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Video Game Review: “Stray”

The hype train for newcomer BlueTwelve Studio‘s Stray is chugging full-steam ahead after its release on July 19th of this year. The videogame received a lot of mainstream media attention and audience anticipation, meanwhile it’s day and date release made it a sure thing many players would check it out straightaway.

The videogame has since received a mostly positive reception from critics and gamers alike, with many highlighting the concept and atmosphere it provides. Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, you have your naysayers and the many criticisms leveled against it.

I myself was modestly excited for Stray. I wouldn’t have been excited enough to buy it outright at retail cost, but I absolutely fell into the category of players who brushed aside their current queue to see what all the fuss was about.

Some criticisms I heard about Stray were, as follows: the only reason anyone cares about it is because you play as a cat and that it is a generic walking simulator.

For the former, I do believe an argument can be made that a lot of the hype and excitement about Stray had more to do with the idea of being a cat than anything else shown in footage before its release. This doesn’t belittle Stray, however. The same way that you may have ‘only’ played Batman: Arkham Asylum because the idea of being Batman, Stray was intuitive enough to know playing as a cat was something that’d scarcely been taken on and was something players would be interested in.

With that, there is a definite immediate likability to playing Stray. The way your DualSense controller purrs as you rub up against androids or the way our cat acts like he’s being weighed down by a ton of bricks whenever it has the harness placed on it, how can you not be charmed by that? The idea that meme culture helped artificially inflate Stray’s overall quality, I think, for certain, but that shouldn’t be held against the developers or the publishers Annapurna Interactive because they knew how to market.

As for the latter statement, I have always disliked the phrase ‘walking simulator’ and how it is used as a derogatory statement against more cinematic, less gameplay focused videogames. It’s narrowminded and, frankly, a weak argument altogether. Whether it be Telltale or Quantum Dream, the Life is Strange series or Until Dawn, it has been shown the approach has merit and the complaint is less constructive toward quality and more down to personal preference.

As prefaced, Stray sees you play as a cat through a cyberpunk city void of human life. After being separated from its clowder, our feline friend looks to reacquaint himself with them, while assisting the many androids it comes it contact with throughout its journey. The world itself feels very lived in and fleshed out, filled with interesting characteristics about its culture and how it came to exist. A lot of what it has to say, we’ve heard said in other cyberpunk-style series’ like Blade Runner or Nier: Automata, but it’s remarkable how the simple change in perspective can make those things feel profound and new again.

Your playthrough will largely be based on exploration, searching for collectibles and memories of the past. A lot of it is, ahem, a ‘walking simulator’, in the sense that it is more about looking around at their world and finding out more about it, but there are other gameplay components as well. For instance, Stray incorporates elements of stealth and puzzle-solving that help spice things up during your playthrough. It even has small elements of horror sprinkled in. None of it will blow your hair back, but all of it is absolutely satiable and, even, simply enjoyable.

None of it is exactly groundbreaking, but it is absolutely satiable and, even, simply enjoyable.

The atmosphere is the meat of Stray. The way it makes you feel in the melancholic world you explore, the hopeful yet looming feeling of finality it induces, backed by a soundtrack that underlines those themes.

For me, although I heard all the different hyperbolic statements referring to Stray as game of the year or superior to something like Elden Ring, I never bought into any of that. It would be a disservice to Stray to compare it to a Triple-A title, and honestly, really, any other. Taken for what it is, Stray is a solid, charming videogame. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel or offer any new, major spins on familiar tropes, but it does largely do everything well.

My first playthrough of Stray took approximately nine hours to complete, whereas my second playthrough took a mere two hours and four minutes. Anyone who has played Stray will grit their teeth at that statement, knowing how I came four minutes shy of the two hour speed-run trophy (and that Stray’s questionable lack of a manual save means I can’t simply redo wherever I lagged too much and shave off that four minutes).

Regardless of that though, I found myself feeling un-cheated and even interested in a third playthrough, and that’s a pretty good compliment.

Rating: – 3.5 out of 5.0

Written by Nicholas "Nick" McConnaughay

Nicholas McConnaughay is a writer of books and a connoisseur in the fine art of storytelling. He spent his formative years binging slasher films like Child's Play and A Nightmare on Elm Street, and blames that for some of his quirkier tendencies.

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