Stray review

Stray is a new post-cyberpunk 3D platformer/puzzler where you play as a cat. This is perhaps the most realistic game where you play as an animal, with all the fluid animations and realistic cat-like behaviour built in. Stray peaked a lot of interest when it was first shown off at the State of Play back in 2021, and it’s finally released on PlayStation and PC.

The narrative in Stray is relatively straightforward. This is the post-cyberpunk world, where humanoid robots live or have lived, and cower in fear of the sight of something that is actually living. We start by hanging out with a bunch of Cats, doing their Cat things – rubbing up against each other, meowing and generally having a lazy time of it. After venturing out of their enclosure which was sheltering them from the rain, our main protagonist manages to fall down into the depths of the City, losing contact with their Cat family.

Ultimately Stray is one of the most detailed and realistic versions of playing as a Cat in video games, I don’t think anything else comes close. BlueTwelve Studio has done a great job realising their vision of players inhabiting a cat in their games with detailed animation, context-aware controls, sounds and haptic feedback that really draws you into the relatively quiet world. You can jump up to high ledges, knock items off shelves like bottles or paint cans, and perhaps the most satisfying of all… dig your paws into the floor and scratch. You can meow to attract enemies, and scratch at planks or blinds to either knock them over or create small openings for you to crawl through. It’s all very realistic and you can see the care and attention the studio has put into the game.

Exploration is the name of the game. There is very little dialogue if any, and as soon as you drop into the City with a hard thud after the opening scene when you lose your Cat Family, you are encouraged to explore. The controls are simple, easy to understand and contextual. You can’t simply jump around whenever you want, you have to walk up to a prompt and interact with it. For example, if you walk to a ledge or a gap you’ll be prompted to jump. If you walk next to an item like a bottle you can knock it over, and so on. The City itself is big, and there are plenty of side alleys, and apartments to search. Sometimes you’ll be given a helping hand when traversing the environment, if you are really high up, then you can quickly travel down via a bucket attached to a rope. There are multiple ways to get to locations, so while the game feels fairly linear, you do have a certain amount of choice with how you go about things.

Another main feature of gameplay is the puzzles. These are small environmental puzzles, for example, early on you are tasked with finding a key code in an apartment, given your progress is blocked by a locked door with a 4-digit PIN. It’s then your job to search the apartment for the code. The puzzles reminded me of the shrines in Breath of the Wild, they are small contained puzzles, which offer up a little bit of brain exercise. Another good example early on is where you need to find four plugs in a room and they are hidden in various places, where you have to climb ladders, hit switches to reveal them and then carry them to a location in your mouth. Early in the game, you’ll unlock a little helper droid by the name of B-12. He’ll be able to help you distract enemies, hack terminals and generally serve as the cute, but useful sidekick.

The puzzles come in a couple of varieties; you have the shorter puzzles and the longer puzzles. The short ones are contained in a room, or an apartment, whereas the longer ones, will have you collecting parts of droids, or various items, which turns our cat protagonist into an investigator. It’s your job to collect the pieces of the puzzle and put them together in a coherent solution, and it’s something Stray does very well.

The story is delivered through a series of chapters where you get put into different environments. First, you have the closed, cramped City, and later you’ll find yourself in wide open areas. There is a sense of openness to the game, but really it’s a single-player linear game, that takes approx 5 hours to finish. In this day and age, this is very welcome, and this is the kind of game you’ll find coming out of Indie Studios these days rather than big AAA studios. That investment is going into the open world or live-service games, but Stray is a nice, neat contained package that starts and ends neatly, which is all too rare these days.

As well to the main story, trying to get back to your Cat Family, as well as solve some of the mysteries you encounter along the way in the narrative, there are also side quests of the sort. We have to restore B-12’s memories, where we have to determine where to go from broken digital images, and then help B-12 remember. You don’t always have to go out of your way to find these, some will pop up as you go through the main story, although most have to be sought out through exploration and recognition. This is where the game works at its best, role-playing as a cat, finding small gaps, high places to get to and hidden secrets. Stray starts out as a complete mystery, but as you continue to explore the world the story of the B-12, the City and the robots unveils itself to the player. It’s wonderful.

B-12 isn’t just your standard robot helper. He’s more than an inventory system or a tool to be used. This is much more like a relationship from a Ratchet and Clank game, rather than Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. B-12 isn’t the only robot we meet as throughout the game you’ll encounter robots called The Outsiders, robots who want to escape and find themselves a better existence, as the weight of the city and the society long dead weigh down upon them. Other characters and NPCs are hard to come by in the game, but the City does an excellent job with its environmental storytelling through posters and digital artwork. Stray tells a story of survival through the eyes of a small cat, whether it’s our feline trying to find their family, or the desperate robots trying to carve out a new existence.

Stray is a wonderful little game, where you see the world through the eyes of a small feline creature. The journey along the way is a touching one, albeit rather short. There isn’t a game out there that allows you to role-play as a cat in the same way as this, and I am sure many cat-lovers out there are going to love this. Based on the reaction on social media, it looks like real-life Cats are also interacting with the screens, thinking the Cat from Stray is real, which is all very touching. I’d recommend Stray; it’s unique and memorable, and the gameplay is fun and challenging. There isn’t much more you could want from a video game.

Developer: BlueTwelve Studio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platform: PS5, PC (Reviewed on PS5)
Release Date: 19th July 2022