Although shorter than it should be and not taking full advantage of its potential, even then, Stray has completely surpassed my expectations with its heartfelt story, charming and interesting characters, engaging and thought-provoking gameplay, and an atmospheric, visually mesmerizing world I was sad to leave behind. So far, Stray is my game of the year.
I think collectively, as a fanbase, everyone who saw the trailers and gameplay clips for Stray were immediately intrigued by its potential greatness. Its apparent uniqueness and refreshingly original premise is something that resonated with most viewers, especially myself. I’ve always been an animal lover and the idea of playing as a cat was an exciting prospect. Not only did the “playing as a cat” element really draw my attention, but all the footage showcased a dystopian, cyberpunk-ish world to explore with all the neon lighting, futuristic themes, and seemingly entertaining characters. This game was checking all the boxes of interest and I simply couldn’t wait to test it out for myself. It had a ton of hype leading up to its release, and I tend to (at least try to) not get overly excited about games (entertainment mediums in general) as of late since my over-anticipation sometimes leads to catastrophic disappointment. The time came to finally play it and I can wholeheartedly say that I haven’t enjoyed playing a video game this much in so long. This isn’t to say the game is a flawless masterpiece and without imperfections, but I couldn’t put the game down and was completely engaged from the very beginning.
Stray follows a cat who lives in the outside world with four other stray cats. One day, while traversing through an abandoned facility, the cat loses its footing and falls, being separated from the rest, and finds itself in a seemingly abandoned underground city. Searching for an escape, the cat encounters a small drone known as B-12, who states it used to aid a scientist, but needs time to recover most of its corrupted memory. B-12 accompanies the cat and promises to help it return to the surface. Together, they venture further into the city. There are no signs of human life anywhere, but they encounter robotic beings, known as Companions. Throughout their time there, the Companions have developed their own consciousness and have become self-aware. Some have dreams of one day getting to experience and see the surface, but most believe it doesn’t exist. They also live in fear of Zurks, which are small, mutant parasites who have grown to feed on both organic and robotic life. Together, the cat and B-12 will do whatever they can to get back to the surface by gathering clues and helping those who are still holding on to the same hope, while also dealing with known and unexpected threats in the process.
At the start, the game does a great job introducing the player to the gameplay mechanics. Within the first 5 minutes, you learn just about everything you need to know in order to play the game at the simplest level, such as walking or running around and jumping to attain far to reach places or destinations. In most games, this is the standard for most characters. However, the extra charm the game adds which, in my opinion, sets itself apart from other games I’ve played, is how it makes the player feel like the actual person, animal, or thing you’re playing as. This isn’t to say it’s the first game to ever do this, but, from my knowledge, it’s the first game to make you feel like a cat in an accurate capacity. For example, other than the basic gameplay mechanics already mentioned, you can scratch at certain materials such as carpets, sofas, doors, walls, and so on. You can play with balls that are on the floor, rub up on other character’s legs as a sign of affection, roll up on the floor and sleep, and even meow for the sake of meowing and, in some cases, you’ll get a reaction from certain characters or even the environment you’re in. In reality, are any of these elements particularly necessary? Not really, but it’s the attention to the most minute details that really makes Stray’s gameplay stand out, which makes me appreciate the overall experience even more.
Most of the other additional gameplay elements you’ll pick up on as you progress don’t necessarily change how the game is played exactly, but they do aid you on your adventure, especially with B-12 as your companion. B-12 already has its own functions, such as a flashlight to illuminate hard to see places, as well as hacking into computer systems to open doors, hack into files to obtain intel, and so on. It even gives you hints about what to do next, such as who to talk to and where to find specific items. B-12 will get certain upgrades that are incredibly beneficial to you as a player as well, including a weapon to help you against the Zurks. The gameplay, overall, isn’t anything monumental or industry changing, but it continuously makes the game feel original and distinct from other games I’ve played in the past, especially with the puzzle-solving, which I feel is very creative. I think cats are very curious creatures, and this game takes full advantage of a cat’s curiosity when trying to solve these specific puzzles.
Elaborating more on the gameplay and deviating from the actual mechanics, I was pleasantly surprised with how much the game gives you to do, even if some of it is optional. When you finally reach the city and start interacting with different Companions, they’ll give you specific things to do and different puzzles to solve in order to progress through the story, or simply just to help other Companions for the sake of helping them. What I loved is how rewarding it felt when these tasks were completed, and it was one of my favorite things to do in the game; helping others. To give an example, you’ll meet a Companion who will exchange certain items with you if you bring them a specific item. One of the items available to obtain is an electrical cable. At first, you’re not sure what its function will be, but as you begin to interact with the others in the city, you’ll eventually see how they can use certain items for specific tasks, and one of them so happens to need an electrical cable to make something. As it turns out, that specific something the Companion makes for you can be passed off to yet another Companion you’ll meet in the city. It makes everything feel incredibly intertwined and connected, and it often reminded me of living in a neighborhood where everyone knows each other. In other words, it’s one big family.
I mentioned this at the start, but I absolutely adored exploring this dystopian, cyberpunk city. As a pop culture fanatic, I’m big on the sci-fi genre, and Stray is a phenomenal representation in how it portrays this tone, especially with the neon lighting, the buildings (houses and stores), streets and alleys, and the individual beings who live in the city. Although a bit linear in some aspects and you can’t fully explore every nook and cranny at your leisure, I’m more than satisfied with what the game offers since I think it caters greatly to what the game is trying to do. Depending on the specific part of the city you’re in, most places are accessible, such as different houses and establishments people are in, including libraries, bars, and laundromats. I would like to revisit certain areas though, and I feel that may be one of the only flaws the game contains, which is not allowing the player to backtrack once you’ve reached a certain point in the game. Then again, I feel every game is an open-world game nowadays, and it’s sometimes a nice change of pace playing a game where, although it has open world elements, doesn’t completely rely on giving the player complete freedom to explore any place they desire. I think this is one of the few games where it works and doesn’t completely take away from the overall gameplay experience. Some things could’ve been expanded on, for sure, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in awe of what I was looking at though. The underground city, and the game overall, is visually stunning and it’s one of the best aspects people will rave about for years to come. It’s truly an immersive experience.
By far, what pulled me in the most is the story and the characters living in this world. As soon as the cat gets separated from the other stray cats, I was already emotionally invested, and that happens within the first 10 minutes. What this game is able to do in order to keep the emotions flowing is hard to describe with words, and it’s something you need to experience. This story is arguably one of the best I’ve ever played through in the last couple of years, maybe even ever. It’s one of those stories that can be appreciated by people who don’t even play video games. You start meeting different characters who all have different stories, dreams and aspirations, and it really makes you become even more invested with everything going on. As you’re on a journey to fulfill your goal, you’re also helping others reach theirs as well. There are moments where you’re reuniting Companions with others who were lost and restoring those relationships, you’re making their day by fetching them a specific item, whether it’s for business or pleasure, and you’re ultimately trying to guide them to something better, which is the surface. It’s the little acts of kindness you perform in this game that end up staying with you and impacting you in a positive, emotional way.
What impacted me the most, however, is the bond the cat and B-12 create throughout this journey. Towards the end, you never want them to be apart and there are plot revelations and twists you never see coming. To be completely honest, it was hard not to get choked up with the story developments, and I never wanted it to end.
I don’t think any other game in 2022 will make me feel the way Stray has. The critic in me wants to nitpick at the game not taking complete advantage of its potential with the world’s exploration, as well as it being way too short, but these are mostly non-factors when thinking about and discussing the grander message it’s trying to convey. It’s ironic how a game with no signs of human life has more human elements and reminders of what a genuinely good human being should be than any other game I’ve ever played. I can’t recommend this game enough. It’s, easily, one of the most memorable play-throughs of any game I’ve had in years and I’m not sure any game this year will be able to top it.