Platforms: PC, PS4, PS5 (reviewed)
Release date: July 19, 2022
Stray is very upfront about its unique selling point: you get to play as a cat.
This USP earned the PlayStation console exclusive significant pre-release interest as social media delighted in the idea of stepping into the paws of an adorable stray cat on a mission to find its way home.
Considering video games allow players to experience grand science-fiction adventures on distant planets or create their own fantasy hero destined to save entire realms, it’s perhaps somewhat surprising that the concept of merely playing as a pussycat seems to have such broad appeal. But then again people really like cats.
Developer BlueTwelve Studio clearly has a great affinity for felines as well. And in large part, Stray feels like a loving tribute to the affectionate-but-independent pets that many of us share our home with. But don’t mistakenly believe that Stray is a game built solely around a single gimmick: there’s more to Stray than pawing at scratching posts and lapping up saucers of milk.
Stray offers the chance to explore a remarkably detailed world and roaming around on four paws grants a unique perspective that only adds to the delight that comes from unraveling the world’s many secrets. It’s a shame the game doesn’t challenge the player a little more, and it’s all over far too soon. But Stray is a unique experience that is worthy of attention, even from those who aren’t quite so crazy about cats. Read on for our full Stray review.
Stray review: Story
Stray’s opening moments are wonderfully serene. The game begins with its feline protagonist awaking from a peaceful slumber and after a few playful moments where you’ll get to grips with what it’s like to control a cat, you venture off to explore the ruins of an abandoned facility alongside your furry friends.
While jumping across steel beams and running along moss-covered pipes your kitty falls down a deep hole and awakes in a mysterious underground city. There are no people in this strange place, just humanoid robots going about their daily lives and wandering the neon-lit streets of an eerie, but also oddly inviting, cyberpunk world.
Your quest is a simple one: find your way back to the surface. You don’t have to undertake this mission alone either. You receive help from several friendly robots, but most crucially you have a small drone companion named B-12 strapped to your back. This little guy is useful both in terms of game action and for dolling out surprisingly intriguing snippets of lore.
Narrative cutscenes are rare, but Stray does still have a main story. However, it’s a pretty barebones tale that doesn’t really develop beyond its initial premise of trying to find a way back to the surface. Nevertheless, it gives you enough motivation to keep pushing forward, and the end is surprisingly poignant, bringing the game to an overall satisfying, if pretty predictable, conclusion.
While Stray’s story predominantly takes a backseat — after all, you’re a cat that can’t actually communicate with anyone — there is still plenty of optional lore to unearth. Venture off the beaten path and you’ll find collectible memories that flesh out the somber history of the expansive city. While in other games these sorts of pickups can feel like busywork, in Stray they are well worth seeking out as they add welcome color to the world.
Stray review: Gameplay
It’s important to note in Stray the hero is just a standard everyday cat. It’s not a cat that’s been imbued with unique powers, or can be upgraded with various cybernetic enhancements, or evolved into some sort of biomutant. It’s a regular household ginger cat and plays like one.
You’re frequently given the opportunity to do regular cat activities from scratching sofas and rugs, to drinking from puddles and sleeping on anything that looks even vaguely comfortable (there’s actually a Trophy for napping for a whole real-world hour). And a dedicated meow button allows you to audibly express yourself whenever you feel like it.
You’ll likely spend your first thirty or so minutes with Stray enamored with scratching everything in sight and hammering the meow button until you’ve heard each audio clip multiple times. However, doing the various things that cats often do does get old pretty fast and after the first couple of chapters these opportunities to express your inner cat-ness feel more like distractions than meaningful game mechanics. You may find yourself leaving surfaces unscratched quicker than you might expect.
Thankfully there is more to Stray than just interacting with the world as a cat would. Although the game does keep things a little too simple throughout. Platforming is a big part of how your traverse the city. But jumping is always contextual and a single button press automatically guides you from one place to another. This makes it impossible to fail any platforming sequence as there’s no way to mistime your jumps. Stray can also feel quite restricted during some platforming sections as the route your cat must follow is too heavily guided.
Things are mixed up further with chase sequences where you must evade small fleshy creatures, and stealth segments where drones shooting deadly electric bolts try to hunt you down. Neither the chase or stealth elements are especially complicated, but both add some much-needed variety — not to mention ramp up the stakes in the final chapters.
However, the biggest moments of joy in Stray come from exploring the intricately-detailed city. Touring such a stunning location from the perspective of a cat never gets old, and there’s plenty of incentive to search every nook and cranny because of the game’s meaningful collectibles.
Two chapters in particular stand out because they allow you properly off the virtual leash. These sections set you loose in a small open area and require you to complete multiple objectives to progress further. Neither segment is especially head scratching — what you need to do next is always clearly signposted — but they’re hugely rewarding all the same and prioritize exploration, which is the game’s biggest strength.
Stray’s most unfortunate fault is there isn’t nearly enough of it. I rolled credits in around five hours, with a few collectibles still to find, but even a thorough playthrough is unlikely to clock in at longer than eight hours. There’s arguably merit to leaving players wanting more, but Stray wraps up before you’re ready to say goodbye to your feline friend.
Stray review: Visuals and sound
Stray looks fantastic on PS5. From the highly-detailed environments to the fluid, almost unnervingly lifelike, animations of the playable cat, watching Stray in action is a constant pleasure.
Creating a convincing playable cat was clearly BlueTwelve Studios’ top priority, and in this area the team has done a phenomenal job. Cat lovers are going to immediately fall in love with this digital feline and the way it scampers across rooftops and nuzzles up against robots is always adorable.
Yet the visual star of the show isn’t the cat, but the cyberpunk city you venture through. Each inch of the game’s world feels handcrafted, and the contrast between futuristic neon and overgrown nature is striking. Stray is the type of game that is absolutely begging for a photo mode, making the lack of one at launch feel like a real missed opportunity.
The game also sounds great with its mostly lowkey soundtrack fitting the overall relaxed vibe. There's also a robot you can meet early on in the game with a metal guitar who can play sheet music you find in the world. Listening to these tunes offers a great excuse to put down the controller and just zone out for a minute.
Stray is also pleasingly polished. Across my first playthrough, I only endured a small handful of bugs and no major glitches or hard crashes. I did encounter a few times where the cat would get stuck on objects, but a quick checkpoint restart fixed these. Thankfully, Stray is generous with autosaves so no major progression was ever lost.
Stray review: Verdict
The biggest criticism of Stray I can muster is its short length, which is a real testament to its overall quality. The game action is a little too simplistic. But the thrill of exploring such a well-realized world more than makes up for this — not to mention the stunning visuals help as well.
It should also be noted that Stray is available as part of Sony’s revamped PlayStation Plus service. It’s currently being offered at no extra cost to subscribers at the Extra or Premium level; its inclusion is a very compelling perk for early adopters. And for those on the fence, Stray easily justifies upgrading your subscription if you’re at the base Essential level.
Stray is a consistently high-quality adventure that will appeal to more than just feline fanatics. You may come for the chance to step into the paws of a cute cat, but Stray will ultimately keep you hooked because of its rewarding exploration and gorgeously detailed environments.
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