Stray Review – Cat’s Out of the Bag

    Title: Stray
    Developer: BlueTwelve Studio
    Release Date: July 17, 2022
    Reviewed On: PS5
    Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
    Genre: Adventure, Sci-Fi

I think it’s safe to say that there have been few indie titles as heavily anticipated this generation as Annapurna Interactive and BlueTwelve Studio’s Stray. After being announced at a PlayStation 5 reveal presentation, precious few details were made public, leaving the community foaming at the mouth for the Cyberpunk-y game where you got to play as a cat. And even now, having finished the game, I have a feeling that Stray isn’t going to quite be what a lot of people expected, so I’m going to start this review with a clear explanation of what this title is and is not.

Stray is a third-person adventure game with exploration elements, where you play as an ownerless cat. Separated from their friends, the cat must traverse a vast city with the help of a talking drone to find its way back to The Outside. It is mostly a linear title with two areas being more open to exploration and side content, similar to the structure of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, but significantly more brief. Full completion, including the speedrun trophy, will likely take less than twelve hours.

the stray cat and robot meet for the first time

Players should not go in expecting a large open world, a focus on combat, or an experience that will take more than a single weekend to finish, even if they’re going for a platinum trophy. But I’m glad to say that Stray makes the absolute most of its brevity. Each change in gameplay style lasts long enough for the player to get accustomed to, but not enough to get sick of — an excellent decision given the simplicity of the game overall.

The stars of the show are, of course, the cat character and their robot companion, through whom the player is able to interact with the world on a level the cat can’t accomplish on its own. Through the limited interaction between them, Stray‘s story evolves from a tale of a single cat trying to escape from a city into a poignant story about what humanity may leave behind after it is gone.

Nearly all organic life has been erased from the city, save for plants engineered to survive with no light, the cat, and the menacing and mysterious Zurks. These are encountered early on and are the main threat for most of the game, chasing the cat relentlessly in areas where they are present until you acquire a means of fighting back.

Stray SS1

The residents of the city now are a race of robots called Companions, which have gained self-awareness and sentience in the centuries since humanity died out, but who find themselves trapped in similarly destructive social hierarchies and power structures as their creators. The player will first meet them in the Slums, a run-down and decaying part of town from which they are faced with the Zurk from one exit, and an elevator to the higher parts of the city that hasn’t worked in hundreds of years on the other.

From here, Stray tells a narrative that manages to be fantastically human despite the noted lack of actual humans present. Even though we’re all gone, the way we left things for the machines we left behind has created a society that hasn’t changed in all the intervening centuries. Not only did we leave the Companions, but we left them our baggage and garbage to deal with.

As for the cat itself, while Stray gets a few things notably wrong (as soon as the game starts up, you see cats meowing at each other with no humans around, which they wouldn’t do – cats only meow for humans), overall the journey of this unnamed feline is immersive and refreshing. While a game like It Takes Two shrinks down its characters but presents them with a world tailored to make sure they’ll be able to traverse it, Stray‘s adventure provides the player with a more immersive adventure from ankle-height.

Stray SS2

Maneuvering around the world is easy and fun, and I found adapting to the small size of the controlled character to be fairly simple and led to some entertaining moments. Fences that might present problems for normal-sized folk are no problem at all for a cat who can just walk between the bars. Crawl spaces that might just be set dressing in other titles can be climbed into and explored. Air conditioning units, trash cans, and vehicles all are completely useless to a cat, except as stepping stools to higher locations.

And the game does encourage you to indulge in cat behavior to an extent – there are achievements for knocking things off of tables, rubbing up against people’s legs, and marking your territory all over the city. Ample opportunity will be given to track spilled paint onto floors and furniture, sleep for hours in the middle of otherwise important tasks, and even trip robots by getting underfoot.

It all feels a bit like a glitzed-up Untitled Goose Game, so any player who enjoyed that title will find themselves having a blast here, and getting a full narrative to boot.

The only real stumbling blocks I found in my day with the game were some underpolished animations (the death one is particularly egregious, as the cat simply keels over but makes no other reaction to taking damage), and a finale that feels a bit undercooked. While the final moments of the game are genuinely touching, the jump from the final level to the ending feels abrupt, like the escalation hadn’t quite reached an apex before the conclusion happens.

Stray SS3

It’s safe to say that Stray wasn’t what I was expecting it to be, but that’s why I try to go into any game with as little advance knowledge as possible. Keeping an open mind to let this title be what it is and draw me into its world left me with a range of emotions by the end. I don’t know that I was expecting a game about a cat to make me cry for the reasons it happened, but I’m certainly not complaining. Anybody with an interest in cats, dystopian fiction, or questions about what makes something truly human, will feel right at home here.

Review copy purchased by outlet or reviewer

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