Games with animals as protagonists are quite an interesting niche of our generation. Everyone remembers 2014's epic Goat Simulator, or the Untitled Goose Game that made a splash a few years ago. Both of these games put a lot of emphasis on the humorous factor rather than establishing any lore or "serious" world-building, or what has come to be referred to as environmental storytelling. But what would we get if some game devs put more emphasis on the above characteristics, threw them into a post-apocalyptic world, and set as the game's protagonist... a cat? The answer is Stray, a disgustingly cute post-apocalyptic cat game. This last sentence probably sums up everything one would want to know before trying out this action-adventure game from small French studio BlueTwelve, which officially releases today, July 19.
Contrary to what one might expect at first glance, Stray is not a simple "cat simulator" game where we are just a cat in the cat world and do cat things without a cat purpose. Of course, sometimes it does come quite close to something like that, including at the very start of the game, as can be seen in the screenshot above (such is the cat realism factor that we can even consciously meow during the game's CATscenes). In the beginning, the protagonist is shown simply hanging out with his catbros, taking walks in a strange, abandoned industrial landscape that has begun to be reclaimed by nature (this phase of the game also serves as an tutorial of the various movement mechanics). Soon, however, the plot breaks up our merry catgang, and from the green and sunny "surface world" we find ourselves in some strange, dark, underground world inhabited by equally strange and aggressive "bugs", but also by robots.
I won't go into much further details about the plot and the game's world, as the way we progressively learn what exactly happened to this underground world is undoubtedly one of Stray's stronger points. But it's worth noting at the very least that an excellent job has been done in creating the game's environments and the levels we'll be asked to navigate. Quite linear in the beginning, almost open-world hubs in the later stages, with each of them having something different to offer. There's also the occasional purely action sequence that requires us to simply run ahead in order to avoid the strange bugs.
The gameplay of course is mostly the same from start to finish, consisting mostly of platform logic puzzles, plus the occasional item-based puzzle that 9 times out of 10 simply requires us to collect the right item from somewhere in the world and give it to the right NPC or "plug" it into an electrical device. There are also some optional objectives that require interaction with specific items in the world (which are quite easy to overlook and miss, I should note), and which delve a bit further into aspects of the underground state's lore.
I'm trying to think of some game to liken Stray's atmosphere to and and it's really not that easy. Its world feels like a combination of... Machinarium with Fallout or Metro, if you controlled cats in the above games obviously, but overall it's a completely unique title. And that uniqueness is undoubtedly overwhelmingly due to the fluffy protagonist and the contrast his feline disposition creates with the strange post-apocalyptic world. With that in mind, however, we ought to consider the bigger picture.
The game was made by "cat people" (the press assets we received even contain pictures of the developers' cats!) and is mainly aimed at cat people. And it goes without saying that cat lovers should buy the title ASAP, simply because they will constantly exclaim "AWWWW" and "OH MY GOD MY CAT TOTALLY DOES THAT TOO" while experiencing the feline cuteness, apart from the title's other emotional implications. But will it be equally enjoyable for an
abnormal user who for whatever reason isn't particularly moved by the novelty value of meowing, scratching on furniture, rubbing against the legs of unsuspecting robots, and curling up to sleep on fluffy cushions?
The answer is... probably yes, but not THAT much. Certainly the story itself is very interesting for any player to experience, reaching almost levels of philosophical discovery, something one might not expect from a game starring a cat. Also, although an indie game, the world is well-designed and beautiful in terms of graphics, while the overall polish that seems to permeate the title reaches AAA production levels. But it's also true that the game isn't particularly difficult or challenging, nor is it huge in length, as it's comfortably completed in 5-6 hours, or 8+ if one snoops around to locate the optional objectives in a single playthrough (once this is achieved any hint of replay value is negated, essentially), and there's even an achievement for speedrunners who manage to finish it in under 2 hours. At the same time, the platformer gameplay itself might be quite monotonous and not that enticing or original if you remove the factor that the jumps and parkour are performed by a cat rather than some other character.
Even if we focus on the cat though, the truth is that it's still a bit of an "extra" in the grand scheme of things. Sure, its presence is CATalytic to the events of the plot and it is instrumental in helping the robots of the world accomplish their goals, but it's also true that the story of the game is not really the cat's story. The cat just happens to be in the right place at the right time (or the wrong place, depending on your viewpoint) to help the "real protagonists" fulfill their destiny.
Perhaps, of course, in the end, that's Stray's whole point: the cat doesn't care about the grand scheme of things. Aside from the emotions we as users experience by having the cat as a means to journey through Stray's world, the cat itself doesn't care about motivations, concerns, lore, robots, humans, and the philosophical quest around life and death. It wants to meow, to perch on pillows, to push things and watch them fall into the void, to rub against its surroundings, to scratch at furniture. Whether it's outdoors with its bros, inside a typical human dwelling, or in a strange, underground post-apocalyptic world inhabited by robots, the cat will first and foremost want to be a cat. If that's good enough for it, maybe it should be good enough for us.