you are in, changing what areas you can access, which gives a sense of a real living world. The game varies the fetch quests enough and is short enough that I never hit the ‘boredom’ wall typically associated with them.
I found the story of Stray to be one of its weaker parts. The main story of Stray the cat is easy enough to follow and works fine as a classic adventure from point a to point b story. B-12 is woven into this story well as are the other robots you meet along the way.
My main problem came from the locked-down city explanation. I spent the time gathering all the collectibles in the game with the hopes of getting more answers to why exactly everything was happening under the dome. I still don’t fully understand it and that’s a shame because the idea is interesting it just feels like it should be way more flushed out and satisfying.
The ending is also another part of the story that I found didn’t really work all that well for me. The last few chapters feel like the developers are rushing you towards the end, rather than enjoying the journey and flushing out the world more. Given this is trying to be an epic adventure tale, the ending just didn’t feel like a good wrap up.
Graphics and Audio
I think Stray looks really good both graphically and from a design perspective. I played the game on the highest setting on PC. The cities in particular stood out for how nice they look and the great graphical designs of them. There is a nice amount of activity in the cities that makes them feel alive. A lot of the character models including Stray and the different robot you encounter also look good and fit the overall look and feel of the game nicely.
Audio wise the OST works fairly well and creates a nice mix of ambient music while you explore. None of the songs really stood out to me, but the soundtrack does the job that it needs to. One thing about the audio I did notice is that there aren’t a lot of sound effects, which makes being in large cities full of robots sound a bit lifeless.
I took the game for a spin on my Steam Deck to see how it would manage since it’s Steam Deck optimized. Playing Stray on Medium Settings I found the Steam Deck can run it but it is very hot and very loud. I would probably steer clear of playing it handheld for now until patches (hopefully) optimize it more, or spend the time fiddling with settings.
Overall, Stray is a good but not great walking-sim with some adventure elements thrown in for good measure. There are a number of aspects of the game that are solidly made and fun. Things like the game’s graphics and the various locations show a real talent by the developers to create a visually appealing and life-like world. Spending time in the world exploring the different city locations and helping the different robot inhabitants is a fun hook that didn’t overstay its welcome during my 6 hour playthrough. Unfortunately, the game’s low-stakes platforming and minor puzzle mechanics and it’s somewhat intentionally ambiguous and unfulfilling story and ending left me feeling that the game experience was a bit shallow.