Has a game ever had a better selling point than “you play as a cat”? But Stray doesn’t just let you take control of a character who?looks?like a cat?— it authentically replicates the dexterity and adorableness of one, too. As you?nimbly explore its cyberpunk city from his unique point-of-view, you’ll meow, you’ll lovingly cuddle up against NPCs, and you’ll occasionally get your head stuck in a paper bag. It’s all very cute — that is until the alien headcrabs latch onto your furry skull and suffocate you to death.
Stray contrasts its adorable hero with a world that has a disturbing edge. After falling into an underground neon-lit cybercity populated by sentient robots, your quest is to return the cat back to his family on “the outside,”?formerly inhabited by extinct humans and now an overgrown wasteland. The aforementioned headcrabs?— sorry, ‘Zurks’?— surround the city, as do the mysterious Sentinels, both of which prevent the robots from exploring further. They’re trapped in the world, and now you are, too.
Returning to your family requires you to make use of your abilities as a cat, leaping between buildings, crawling into tight spaces, and sneaking by enemies or suspicious citizens. Developer BlueTwelve Studio replicates a cat’s deliberate actions by not letting you freely jump?— instead, you’ll be able to reach a ledge when a button prompt appears above it. This might not sound great on paper, but it makes movement feel more considered and, by extension, more cat-like. When you’re closed into a tight corridor that button prompt can have you jumping places you don’t want to, but for the most part, it works as a method of placing you in the cat’s furry paws.
For the bigger tasks that would typically require the use of thumbs, you have B-12, a friendly floating droid who accompanies you on your adventure. B-12 proves useful in not only explaining what the hell is going on?— the robots communicate in their own language?— but also in helping out with things the cat can’t do. He’ll pick up items for you, equip a weapon to use against the Zurks, and generally provide a bit of color commentary as you navigate the world. B-12’s relationship with the cat is sweet, as both work together in their own unique way to solve puzzles and learn more of the strange world they’re thrust into.
Puzzles mostly revolve around doing something for a robot civilian in order for them to give you something you need, whether that’s an item or information. These requests can be occasionally obtuse, as they usually require you to go around and talk to many NPCs who may be able to help you out. Often, they can be resolved by using common sense?— if you’re asked to find certain items of clothing, then go to the clothes shops and see if you can get them there?— but sometimes it can be a guessing game as to how to progress. One such example involving a music tape had me scouring the city for the answer, only for it to be in a place I’d have never guessed.
Cat got your tongue?
Though its puzzles are on the rudimentary side, they do encourage exploration of your surroundings?— and this is where Stray is at its best. Its cybercity is dank and grungy, with impressive moody lighting and a combination of decaying greenery and futuristic tech. Replacing humans with sentient robots was a masterstroke, with them not having seen a cat before and therefore treating him like a friendly alien beamed into their world. They’re unintelligible, so panels on their face reflect their emotions, so when you curl up on one’s chest to join in on their nap, love hearts will appear signifying their affection for you.
If bounding between rooftops and snuggling up with robots isn’t cat-like enough for you, then BlueTwelve has added a dedicated meow button and the ability to scratch up carpets and the arms of chairs, should you feel inclined to do so. These are occasionally used for puzzles, but they’re mostly used to simply make you feel more like a cat.?It works.
But it’s not all cute. That Stray begins with the cat falling into the city, being knocked unconscious before limping back to life is a signal of intent. Confrontations with the Zurks and the Sentinels may be infrequent, but when they do happen, the cat can most certainly die — not a gory death, but a death nonetheless. This, coupled with a story about a parasitic infestation wiping out humankind, means that despite its cuddly hero Stray isn’t exactly for the kids.
While it’s good while it lasts, it is all over a little?too quickly. With a story that can be completed in just under five hours?— excluding the extra completionist stuff like collectibles?— there are more than a few stones left unturned when it comes to its intriguing world. Though I’m an advocate for games that cut out unnecessary padding, the finale continued to raise questions that I would have liked to explore.
Stray Review: The final verdict
When you consider a game that lets you play as a cat, chances are you wouldn’t imagine that game then taking place in a cyberpunk city overrun with headcrabs where humanity has been eradicated and replaced with friendly robots. BlueTwelve has provided a gorgeous and unique setting to match its unique protagonist, and although its action and puzzle-solving may be too simple for some tastes, it excels where it matters?— and what matters is making you?feel?like a cat.