Game Review: Stray (PS4)

Box art showing a ginger cat.The philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" and attempted to show that we can never really understand another living creature's consciousness. I had hoped that Stray would answer the question "What is it like to be a cat?" But it doesn't. Frankly, it doesn't even try.

It feels like the developers lost the courage of their convictions. Cats can see in the dark - but your avatar has to use a torch! Cats can follow scents - yet that's left unexplored. Cats are expert hunters - yet you never once get to pounce on a drone. Cats can manipulate people's emotions by snuggling them - but on the rare occasions when the game lets you rub up against someone's legs, it changes nothing. There are weird bits where your cat can sharpen its claws by scratching furniture - it's cute, but doesn't have any impact on the game.

Instead, you have a robot (!) which hacks computers for you. Right...

Video gaming has yet to move out of its primitive phase. In the early days of text adventures, you would see something like:

You are in a cave.
There is a box and a sword. 
An imp sits in the corner.
Exits are to the North and East.

From there, you know exactly what you can do. Take sword or Open box or Talk to imp or Go North. Modern video games take that exact paradigm and make it so much worse.

Rather than telling you that an item is interactive, you have to guide your character around glancing at every piece of set dressing, just in case it is important. Some point-and-click adventures helpfully make usable items glow. Stray - like so many others - takes the lazy way out and forces the player to spend most of their time pivoting the camera around in the vain hope that an interaction prompt will appear.

I know what you're thinking - "But you can explore this gorgeous 3D world!" - well, you can't. You can jump up on some bits of set dressing, but not all. Why? I made a massive jump earlier in the game, now you're saying I can't scale this fence? It makes no sense. But, of course, that's video-game logic.

In terms of plot, games like this face a tricky challenge. Make things too restricted, so characters only appear in the correct order, and it becomes little more than a interactive movie. Give the player free rein and they'll do things in the wrong order and get confused.

During one of Stray's levels, I found myself in a haberdashery. While wiggling my joystick, I spotted that one of the hats - and only one - was interactive, so I grabbed it. About 10 minutes later, a character told me that he couldn't do the thing I wanted unless I got him a hat... Which makes things narratively complicated. Why let the player pick up something that they cannot possibly know they need? Again, video-game logic.

In the end, it's a fairly bog-standard 3D puzzler. Person A wants a thing, go get it from Person B. But B will only let you have it in exchange for item C. So you run off and get that. Rinse and repeat. There are a couple of simple logic puzzles, and a few side-quests. But, again, very little is unique to playing as a cat.

Despite the somewhat sedentary puzzling, there are a few bits where your cat gets eaten (!) or killed with lasers (!!). It is tonally very jarring to suddenly shift from puzzling to shooting slug-monsters or running away from killer drones. And, of course, every death leads to a boring wait for the level to re-load. Why is that still a thing in 2022?

Finally, it's a pretty short game. I'm rubbish at console games and I completed it in about 9 hours.

It isn't that I didn't enjoy Stray, it's just that I don't think I enjoy video games.

Stray is a basically fine way to spend a weekend. It isn't too taxing, there's not too much getting lost, and it is occasionally extremely cute.

One thought on “Game Review: Stray (PS4)

  1. says:

    I think Stray is cool for the novelty but I haven't got very far. It's just not the kind of thing I'm in the mood to play right now. Obra Dinn made me really think so I'm kinda after intellectually challenging mystery type things

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