By Leah McDonald / July 28th, 2022
|Release Date||July 19th, 2022|
|Genre||Action-adventure, Platformer, Puzzle|
|Platform||Steam, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5|
Stray is one of those games I’ve wanted since I saw the very first reveal at the PlayStation Future of Gaming event in 2020. You can play as a cat? And explore a cyberpunk city full of robots? Sign me up! But how did the actual game play out against my expectations? Was it all it was cracked up to be, or did the cat catch my tongue?
First, the premise. You play as an unnamed stray (I named mine Gingersnaps) living with its colony inside the walls of a giant city. While spending the day out doing cat things, you’re unceremoniously flung down a sloped wall and into the trash-strewn city below. As you recover from your fall, a door suddenly opens, and an assortment of cryptic computer screen messages and environmental signs lead you through a Dead City filled with cute, but deadly, creatures to an old abandoned flat, where you awaken B-12, the entity in the computer that was leading you. He gives you a backpack, which you respond to as any cat would, and eventually the two of you make your way to the Slums. It’s inhabited entirely by sentient robots, and it’s here you really begin your journey not only to escape this giant city to return to your family, but also uncover exactly what happened to everyone else inside the walls.
As far as stories go, Stray has an inventive hook – explore this cyberpunk dystopia as a cat. You can do cat things like scratch surfaces, meow on command, climb almost anything, knock stuff off shelves, and sleep. B-12 acts as your translator and guide, but you’re always just a cat swept up in events beyond your understanding. It’s a neat concept that works really well for a puzzle-platformer. Not only is the level design built entirely around your smaller frame and athleticism, but the puzzles play into a cat’s penchant for causing mischief. An early example is the requirement to knock an item off a ledge. The narrative, as well, is well told and uses the environment to its advantage for a lot of diegetic storytelling. It reminds me a lot of Journey and The Last Guardian, and that isn’t a bad thing.
Visually, the city is gorgeous. The Dead City is cold and empty, with little lighting and a dark, grey palette. It’s the first place you encounter the Zurks, which are fat, quadrupedal, one-eyed squeakers that can, and will, eat you if they catch you. They are terrifying. Once you reach the Slums, you’re inundated with a much more vibrant, dirty, lived-in community awash in oranges and blues, filled with an assortment of shops and flats, many of which are uninhabited but still reek of personality. The Rooftops are a nightmare hellscape bathed in reds that could give most horror games a run for their money. It’s just a varied, beautiful world with distinct color palettes and level designs that absolutely popped on the PlayStation 5. The Slums especially looked amazing, and the verticality of the area lent itself well to the stray’s ability to climb, slink, and squeeze into an assortment of places.
You’ll encounter a handful of characters throughout your journey, but your constant companion is B-12, the little drone you saved in the Dead City. He will translate text and robot speech for you, as well as act as a flashlight. In an otherwise immersive world, he’s definitely there as a gameplay feature first and foremost, though he’s integral to the story as well. He’s adorable from a character perspective, but I also really liked his sound design. All of the robots have really interesting sounds, and it was one of my favorite aspects of the game. The music, as well, was really really good. Most of the tracks aren’t what I’d go to for easy listening outside the game, but they are incredibly well-placed inside it and help the world of Stray feel alive. There’s a synthetic, slightly off-tune aspect to a lot of the diegetic songs, and the moody, ambient pieces help immerse you in the moment. The music reminded me a lot of Echo the Dolphin actually, and for me that’s high praise.
That isn’t to say Stray is perfect. Button prompts are finicky and imprecise, especially when climbing vertically. Sometimes the prompt would show up, but greyed out for me when trying to talk to NPCs, and I’d have to dance around them to find the exact spot to stand to interact with them. The camera would often get in the way while climbing, or B-12 would literally fly out of frame while talking, and I’d need to swing the camera around just to read the dialogue. During my playthrough, I encountered two consistent bugs – there’s a bucket in the Slums that if you hit it, it will get stuck in the floor and the sound of it rolling around will echo through the alleyways until you reload or go into a cutscene. There’s another one where a bunch of Zurks get stuck in a wall. Neither of these are game-breaking, but the bucket one is particularly annoying. And while I didn’t personally experience them, there have been numerous reports of actual game-breaking bugs, including NPCs who stop interacting with your cat or the environment, areas where your cat can stray out-of-bounds and soft-lock the game, platforming sequences where your cat gets stuck on an item and can’t move, etc. Usually, I wouldn’t let bugs I don’t personally experience color my judgment of a game, but with how numerous the complaints are and with how short the game is (I finished it in roughly seven hours), it wouldn’t feel right to not at least mention them.
Even with these issues, though, Stray is undoubtedly one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year. The freedom of exploration offered by the novel protagonist, the dense world-building, and the atmospheric sound design all coalesced to provide an emotionally-moving and poignant game that I still can’t stop thinking about. I have a couple trophies left to get, but even if I didn’t, I’d still boot up the game just to walk around the city, drink in the sights and sounds, and find a comfortable place to catnap so I could listen to the stray purr contentedly. Despite its short length and some technical issues, Stray is definitely going into my list of impactful games and I’m really happy I had the chance to play it.
Reviewer obtained game through PlayStation Plus subscription service.
Action AdventureAction PuzzleanimalsAnnapurna InteractiveBlueTwelve StudioCyberpunkExplorationGame ReviewReviewsStray