Stray Improves Adventure Games

Stray holds a lot of things in common with other adventure plays. You must solve puzzles, navigate a dense urban environment, and utilize stealth to avoid powerful enemies.

In addition, there are characters to befriend and things to manage. But there’s one essential distinction between Stray and its contemporaries: you play as a cat.

That may sound like a slight twist or even a gimmick, but in reality, the shift in attitude makes Stray feel refreshingly new. You’re still in a large, complex world, but now, you’re catching it from ground level. It changes everything from exploration to puzzles. 

Coupled with a bittersweet tale that oscillates between joy, heartbreak, and occasionally horror, it makes for one of the year’s best games.

In Stray, you recreate as a nameless cat separated from its feline friends at the game’s outset and plunged into an underground world inhabited by robots instead of people. Initially, the goal is straightforward: get back to the surface. Fastly though, the quest becomes something more. Eventually, you’re hooked by a cute drone named B12, and the world’s mysteries start to pile up.

On your path to the surface, you grow through the layers of robot society, learning more about their lives and history and what happened to humans. The zurks are a bizarre swarm of bug-like monsters that eat anything. That includes the robots, which keep the machines restricted to various underground slums, and cute little cats.

The story also delivers a nice twist on the classic quiet protagonist. Unlike Link from The Legend of Zelda, it makes you feel your hero never talks because it’s a cat. Of course, you can occasionally communicate via translation from your drone buddy, but Stray is a game where your actions do the talking more often than not. 

You can pander to the robots by accomplishing favors big and small these can range from helping a robot-grandma knit a cozy poncho out of electrical cables or reuniting a father and son by traversing demanding, zurk-filled sewers.

Stray’s story is relatively short, but it covers a lot in that runtime, with themes ranging from wealth imbalance to environmental disaster, not to cite the all-too-important future of the cat itself.

In terms of how it plays, Stray perches a few genres, depending on the moment. Much of the time early on is spent calculating how to get around a vertical city like a tiny cat. The controls are a bit additional from a typical third-person adventure: while you can move freely, the jump switch is contextual, so you can only jump when you notice an X appear on a ledge. 

It will take a bit of getting accustomed to and it can slow things down while your life’s on the line during an action series but it also makes a lot of sense. In Stray, driving around is often a steady planning process as you plot your course up or down a facility or through a treacherous path. It’s like tending a house cat methodically climbing furniture and countertops to get to the top of a fridge.

Getting around involves designing the proper route and solving some generally easy-to-deduce environmental puzzles. These could be as concise as knocking down a plank of wood to construct a bridge, but, often, they’re more complicated, with multiple steps that could need anything from repairing machines to scaring robots with a well-placed meow. So it isn’t a straight-action game where you have lots of capabilities at your disposal. 

Outside of a brief excerpt of the game, you don’t own a weapon, so all you can do is sprint, jump, meow, and perform other context-sensitive actions like scratching a door or batting something off a shelf. As a result, the experience is more about exploring this densely packed planet, looking for clues, and reasoning out the best way to proceed, given your limited kitty skills.

And while some of these actions live in other games, the sheer fact that you’re a cat with limited opportunities and a ground-level viewpoint handles them very differently in practice.

That said, there are occasional action sequences, which, short as they can be, add a required dose of tension to the experience. For example, early on, you’ll be negotiating with swarms of the zurks, which means either racing away or employing a very limited weapon to eliminate them. These moments can be frightening they’re reminiscent of the killer swarms of squealers in 2019’s A Plague Tale: Innocence but they can also be frustrating. As a result, it will feel more tedious than trying, though these moments are rare, and the contest has an extensive checkpoint plan so that you are never forced to replay comprehensive sections. Later, the action shifts to stealth, as you must avoid robots infiltrating various places completely.

You drive back and forth between these moments of action and adventure, and perhaps the most fantastic thing about Stray is how it’s all stridden. It starts as a simple search back home. Still, as you move up through the diverse levels of the robot world and comprehend more about this not-implausible future, the stakes individual and existential become much more formal. The ending is lovely and tragic.

The experience is also full of subtle moments if you want it to be. Stray offers you plenty of time to be a cat. You can mark up carpets and couches, make a total quantity of an in-progress board fun, or fib down on a snoozing bot for as protracted as you like.

These actions are occasionally required to solve puzzles, but more often than not, they’re just fun to mess around with and assist in getting you in that cat mindset. The first time the cat puts on its harness is one of the funniest moments you’ve experienced in a game.

Stray lets you lounge, but it also doesn’t overstay its welcome.