Stray Review

Four things I like about this game, and one I don't

Stray on PS5

By Paul Hunter

I've never considered myself a cat person, at least from a desire to own one perspective, but I sure as heck love watching cat meme videos online. That said, when I saw the Stray debut trailer at Sony's 2020 PlayStation Future of Gaming event, it was a rare moment in my life where I actually thought about how cool cats can be. The Stray cat was just so damn cute and the game instantly shot straight to the top of my must-play list.

A couple of years later and the cat's out of the bag—BlueTwelve Studio's feline adventure is here and I've been fortunate enough to play through the entire game over the past week. The premise is simple: you assume the role of a nameless cat that's lost, injured and alone amidst the neon-lit slums of a decaying cybercity. Stranded from your feline family, as the cat you'll need to unravel an ancient mystery to escape the long-forgotten walled off city.

So let's tumble on into Walled City 99 to see if Stray is pawsitivly clawsome or a cat-astrophe (spoiler, it's not!), here are four things I liked about the game...and one I didn't.

Liked: Feeling Like a Cat

Stay has stellar art direction, level design, narrative, audio and gameplay, but want to know what's even better than all that? It's how well the developers nailed being a cat.

I've played a bajillion other games where you play as an animal or pet but few come anywhere close to the authenticity of Stray. Heck, this game even gives you a dedicated "meow" button for whenever the mood strikes. Jokes aside, it's really impressive how BlueTwelve captured the playfulness, personality and agility of the cat. You can take adorable cat naps, scratch up furniture, paw smash vending machine buttons, knocks random objects off ledges and push balls around a room with vicious cat swipes.

The devs even included hilarious cat memes like how you can walk on a keyboard and type random crap on a computer screen or jump on a table and destroy a board game in progress—much to the frustration of the robot players. Oh, and there's the most adorable moment where you can hop up on a robot's tummy to cuddle and nap. Serious warm fuzzies in this game.

Simply being the cat is such a joy, with a lot of the credit going towards the superb animations. Did they actually mocap a cat for the game? I'm guessing no but I wouldn't be surprised if they did. Everything from way your poor cat limps when it hurts its leg to the way it licks its fur or looks around with such curiousity just feels so cat-like. I adored being the cat and appreciate all the love and care that went into making every cat mannerism and movement so pixel purr-fect.

Liked: Stunning Dilapidated City

The still photos in this review hardly does justice to the extreme visual style this game oozes. The graphic designers and environment artists did a wondrous job bringing to life the dying, forgotten city eerily called Walled City 99. The underground bunker-like city gives flashbacks to Bethesda's Fallout series, yet in Stray the history isn't explained. Why is this city buried underground without even a hint of sunlight peaking in? And if this is city 99 are there 98 other tragic cities like this? Stray offers more questions than it does answers and that's all part of the game's alluring mystique.

From the moment you drop into the dead city you'll be bombarded with a stunning mix of neglected slums juxtaposed with Asian-inspired signs glowing with a myriad of neon colours. The environments are small-ish and dense with good verticality, and you can tell every corner and cranny were painstakingly hand designed to evoke specific emotions. There are lively shopping areas, curiously deserted apartments, old abandoned subways with their original purpose long forgotten, and off-limit sewers crawling with life-sucking bacterial enemies known as Zurks. All of these locations are incredibly interesting visually but moreover the put you in a constant state of what actually happened here?

Liked: Robots with Personality

Another major highlight within the city are the numerous robots that inhabit it. They're obviously advanced robots far beyond what's possible today as they all lead rather human lives, like hanging out at the local pub, heading out to night club or running their own shops. But at the same time the robots feel like relics of the past with their CRT monitor tamagotchi-like heads that can display a range of facial expressions or emojis including a heart. It's also fun to see the various robot personalities within the community, such as a helpful scientist, a techie gadget dude, a street musician and even an endearing granny that enjoys sewing ponchos.

Even better, not long into your adventure you'll meet the drone B-12 that becomes your buddy. It's not immediately clear why the robot is helping you, but it's great it does join your side as the little guy is very useful. B-12 can store items for you, including discoverable 'memories' that reveals information about the city. Your drone friend can also translate the ancient text found within the city, hack locked doors or provide a torchlight to illuminate dark areas. The blossoming friendship between the cat and B-12 is quite endearing and really helps to anchor this emotional tale.

Like: Feline Fluidity

The excellent gameplay in Stray helps to elevate the sensation of being a cat. All your movements are fast and fluid like you'd expect a cat to be, and during the tricky platforming segments your cat 'sticks' to surfaces to help you always land on your feet—like cats always seem to do. Hopping between surfaces is performed with a simple button tap, which makes it easy to quickly navigate terrain and climb buildings.

I also appreciate the animation subtleties like how your cat arches back before jumping and hesitates a fraction of a second before leaping like what real cats do. Fast travel is amusingly done by hopping inside a bucket attached to a line and zipping your way down. Your cat will perk its head up while riding in the bucket and very naturally looks around with such curiosity. All the little details coalesce into furr-iously fluid movements that really make the cat feel alive and believable. It's amazing to see in action.

Didn't Like: Meh Combat

Stray didn't need to have combat and in fact there's a pacifist trophy in one particularly tricky segment. I certainly recommend going the pacifist route as it adds tension to game and the combat is fairly bland anyways.

Midway through the adventure your B-12 buddy gains the ability to zap the Zurk enemies dead. The power needs to recharge so you have to use it strategically. The problem I encountered often was that you're usually surrounded by a dozen plus Zurks and it's hard to kill them all with one zap. So then I'd have recharge the power and try again to zap the remaining critters. But really, unless you're completely surrounded it's usually faster to rely on the cat's speed and agility to zip around the Zurks, or use stealth and the environment to outwit them. So yeah, it's not that combat is horrible per se, it's just that I didn't find much use for it.

The Verdict

Stray is simply divine. It's indie games like this that can rival the quality and sheer joy of playing of AAA games ten times the budget. The game is everything I had hoped for and then some. In the future whenever I'm thinking back to my 2022 gaming year, Stray is going to stand out as one of the year's highest quality games. Even if you're not a cat person, fur-real talk, you should seriously consider picking up this delightful gem.

Final Score: 9/10 - Amazing

Stray details

Platform: PS5, PS4, PC
Developer: BlueTwelve Studio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Genre: Adventure
Modes: Single-player
ESRB Rating: E10+ (Everyone 10+)

A key was provided by the publisher.