'Stray' brings feline fantasies to life in creative action-adventure

Posted at 3:32 PM, Jul 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-07-27 15:32:23-04

TUCSON, Ariz. — "Stray" is the latest creative effort from Annapurna Interactive, a developer that always has something wild and creative up its sleeve.

Following the likes of "Donut County," "Kentucky Route Zero," and "Telling Lies," Annapurna's new opus lets you control a cat who romps around a walled city. Hazards abound, including robots, mutated bugs, and mechanical puzzles.

Phil Villarreal: My first moments with "Stray" drove home how rare it is to play a video game with an animal protagonist. Titles such as "Goat Simulator" and "Maneater" usually just take silly premises and run with them, but "Stray" has a much more measured and realistic approach.

While sci-fi elements abound, the physics and movement seem grounded and reasonable.

You truly feel like a cat, with all the traversal advantages of the form. The no-fail platforming allows you to nail every pounce and hop, save for the preset sequences which force you to misstep.

The inherent message is that cats boast more intelligence and empathy than humans tend to give them credit for.

Not only is the tone well-executed, but the storytelling and gameplay are lights-out. This is an incredibly fun and engaging adventure.

Sean, you were even more excited for this one than I was. Did it live up to your expectations?

Sean Newgent: I was excited about this game purely based on the concept, and the Kowloon meets cyberpunk world. And this game definitely delivers on both. As you said, you really feel like a cat in this game with the platforming and completely useless moments like stopping to scratch at a tree or tear up some guy's carpet.

The way you move, even in the less cat-like moments like picking up items to solve puzzles or knocking over wooden planks, all feel grounded enough to not take you out of the adventure and also come with an added "d'aww" every time because it's a cute cat knocking a plank over — how can you not smile?

The puzzles are generally pretty simple, which means the game moves at a good clip — meaning more exploration of the city and that sense of dread and wonder never dissipating through the six-ish hour playtime. I love a game that is full of awe-inspiring set pieces or has a focus on storytelling through the world. Think of a game like "Elden Ring" and how there is always a new surprise around each corner, for good or ill.

While "Stray" isn't as open or difficult as that game, the same sense of wonder is everywhere. Much like a cat, you'll be curious to explore every nook and cranny and learn more about this world and why it is the way it is.

Phil, what did you think of the world and pacing of the game?

Phil Villarreal: I am the first to bail on a tough puzzle to find a walkthrough to speed my pace — I hate being stuck at a bottleneck — but I never had to make the walk of shame to YouTube walkthroughs because the game did such a good job at subtly pointing me where I needed to head next.

I agree that the surprises and set pieces were phenomenal. Even something so simple as stepping inside a bucket to head down a zipline was thrilling.

I did find some of the storytelling a little hokey and stretched. The robotic assistant you pick up is a little too cute sometimes, and the conveniences it provides seem a little forced. But the price of having to stretch logic to extremes was worth the price of admission for the next amusing, inventive twist that lurked around every corner.

"Stray" is impossibly creative, fast-paced, and carries an overwhelming sense of fun. The lack of challenge may be a problem for some, but it's just the sort of ego-stroking I crave. I'm all in when simple puzzles make me feel like a genius for solving them, and easy chase scenes make me feel incredibly skilled for beating them.

The fact that Annapurna didn't need to stoop to a pandering level to prop up this myth of me feeling smart and dexterous is a true achievement.

Final thoughts, Sean?

Sean Newgent: "Stray" is the cat's meow, the kind of inventive and exciting shot-in-the-arm we needed this summer following so many re-releases. I found jumping a tad clunky, and I agree about the assistant, but those are minor gripes for a game that feels so accessible to anyone and will be the talk of the gaming community for quite a while, I'm sure.

When's the last time we got to run around as a cat and solve puzzles? Big the Cat in "Sonic Heroes"? "Blinx: The Time Sweeper"? And the fact this isn't necessarily cutesy and maintains some semblance of a hard edge with a world that reminds me a bit of "Nier: Automata" makes "Stray" all the better.

While I wouldn't call this a contender for Game of the Year, it's definitely going to make some top ten lists, likely mine included.

The publisher provided review codes. Phil played the game on Xbox Series X. Sean played on PS4.

Past game reviews by Sean and Phil:
Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy
Diablo II Resurrected
NEO: The World Ends with You
Rainbow Six: Extraction
King of Fighters XV
WWE 2K22
Weird West
Tiny Tina's Wonderlands
Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga
TMNT: Shredder's Revenge
Capcom Fighting Collection
Capcom Arcade: 2nd Stadium

Phil Villarreal is the senior real-time editor for KGUN 9. He is also a digital producer and host of "Phil on Film" seen weekly on Good Morning Tucson, Phil moved to KGUN after 17 years with the Arizona Daily Star. He is married and has four children. Share your story ideas and important issues with Phil by emailing phil.villarreal@kgun9.com or by connecting on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Sean Newgent has been with KGUN9 since January of 2020 and is Good Morning Tucson's executive producer. He graduated from Illinois State University with a degree in broadcast journalism. He is a critic and cultural commentator. Share your story ideas and important issues with Sean by emailing sean.newgent@kgun9.com.