It’s finally here. The indie darling that made wave after wave last year, Stray, has come to Xbox and the responsibility of gracing the game with a review was given to me. Why? Well, if you know me at all, you know I haven’t exactly been quiet about my thoughts on the game (and its reception), having played it last year on the PlayStation. As I went through it again, however, I pushed aside all of my previous thoughts and came in with as few preconceived notions as possible, wanting to really give the game a fair shake. Was this enough for me to change my mind? Or do I still think it was put on a higher pedestal than it should have been? Find out in the Xbox Era review of Stray.
A Stranger In A New World
Keep in mind, there will be some very slight spoilers about the premise of the game here.
In Stray, you play as, well, a stray cat, who initially is surrounded by other felines but quickly finds itself slipping during a jump and falling into a dark abyss. You wake up a short while later surrounded by garbage and ominous-looking streets and buildings. Soon after, you’re guided by a mysterious entity (who uses computer screens, signs, and other ways to show you where to go) into activating a small drone and uploading a consciousness of sorts into it.
The rest of the game revolves around you helping the drone, called B-12, regain its memories while interacting with the robotic denizens (through the translating services of B-12) of the world you find yourself in. These robots make up the various characters you meet and engage with in this five or so hour journey and are also one of the major strengths of the game. As you try and solve the mystery of why the only sentient life around you is inorganic, this same life is full of variety, charm, and intrigue. Different robots have different beliefs, different clothing/styles, and the way they emulate human life can be both funny and somber. All in all, BlueTwelve Studio did a fantastic job here of bringing these characters to life.
I don’t want to spoil too much about the various locations you visit but know that the initial streets and slums at the start, full of both little enemies you need to run from and characters to meet respectively, aren’t all the game has to offer. Even though it might be the best of what it does.
So I’ve spoken a lot about what you do in the game, but I’m sure you’re wondering, how do you do it? Well, Stray is both hit-and-miss here. As a third-person platformer, you control the cat and tell it where to go, but you’re not given a free jump button. Meaning you’re only able to jump where the game tells you/wants you to do so. In fact, the game’s default settings have “jump prompts”, little markers telling you where you can jump, turned on. When I first played the game, this threw me off a little. I mean with the entire premise being that you play as a cat, I had assumed a free jump was a given. That being said, I suppose it also does make sense that a cat will only jump where it wants to and not just be randomly hopping around.
One thing I recommend everyone playing the game do is to turn off the button prompts for jumping, as at least this gives you the feeling that you’re going exactly where you want to go, when you want to, and not just where the developers say you can. In the past I referred to this as a sort of “platformer-on-rails”, and even now I think that mostly fits. This is especially noticeable when you’re doing a platforming puzzle. Throughout various parts of the game, you’ll either need to locate items or find a specific path forward. As you can only jump in select areas, this quickly becomes a task of trying to jump wherever you’re allowed to and it was rare that I ever spent more than a few seconds figuring out the way, or finding an object. Again, it’s understandable why they chose to do the platforming like this but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little disappointed at the lack of total control. Especially as every so often I’d get into a jumping loop, jumping up and down the same area due to some bad camera angles. However, this jumping method did let the developers create some pretty intricate level designs.
You See That Roof? You Can Go there
Another of the strengths of Stray is the sheer verticality present during some of the game. The initial hub, The Slums, in particular. Cats are always climbing things and getting to heights they really shouldn’t be at, and this title portrays this all too well. Even with the on-rail platforming, when the game gives you a large sandbox several stories high to explore, it’s a great time finding ways both up and down the area. There was clearly a lot of effort put into providing many different paths to discover in these areas and the game benefits from it immensely. The issue, then, is that these areas don’t appear as often as they should, especially in the latter half of the game.
There is a little more to the game than just platforming. You have moments when you need to either run away from or maneuver around enemies as well as some stealth segments closer to the end. All in all, the game was fun to play through, though I did expect some more gameplay elements around, you know, being a cat. The vast majority of the “cat stuff” you do involves pressing one button and either watching an animation play out or alternating pressing the triggers (which I’m still half convinced was just a way to utilize the Dualsense’s haptics). Sure it’s cute to see a couple of times, but again I was left thinking there could have been more done to really make me feel like a cat, you know? That being said, there are a few moments where you’re walking on a keyboard or a piano, or knocking over items and they feel just as satisfying as you’d expect.
A Visual Treat
One of the biggest strengths of Stray is the visual design, especially the art direction. Varying from vibrant neon lights to cold, dark industrial-style buildings, and even glowing organic matter, Stray consistently looks amazing. BlueTwelve Studio is not massive by any means, so it’s all the more praiseworthy that they made a game as visually striking as Stray is. The soundtrack present is no slouch either.
I played the game on an Xbox Series X and performance wise it was pretty solid for the most part. I did notice a little bit of hitching here and there, but it wasn’t common at all and soon forgotten. Heck, if I wasn’t writing a review, I doubt I’d have even bothered to remember. Bugs wise, I did have to restart to checkpoint once because an NPC didn’t follow me as they should have, but the game regularly saves so this too was barely an inconvenience.
No, Not GOTY. But Still A Good Time
At the start of this review, I asked if this fresh playthrough was enough for me to change my mind on the game. And ultimately… it wasn’t. Stray is a good game, even great at times. It has some very well designed levels, it looks fantastic, it has an intriguing story, and it does a fairly decent job of making you feel like a cat exploring a new world. But while it does those things well, it has many areas that don’t keep up. The strict jumping can often be a disappointment, the puzzles are almost always too simple, and while the game doesn’t overstay its welcome, I found the second half to be significantly worse, largely due to the lack of verticality in the levels, but also for other reasons as well.
With all that being said, while I don’t think Stray is great enough to compete with the very best indie games released (both this year and the last), it’s still a good game. And for 30 USD it’s not going to break the bank either. Especially for those wanting a slightly different platforming experience, one without a bipedal at the helm.
Xbox Series X
- Visually Striking
- Interesting world and characters
- Movement can be very smooth and fluid
- You play a cat. Yes just that is a pro. No, don't ask questions.
- No dedicated jump button, and camera angles can make jumping frustrating at times
- Not "cat" enough. Read the review.
- Puzzles too simple
- Second half of the game isn't as good