Let me preface this Stray review by stating that my wife and I are the proud owners of eight cats. Or, rather, we serve and exist at the behest of eight cats. As such, it goes without saying that a game that features one such cute furball automatically grabs my attention faster than a feline’s startled jump when you drop something on the floor.
Stray is developed by BlueTwelve Studio, a small team from France, and published by Annapurna Interactive, which has had a decent track record when it comes to promoting indie offerings. And, to be fair, Stray does have a lot of interesting qualities and charm that make it a must-have game for any pet lover. At the same time, there are also a number of issues that you’ll notice as you progress further.
Meows, metals, and mishaps
Stray stars an unnamed orange tabby. Let’s call him “Mews” after the orange tabby that we have at home. The campaign starts with Mews and his siblings exploring the canals near a walled structure. Then, disaster strikes, as our hapless hero falls down a pit. Wounded and lost, it’s up to you to guide him to safety.
From there, Stray introduces you to a curious cast of characters. The most important one is B-12, a flying drone with sentient programming. B-12 becomes a loyal companion, translating languages for you to understand, creating a backpack for your inventory, and giving you hints along the way. You’ll also help the drone regain its wiped memories by finding various fragments.
Soon, you’ll meet other supporting characters, most of whom are humanoid robots. They inhabit the slums of a city fallen to ruin and disrepair. Key individuals include the Outsiders, a small group of intrepid adventurers who want to make it “Outside.” You might even spot a nod to Doc Brown, as well as a dude who’s wearing an outfit akin to Marty McFly’s getup.
While these folks do have their own quirks, a few tend to lack further development, as if bits and pieces of the story are streamlined in favor of exposition. For instance, there’s a meditating guru who’s in charge of a village. He doesn’t really do much outside of one interaction where he tells you where to go. There’s also a part where you rescue a prominent robot, eventually reuniting him with his son. However, there’s no interaction between that robot and his fellow Outsider. Instead, the latter is just waiting for you to head to the next area.
Perhaps the biggest storyline flaw is the lack of a payoff in certain segments, especially one part at the end of the campaign (which I won’t spoil here). Then again, I do have my own “headcanon” based on what I saw from the ending cinematic.
Platforming as a cat and gorgeous landscapes
One of Stray‘s biggest strengths is platforming. True, these actions are as simple as jumping on a ledge or crawling through an air duct. But, you have to remember that you’re Mews. You’re not double-jumping to reach a higher floor, doing a power dive, or using a zipline. Instead, you’re gingerly hopping with your tiny paws, bumping into bottles, nudging an assortment of objects, and riding inside a bucket.
There’s a certain appeal to this concept as, even in third-person view, you still feel that you’re just a tiny creature in a big world. And what a world it is. From abandoned urban landscapes and muck-filled sewers, to neon-lit alleys and jam-packed nightclubs, Stray evokes a distinct feel. It’s a combination of a dystopian future, cyberpunk themes, and post-apocalyptic hell, all seen through the eyes of a cat.
Puzzles and paws
In the areas that you visit in Stray, there are bound to be puzzles. Whether you’re looking for a way up a building or grabbing a key, the concept of playing as a tiny animal still shines. Do you want to help some robot teens break the law? Well, you can hop on the security cameras to cause them to fall. Need to make it to the second floor? You’re going to have to distract a DJ, jump on a platform as he’s raising it, then use the ceiling lights to get there.
The downside is that some of these puzzles tend to be fairly easy to solve. Still, I guess it’s the studio’s way of tailoring the difficulty to what an actual cat with an AI drone could manage.
No claws for combat
Speaking of playing as a little creature, that vulnerability is extended in Stray‘s take on combat dynamics. The first hostiles you spot, mutated bacteria known as Zurks, love to chase our fuzzy feline. You’ll have to mash a button to get them off your back, or they’ll chew through you within seconds. Later, you’ll also encounter Sentinels, hostile drones with sensors that will zap you if you get detected.
There’s a feeling of helplessness since you normally won’t get to fight back, so you need to run or hide to evade your foes. It’s even possible to jump inside boxes to avoid patrols, just like a cat (or Solid Snake). Eventually, though, your drone will be armed with a UV flashlight that can cause Zurks to blow up into goopy puddles, though it has a fairly iffy charge time.
The purr-fect game for an afternoon
One other disappointment I have with Stray is its use of a restrictive autosave system. The campaign is divided into chapters (one for each major area), and some of these tend to have a number of collectibles and sidequests. The conclusion of most chapters is, essentially, a point of no return. If you miss a collectible or forget to do a task, your only recourse is to load and restart that chapter from the beginning. It did get a bit annoying, considering that there’s no way to skip cutscenes even after finishing that chapter or the entire campaign. It’s also a fairly short game — roughly five hours for a normal run, and maybe a bit more if you’re a completionist.
However, despite these misgivings, I still had a wonderful time playing Stray. There were tense sequences that made me worry for Mews and some instances that made me chuckle. One factor I truly applaud, especially as a pet lover, was the unique perspective and concept of playing as a cat. Barring the drone’s actions, the movements, animations, and contextual actions all reminded me of how our cats would behave. You’ll nuzzle, knead, meow, scratch, rub, purr, leap, slip, slide, and break objects for no reason, and you’ll have a fun time doing it.