What Makes Stray Such a Good Game?
The indie space is where we see developers getting truly creative. While AAA development, with all of its big budgets and commercial responsibilities, is rife with considerations for what will and will not have a mass market appeal, indie developers are far more concerned with good ideas and good execution, and just making the games they want to make. We get perfect examples of that with great frequency, and so we did once again not too long ago when publisher Annapurna Interactive and developer BlueTwelve Studio released Stray.
Stray was, of course, a game that had been on many radars for quite some time. The adventure title instantly grabbed attention when it was first revealed, and since then, general interest in the game has grown significantly as time has gone on. When it launched last month, it launched to plenty of hype and anticipation, which, thankfully, were reflected in the reception for the game once people actually got their hands on it. Stray has seen widespread critical success, being praised by reviewers and its players alike, and in our review, we, too, came away delighted with the game. Here, we’re going to dive deeper into why it struck a chord with us.
It’s worth mentioning, of course, that Stray’s premise has a big hand in its success. “You play as a cat” is the sort of elevator pitch that is bound to turn heads, and when you look at pre-launch gameplay clips that show the cat scratching up carpets and walls, knocking things off ledges, and having a dedicated meow button, you can’t help but be enamoured by that central premise. BlueTwelve Studio and Annapurna Interactive really hammered that home in the lead-up to the game’s launch, and from cat lovers to people on the lookout for something unique and fresh, Stray instantly became a game worth keeping an eye on.
What makes Stray truly work though – work as a game and not just as an elevator pitch to grab your attention in the short-term – is the fact that it backs up its premise with actual, proper substance. Yes, Stray does use its premise and surreal setting to pull you in, but it doesn’t rely on that stuff more than it should- because once it has grabbed your attention, it is perfectly aware of the fact that it has to work to keep hold of it. And it does that in more ways than one.
There’s a lot going on with Stray that keeps players engaged right up until the credits roll. The fact that you’re playing as a cat is, of course, front and center throughout the experience, but it’s more than just a cutesy marketing tactic. Stray boasts excellent animations and attention to detail that go a long way towards making it feel like an authentic experience. From curling up and going to sleep while the DualSense’s haptic feedback syncs with your purring to having actual core gameplay mechanics and activities that revolve around the fact that you’re a cat, this is a game that commits to its premise on more than just a surface level.
The game’s post-apocalyptic cyberpunk setting is another one of its biggest strengths. Playing as a cat would have been unique and intriguing enough, but playing as a cat in a neon-drenched cyberpunk world where all humans are long gone and robots are the primary inhabitants takes the game to a whole another level. Right from the get go, Stray piques your curiosity, and it keeps doubling down on that right up until the very end. Uncovering new details about the world and its state, about how it got to this point, and of course, about how it ties into the past of your flying drone companion B12 forms the heart and soul of the experience, and it’s all very well executed. Add to that some personal stakes with the cat itself and the relationship and growing friendship between the two leading characters, and you get a story that also tugs at the heartstrings. From its setting and the larger questions the story poses to the more personal aspects of the narrative and the many personable NPCs you meet throughout the game, Stray has more than a few narrative strengths that make sure you’re always engaged.
The actual gameplay is another one of Stray’s strengths. It’s a textbook example of “simple yet effective”. Stray is an adventure title, with very little combat and a core loop that’s focused on exploration and solving environmental puzzles, but even though it’s not the sort of game that demands a ton of skill or asks you to pay attention to the minutest of details, it’s still the sort of experience that has actual depth in its gameplay. Environments are excellently crafted and can be a joy to explore, especially given how vertical they can be, while side activities and optional collectibles like memories and what have you are always fun to engage with.
Stray is also a rare example of a modern game that knows exactly how long it needs to be. At 6-8 hours in length, it’s got the perfect runtime- it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and yet it doesn’t feel like it’s over too soon. Sure, you do want it to run a little longer when you’re done with it, but that’s because of how much fun there is to be had in the game, rather than it not doing everything it could have with its ideas. In a medium that’s brimming with games that are full of bloat and unnecessary padding, Stray feels like a rare example of a game that knows exactly when it should end.
It also helps, of course, that Stray looks and sounds great. The lower budgets of indie games are often part of the reason why they so frequently fail to attract larger audiences- the fact that they don’t have the sort of production values that people so often expect from games can be a bit of an impediment for them. Stray, however, doesn’t have that issue, seeing as it’s a game that combines its strong art style with technically proficient visuals. No, it’s not a technical masterpiece, obviously- but it looks and sounds great nonetheless, especially for a lower priced game such as this one.
Of course, Stray probably won’t see massive mainstream success- by its very nature, it’s a niche product. But it’s a shining example of a developer coming up with a fascinating core premise, expanding that core premise with depth and substance in mechanics and narrative, and then actually implementing all of those ideas well. You’d think that things like that are the bare minimum for game development, and on paper, you’d be right- but it’s no secret that that’s often not the case. That Stray does all of that and more to deliver an experience that has its own unique identity and personality is something that developer BlueTwelve Studio deserves a lot of credit for.
Now, how about a sequel where you play as a dog, right?
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.