Platforms: PC, PS5, PS4
Developer: BlueTwelve Studio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Stray is smartly designed for the internet dwelling gamer audience, placing a very cute cat as the character in this sci-fi cyberpunk dystopia setting. It's dense neon lit world and furry lead character pair well and are ready-made for you to take screenshots of and share. As such, it's one of the most successful indie games of the year. But is there a worthwhile game underneath this cutesy, fluffy, whiskery face? Well short answer is yes! But probably not something that everyone will enjoy.
This is an adventure game with light platforming elements and some puzzle solving. You control a cat who is separated from its buddies and plonked into a dank neon-lit walled city that's inspired by the real-life Kowloon Walled City that once existed. This cat is paired with a small amnesiac robot who, somehow, can communicate with the cat and handle technology and talking to other robots who inhabit this walled city.
No doubt the main attraction here is the look and feel of the game. Despite the cute cat protagonist, this is actually quite committed to upholding a cautious atmosphere. With an initial lack of dialogue or exposition, the mood of the game is surprisingly ominous. Making good use of ambience and a patient electronic soundtrack. This is where the game excels most, when you're left to explore this rich world the developers have cooked up. Its cat lead character is hardly a gimmick either, as the walled city is a perfect playground for a cat to navigate.
Generally the game looks really great, packing in a lot of detail to make the world of Stray seem fully lived in and fleshed out. This neon-lit walled city is made for the little cat protagonist to make the most of, little areas have so much attention to detail and end up visual treats that you can soak in the atmosphere through. Streets are littered with items and densely filled with signage. While the forever dark walled city does feel bleak, it's not quite a pessimistic vision of the future like the similarly densely populated, neon-lit world of the Blade Runner films for example. Its robotic inhabitants seem to be making the most of the city and the lived-in feel is very apparent.
Primarily Stray can be boiled to to the 'adventure' genre. Cynically it could be labelled under the 'walking simulator' genre, as gameplay is pretty light. The obvious direction to take a cat game would be platforming, but all the climbing and jumping here is simple and mostly automated. You click a button and the cat will always perform a perfect jump to the chosen area, you won't ever miss a jump (except in scripted instances where your cat might slip a bit).
There's a few chase sequences and puzzle segments where you're faced with Half-Life inspired headcrab type enemies. There's some gameplay growth where you're initially left with no option but to evade the enemies, but later get an item to attach to your little drone buddy which can vanquish them. As the game proceeds though it drops these enemies in favour of invulnerable machines which are avoided via stealth sequences. These sequences will be largely familiar to most people who have played more than a few video games, it's simple stuff where you hide and wait for the right moments to avoid run through their field of view.
Controlling the cat feels pretty good and captures the nimble movements well through detailed animation. Though the game feels very automated to make the most of these animations as jumping is a simple case of looking in the direction you want to go and pushing a button and the game will take care of things for you. Balancing on narrow platforms is also totally automated, which makes a lot of the straightforward 'platforming' esque sequences pretty uninteresting beyond the further exploration of the setting and cat context. It's limiting, but ensure the cat-like feels is constant and that the game stays accessible to everyone given its focus on world-building and aesthetic qualities.
This is where the game sometimes felt like it wasn't making the best use of its strengths for me. Stray is at its best when they limit the dialogue and really place you as a cat in this strange world. This game's opening is such a good hook because of how well it places you into the eyes of a cat, no dialogue and there's a fictional language used for signposting and graffiti. This leaves you to fill in a lot of the blanks the game world leaves you with in your own head. However, pretty quickly you're paired with a little robot buddy that will speak with you and translate the robot inhabitants of the world. I feel like these robot NPC's are expressive enough and live in such a rich world, that we could've gone without showing their dialogue through text boxes. I was reminded of this by the game when a late sequence separates you from the little robot and you're left with an NPC who will communicate without words with you to solve problems.
A lot of the plot is optional and discovered through 'memories' unlocked via contextual parts of the game-world. Though these are explained through text boxes which makes it potentially less interesting and more like prompts for exposition rather than potential visual storytelling. Though the core partnership of a little cat and robot is sweet. While you may ponder the cat's remarkably selfless devotion to the robot, given it is just a cat, it makes sense to focus on the value of companionship for this 'cat' game.
Strongest when it is indulging in such a rich well thought out world and cat-focused exploration. Its gameplay is limited and plot may leave something to be desired as its reliance in textboxes to deliver exposition feels like a shortcut in this context sometimes. But the game looks great and features a particularly strong neon atmosphere to roll up into. It's a lot of fun to explore the world dreamt up by Stray that makes its limitations easy to forgive. At a RRP of £23.99 and length of 4-5 hours (probably expanded to 8 or so hours if you really dig for everything this has to offer) it might be worth waiting for a discount, but it is generally polished enough to be worth a splash even at the full-price.
Rich, live-in world inspired by Kowloon Walled City
Cat protagonist is animated well and feels slick to control
Great electronic soundtrack
Nice neon visuals
What's not so good!
Text box exposition and storytelling
Gameplay is limited and often very simple