Press (B) To Meow

Red & Black Gamers

15th November 2022
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The opening scene of Stray is nothing short of a masterpiece. You’re a cat out in the rain, in a long forgotten and overgrown industrial environment. You spend the time playing with the rest of the clowder, bonding with each other and getting yourself all attached, before all cwtching up for a nap. It’s an absolutely lush establishing scene, with gentle stormy audio and rich graphics. What really makes is special is the soft gradient in which it encourages you to started projecting your own behaviour as a cat. You can’t talk to each other.

You’re cats. So you meow, nuzzle, and attack tails playfully. When you wake up together, the sun is out and everything is just serene and lovely. After a stretch and go for a stroll along an artificial valley called Inside the Wall. Playing with each other along the way, jumping around: learning the controls as you go.

Now, silent protagonists are nothing new, however, they are rarely introduced in such an emotive and captivating manner, not only helping you to transition into another character but into another species. The meowing, scratching trees and bounding along pipes are all obvious however it’s really hammered down by the more subtle interactions and movement, particulary how the cats walk together and navigate objects. I’ve asked a few people now and every one of them reported that they had started “roleplaying with a cat mentality” pretty instantly. The pacing here is managed beautifully and over the course of a couple of minutes you’ll soon be path-finding with natural feline instincts. Suddenly you’re hit with a cut scene and you’re about to have all that security ripped from you… You fail a jump, slide down the wall and, with your fellow strays sat watching helpless, fall into the abyss below.

These first few minutes entirely justified the two years of excitement from watching the trailer back in 2020. The publisher, Annapurna Interactive, had at the start of the year published the last chapter of the absolutely spellbinding Kentucky Root Zero by developer Cardboard Computer (a game which returned my love of story driven games) and the visuals for this new project looked like a futuristic Kowloon city with robots. In my head, I got the idea that this was going to be an open-world cat detective game, like if Haruki Murakami and William Gibson had found the time to pen a novel together.

Let’s be honest here, we all wanted to play a game as a cat and for it to actually feel like you were a cat. Whether that was because you’re high on memes, have a general love of those weird little guys, or like me, you’re still trying to pass it off as a genuine interest in gaming from alternative perspectives, the most important and vital aspect of this game was that you “felt like a cat” and they smashed that out of the park in the intro alone.

Graphically the game is pretty damn lush, the lighting especially is master stroke after master stroke, with everything from it’s grand set pieces to the incidental lighting. It’s fantastic. Stop and look around at anytime and, nine out of ten times, you’ll instantly find an angle which looks like a promo shot for the game. In fact this was probably one of the easiest games to market visually because it is simply unbelievably beautifully dressed. The direction is stunning, particularly the cinematography which has a similar feel to Michael Slovis' Breaking Bad. time after time I found myself pausing to just look around.

Gameplay wise it’s a platformer - a basic one - which has you bouncing up ginnels full of street furniture, ducts and balconies, finding your way through environments that go between linear escapades and more pseudo open-world hub towns. This is done through button prompts, letting you know where you can jump. Initially I wasn’t particularly keen on this system. I found myself making a jump, then looking around for the next button prompt point, rather than at an object. However along the way I realised that A: You can simply turn off the visual prompts; and B: Without this system you’d be guestimating jumps and half the time you’d be falling or scrambling for a firmer foothold. Ultimately, they could have removed it for a better gameplay experience that didn’t break the fantasy of playing as a ninja cat. But before long it feels natural and I found myself tracking the obvious spots for these points and movement began to flow much more smoothly.

The gameplay has two major issues: it’s ridiculously simple and it’s entirely on rails. These two issues make it feel substantially less like an adventure game and more like an interactive novel with gameplay elements. The challenge is pretty much absent with the story line carried along by simple fetch quests, basic detective work, and some very simple puzzling. This isn’t one for people looking to have their skills put to task..

The game is broken up into essentially six sections:
The Dead City is first. Empty streets populated by bugs (we later find out are called Zurks) it’s alien and lonely, the emotive counter-punch to the intro. You’re guided along a path by a mysterious helper who communicates through old TV’s and light fixtures towards a flat where we resurrect them in the form of a little bot called B-12. Along the way, there are buckets to knock off shelves and mess to make. A nice touch here is how if you “meow” it signals that you’re stuck and will be responded too by a light flash or audio cue.

The Slums and its surroundings provide a solid third of the game itself. It’s here where we first encounter functioning robots and get to explore the world proper. B-12 acts as translator as you introduce ourselves to the various bots who are going about their day, as we gather up the information we need to start finding a path out of the city. This ultimately comes in the form of The Outsiders, a small group who are obsessed with traversing through the dangerous city and escaping to the outside world. This area includes an extended section traversing the Slums and up a tower full of Zurks to deposit a receiver, which does an excellent job of making The Slums feel like the last pocket of life in the lower level of the city, a last safe bastion in a dying world, albeit one which is the receiving end of the waste system in the upper sections.

The Sewer is the route out of the Slums and puts you on the track of the missing Outsiders. You’re now armed with a weapon, the Defluxor, which makes the Zurks explode, however it has a limited burst so must be used tactically. This section really scales up the threat of the Zurks as we go deeper into their territory. Pretty soon you’re past the giant eyes and nests full of baddies and find yourself on the other side.

The Antvillage is a serene pause in the game. A small community built up an internal tower, which you’ll use to get to the next section. There is a bit of lore here and a single mission, but ultimately it’s a rest stop on your way to the next area, something which I did accidentally as I carried on adventuring up. It’s actually pretty pointless.

Midtown, like The Slums, makes up about a third of the game. While still run down through time, it’s clear that this area is in better stead. The robots have manufactured outfits, go to nightclubs, practice dance moves on the street and, oh yeah, face the brutal might of a dystopian authority in the form of the Neco Corporation and it’s army of security drones and robot police. Here you’ll also find the Factory, where the city’s waste is processed before being dropped into The Slums. Along your way you shut down this factory, in order to get a maguffin in the form of a battery which will power your final escape via a subway system. Unfortunately, you are caught along the way and sent to…

The Jail, the big house, the collapsing remnants of a brutal order. It’s a fairly sizeable complex where you’ll have to rescue your friends and break out. There isn’t much to this area, other than the final culmination of the stealth skills you’ll have learnt along the way.

You’ll also be able to find some collectables such as music sheets (which one of your new friends will play), badges, scratching posts, and most importantly B-12 memories, which provide a modicum of exposition and lore via reflections from your little pal as you trigger a memory. You can also just play with a random ball, take a nap on a cushion, systematically wreck everyone’s shelves or just scratch up all the furnishings.

These locations and the characters within them are all well put together however, the game is a repeat offender of one of the worst game sins in my books: it introduces elements of gameplay and uses them once. Early on you drop a bucket into a fan to stop it so you can make your way through. Like, cool, that’s an interesting dynamic that I’ll remember so I can fi…. no we never use it again.

There is a really nice animation of opening the flat window as we enter it, do we do that again? That’s a nice pendulum motion at the start of the Jail, imagine if we had some puzzling to do where timing might have been important? The Jail also has breaking windows and climbing on peoples backs and a vehicle. Another one shot. It’s a waste.

There are also several instances in game when it feels like there was supposed to be something more here. For example, there is some graffiti in Midtown that leads you to a robot who likes poetry. This feels a lot like the arc that had us collecting music, but it’s just a dead end. There are no poems to collect and this feels like something, they just didn’t have the budget/time to make a complete game. I suspect quite a few elements they wanted to add were removed due to constraints. The game suffers from this in a major way.

While I don’t believe you should judge a game on how long it takes to play in a cost/hours ratio, this is the gaming equivalent of back-packers marking their life in a succession of events without substance, drive by tourism fully of pretty distractions to fill the void. How much the game gives you in return? Well, the game is short, real short, clocking in at around a leisurely five hours. It’s absolutely gorgeous but there are richer narratives in the Metro’s comic section and everything feels about as deep as a paddle pool. The hub areas are woefully limited, Antvillage might as well not exist and it’s absolutely wasted due to how little there is to actually do there. Then we have Midtown, which is essentially three locations patched together. The “dungeon” sections, as fun and evocative as they might be, are tiny. The Factory, for example, is obscenely short, even removing what could have been an action packed escape with a simple bucket to freedom. It has taken all of two seconds for modders to implement multiplayer, customised cats (amongst other things like farting, play as a dog and first person) and yet, the core game lacks these obviously desired elements.

The final chapter of the game, the Control Room, introduces us to a spotless clean environment, where the robots were still working and never developed consciousness. It looks down upon the rest of the city and could have contained a huge array of exploration and lore building. But it’s just two rooms, a little bit of property damage and bosh it’s the end. The obvious excuse is that the game stripped the fat and doesn’t have filler, however I don’t feel this is supported by the actual gameplay, where things are set up larger than they turn out to be. What we get is a story-driven platformer that sits between Oddworld and Limbo for content, unsure whether it wants to give us an expanded narrative or something more spartan. I think this is why there is an otherworldly feel to The Slum, Antvillage and Midtown sections. I reckon the lack of a budget to expand the world and give the supporting cast more life, makes it all feel like we caught all the robots, not in the middle of their everyday lives - part of some organic world - but simply in the same action they’ve been trapped in for hundreds of years. The semblance of consciousness only existing as their programmes respond to the new presence, ultimately feeling like some dystopian micro colony from Lexx rather than something richer and this is just disappointing. I shouldn't have to head canon this stuff to make it work.

It seems their priorities were elsewhere as they found time to add a bunch of references to games like Skyrim, Half-Life, and Neir Automata alongside shows such as Gravity Fall’s Mr. Robot, and Back to the Future,/ They is also a nice easter egg in the form of QR codes which lead you to a bit of binary which translates into messages from the devs. Cute.

One aspect they didn’t short change tho was the absolutely stunning score. It keeps the emotional roller-coaster on schedule and makes sure the beats are hit just right. It adds to the cinematic feel of the game, which is complimented though-out by the environmental and incidental sounds and music, truly making the world feel more alive than it has any right too.

Ultimately the game is very enjoyable, though limited. The story has aspirations of having depth while being about as deep as a puddle, albeit a puddle made of something sweet and tooth decaying like Pepsi. At the time I started writing this, it had 60k concurrent players and was selling on Steam for £23.99. B12 and Annapurna Interactive are richer than Captain Kirk right now, so I’ve got no ethical issue with telling you if you haven’t played it already just go borrow the game for a weekend and get it out of your system.

The setting and story conclude themselves with some strong finality but I’d be very keen to see the universe expanded, perhaps Stray comes out of the Walled City to find a living breathing city around it, one in which it must explore to find the rest of it’s clowder… maybe they’ll make a more Murakami-esque Cat Detective game in a genuinely open-world city and make the game of my dreams. Sad to say, I think this is a one-off and a broader cat detective game will have to wait until folk are not longer worried about Stray comparisons. ■

Peter Ó Máille

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