The cat is finally out of the bag. Stray, one of the most hotly anticipated indie games of the past few years, has been released for PC, PS4, and PS5. The initial trailer, featuring an adorable feline protagonist, was teased by developer Bluetwelve Studios in 2020, capturing the hearts and the interest of the Internet at large. Since then, we’ve seen increasing hype for what’s been billed as the one-and-only “cat adventure game”. Now, that’s not entirely true — this is, in fact, the second game I’ve reviewed this year wherein one plays as a cat — but it’s certainly the most recent and the most polished of the subgenre. I’ve been eager to dig my claws (sorry, obligatory cat pun) into this one since I saw that first trailer, hoping it would hold its own against the hype that’s built up over the past two years.
And here’s the good news: Stray lives up to every bit of that hype. Yes, it’s true — the cyberpunk cat simulator is a knock-it-out-of-the-park fantastic game. Everything from the story to the mechanics to the level design comes together to create an experience that’s immersive, engaging, and as heart-wrenching as it is adorable. (And it really is adorable.)
The concept of the game is simple. You are a cat. More specifically, you are a nameless stray cat in the distant future who, Alice in Wonderland-style, falls from the leafy green paradise that your cat family inhabits into the dark, forgotten city that exists beneath you. There, you’ll meet the dystopian city’s inhabitants, androids with CRT televisions for heads who are far more human than they might initially appear. The real humans, however, have vanished. It’s up to you to untangle the mystery of what happened within the city and, by extension, how to escape it. You’re joined early on by the disembodied AI B-12, who implants themself into a drone that can follow you around and translate the strange language of the robots into whatever language a cat can apparently comprehend. Through careful environmental exploration and by hunting down B-12’s lost memories scattered along trigger points throughout the game, you can learn a great deal about the city, its inhabitants, and its history.
The first thing you’ll be introduced to, though, is Stray’s basic mechanics. Making a cat platformer (cat-former?) is such a genius idea that I’m shocked that no one has thought of it before, and that potential is used to great effect by this game. Appropriately, most of the movement in Stray is just as vertical as it is lateral, with normally-mundane set dressings like pipes and AC units suddenly becoming platforms to help you reach higher areas. Floaty jumps, agile paws, and a small, flexible frame allow you to reach areas that would be hidden to any human-sized creature - as the cat, you can crawl through vents or leap up to rooftops in a way that feels just as intuitive as climbing a flight of stairs.
But although Stray certainly looks and often feels like a platformer, those looking for a classic platforming experience may not be satisfied with the game’s mechanics. The game doesn’t allow you to jump anywhere you please — you can only do so when you’re given an on-screen prompt. The result is a pseudo-platformer that’s really more of a point-and-click adventure game in many spots. But that’s okay. The limited platforming works as a mechanic, a necessary restraint that improves the overall gameplay experience by eliminating the possibility of player error — that is to say, you can’t accidentally miss a jump. And cats rarely leap wildly from one surface to the next; just as in real life, each jump you make has to be carefully calculated. There are flaws to this system, namely the fact that certain areas are rendered inaccessible simply because the developers didn’t put in the platforming prompts required to get there, but it’s satisfactory overall. There are puzzles along the way, too, which are usually straightforward in their solutions. I might have preferred more complex puzzle content, but that aspect ended up being a rather minor part of the game.
More importantly, the game just feels good to play. Once you’ve mastered the controls, which is a fairly easy task, your feline avatar’s movement is fluid, agile, and graceful — even when you’re knocking coffee cups off tables and interrupting mahjong games. I found great fun in just racing wildly around city streets, weaving between android legs and chaining gravity-defying jumps to get to the highest rooftops I could find. If it really feels this exhilaratingly good to be a cat, us humans are seriously missing out.
What’s more, Stray has some of the best and smartest level design that I’ve ever experienced, in terms of both the platforming and exploration elements. Each subsection of the game is visually distinctive, with certain mechanics unique to each area. Still, I never felt lost, confused, or disoriented. The game consistently nudges you in the right direction, but is never obtrusive or immersion-breaking; you’re guided by the environment itself in a way that feels wholly organic. Do I wish that certain areas had maps to reference, for my own convenience? Sure. Did I get along just fine even in crowded cityscapes without a map to guide me? I absolutely did, and that’s a testament to the stellar, textbook-worthy level design present in Stray.
The environments, too, are some of the best I’ve seen in a game. They’re richly detailed and lovingly rendered, with nearly infinite corners to explore, secrets to discover, and cozy spots to take naps in. The 80s-inspired retro-futuristic landscapes are dense and fascinating, with hidden secrets around every corner. Take advantage of the button that allows you to zoom in on items and details; it’s worth investigating every pixel. The game’s studio purports that Stray is only about 8 hours long, but if you’re a completionist like me, the game will take closer to 10-12 hours to complete. Taking it slow is time well spent, though. The world of Stray is so charming and detailed that it’s hard to resist the urge to explore every inch — especially when such exploration is often richly rewarded. Curiosity certainly doesn’t kill this cat.
And yes, playing as a cat is fun. It’s really fun, actually. There are myriad ways that your new feline friend can interact with the robots inhabiting the city, all of which veer between the hilarious (the aforementioned Mahjong game, getting a paper bag stuck on your head) and the heartwarming (curling up on a snoozing droid’s chest, who responds by cooing in wonder as you purr) in equal measure. There are couches to scratch up, puddles to drink from, legs to affectionately wind around. There is also a meow button, which is a button that you can press in order to meow. I amused myself both in-game and out-of-game with that one, as my own real cat, Charlie, was hilariously confused about where those other cat noises were coming from. (Don’t worry, I didn’t torture him with that for too long.) But that’s a big part of the pleasure of taking Stray slowly; you get to take some time off being an adventure-game protagonist and just be a cat. The weight of the world might be on your tiny, fragile shoulders, but there’s always enough time to take a nap.
Naturally, the cat is endearing, simply by virtue of being a cat. But the robotic characters that make up the main cast are also indubitably charming, in all of their quirks, idiosyncrasies, and emotional depths. It turns out that a game about cats and robots has a surprising amount to say about being human, and that’s reflected in both the characters and the plot. There are three levels of narrative happening within Stray — that of the cat, who simply wants to return to the surface and reunite with his family; that of the Outsiders, a band of robots dedicated to freeing their people from the oppressive underground city; and that of B-12, the sentient drone with unlockable memories that gradually unravel the fundamental mystery of Stray’s world.
It’s easy to get swept up into the tale of the Outsiders and their dream of escaping the city, especially when the Outsiders themselves are so likable; Doc and Clementine in particular are standout cast members. I don’t want to go into great detail about the plot itself, since it is absolutely best experienced if one goes in as blind as possible. But it should suffice to say that the story hit all the right emotional beats to make me tear up at the game’s end, even as I was smiling. And the history that’s uncovered through exploration and recovery of B-12’s memories is nothing short of mind-blowing. It might take a few days to wrap your head around the entirety of Stray’s narrative, but it’s a story that’s bound to stick with you. And a second playthrough, wherein you can pick up on all the clues and foreshadowing, makes the story even better.
There are a plethora of influences reflected in Stray, from Final Fantasy VII’s futuristic city setting to Breath of the Wild’s memory-hunting mechanic. Half-Life 2 is also clearly a major inspiration, enough so that it gets a direct shout-out in the game itself (as do many other pop-cultural fixtures). And, of course, the sci-fi, neon-splashed aesthetic is clearly an homage to every piece of cyberpunk media produced since Blade Runner. However, none of these media predecessors really encapsulate what playing this game is like. In fact, were I to compare it to anything, I’d say Stray feels like playing through a classic Pixar movie. The game balances whimsy, tragedy, intrigue, cuteness, and life-affirming hope to create a story that feels both timely and timeless.
Stray is a game about a cat. But it is also a game about a lot of other things, like capitalism and grief and what it means to be truly alive. I don’t want to spoil the ending or any of the game’s secrets, so I won’t say more than that. What I will say is that in this time of pandemics, unrest, and harrowing uncertainty, Stray is a balm for the lost, helpless animal inside us all — and shows us that we won’t feel so lost and helpless with a friend or two by our side. The meow button is just an adorable plus.
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