video game releases

Review: Stray

BlueTwelve Studio’s Stray has been on my radar since the moment we saw the game’s adorable orange tabby pop-up in a trailer in 2020. I’ve owned and adored cats all throughout my life. To see a game focus on a feline exploring a desolate post-apocalyptic world instantly drew my attention.

Making Stray all the more attractive to play was its poster cat. The main protagonist in the game looked identical to my 14-year-old tabby, Nonsense. I was elated to one day experience Stray with him next to me and relish in playing as this mirror version of my cat. However, Stray has since become one of the hardest games I’ve had to play and review. My gaming companion is sadly no longer with us. Having recently said goodbye to my best friend, I knew playing Stray would be a cathartic experience and perhaps somewhat therapeutic.

BlueTwelve Studio builds an interesting world to navigate and explore as a cat. Ingrained in Stay is a story with some interesting threads and deeper lore. From a base level, there aren’t too many games centred around playing as a furry feline. It is a very limiting experience depending on the game and story you’re trying to tell. In the case of Stray, this core component is used quite nicely. The game is built around these small idiosyncrasies cats have in a very passive way. The way you navigate the world, and interact with objects and characters are all inspired by the tendencies of a cat. While the gameplay kept me invested from start to finish, some core emotional beats and story threads don’t hold up as well as I hit the finish line.

Welcome to the Concrete Jungle

Stray centers on well, a stray cat. In the game’s opening moments the unnamed protagonist is separated from their family and thrust into the deeper layers of a post-apocalyptic city. This new environment is comprised of makeshift buildings and neon lights. In many ways, the environment is similar to Final Fantasy VII’s Sector 5 Slums. Though, rather than humans residing in this city, the last vestige of civilization falls on the shoulders of robots. For over a hundred years, the city has been closed from the outside world due to an invasion of Zurks, small blobs with glowing eyes and an affinity for hunting down living beings. To escape, I had to befriend many of the robots, complete tasks for them and find a way to the top of the city to reach the outside.

Of course, while playing as a four-legged feline, there are limitations. As agile as I am while playing as a cat, I was unable to communicate or even fight against the Zurks. In comes B-12, a drone companion. Early on, I stumbled across B-12 who is happy to join me in my adventure and help communicate with robots and interact with various pieces of technology. Together, this large world in front of me felt more accessible and less cautionary.

There is a level of dependence the two build throughout the game. Our protagonist needs B-12 to advance past locked gates and to converse with the robots. B-12, on the other hand, needs the protagonist to navigate as it is tied to a device the playable cat must wear throughout the journey. Of course, there is added texture given throughout the story. While I was invested in this brewing relationship the two formed. I don’t know if the pacing of the 4-hour story served the somewhat rushed conclusion. Just as we reach an emotional peak, credits roll and I didn’t have enough time to fully digest the conclusion of the game. However, the journey these two characters take kept me invested throughout each act.

Although Stray is a linear experience, there are activities to complete to pad out the game’s runtime. While I adore the digestible 4 hour completion time, I was compelled to complete the game’s many side quests as well. On top of finding miscellaneous objects for the Robots, I could search for collectibles called Memories for B-12. These provide further contextual clues to what happened to humanity and add a bit of lore to the experience.

Cat Scratch Fever

In many ways, Stray is a cat simulator. I mean that in the best way possible too. BlueTwelve Studio ensured that all actions taken felt authentic. As a cat owner, I had a smile on my face seeing the little details included in the game that make our playable character feel real. Much of the game sees players navigate quickly like a nimble cat can. Running, jumping, and leaping from ledges, I sped through sewers, tin roofs, and shelves. All the while, I’m knocking objects over intentionally and by accident. I felt like a bit of a destructive tornado, breaking clay pots and knocking over stacks of books without a care in the world.

Stray also offers opportunities to claw at closed doors, carpets, and corners of leather couches. There isn’t much of a reward to do so, however. Though, truth be told, it’s almost encouraged as this is where the limited use of the PlayStation 5’s DualSense adaptive triggers are used. As I explored, I was also able to drink from bowls and puddles. I also took every chance I had to meow thanks to this action being dedicated to the Circle button. I also nuzzled against a number of robots. Yet, garnered no belly rubs, which was a bit of a disappointment. I could also take a cat nap on comfy pillows and cozy spots throughout Midtown and other areas.

These little moments offered a time to reflect on the relationship I had with my own cat, Nonsense. Stray gave me many chances to think back to so many heartfelt moments. The creative team put in a lot of details to make Stray the authentic feline experience I was hoping it would be. Even the smaller details like breathing looked authentic. Plus, every movement and jump feels fluid and true to life.

Nine Lives

One of my truly favourite aspects of Stray is how much of a passive experience it is. Many of my favourite games feature memorable action sequences and well-put-together combat mechanics. Though, not every game needs that. Stray features hardly any combat or action. The game is built on puzzle solving and discovery. It’s moments when I’m tasked with tracking down notebooks or soda cans for a robot when the game excels the most. Seeing an open window up two stories above me, I looked at the air conditioning units and window sills I could use to parkour my way up. Figuring out a way to steal a construction worker’s hat for a robot’s disguise is another instance where Stray’s foundation shines the most.

Though, there is a section when the game demands B-12 to use a “weapon” against the Zurks in order to progress. Here, I felt as though putting these characters within this level of danger went against the rest of the game. Previously, there were many instances where I had to evade the Zurks from latching onto my body. I felt that serviced the game’s philosophy in tone and gameplay much better than this particular sequence.

Verdict

Stray offers a compelling and interesting world to explore from the unique perspective of a cat. Combining a junky post-apocalyptic world with a stray feline works thematically on many different levels. BlueTwelve Studio crafted a beautiful game that never outstays its welcome. In fact, I do wish we had more time to spend in this world during the final stretch.

Stray gave me a chance to reflect on and look back at the relationship I had with my own orange tabby. I had a tear in my eye during moments of the game and saw my furry friend in the character put before me. Stray is a delightful time made by a team who clearly cares about the relationship one has with their own animal. The game offers so many authentic experiences that pair nicely with traversal and puzzle solving. Thus, Stay should not be overlooked and should be experienced, whether or not you own a cat.

[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]

Reviewed on: PlayStation 5

video game releases
Recommended
Reader Rating2 Votes
95
Puzzles and platforming aspects never grow tiresome
Attention to detail
Great world building
Brief diversion away from passive gameplay
Ending needed a bit more breathing room