I’ve had my eyes on Stray since it was announced in 2020, hooked by the concept of stepping into the paws of an adorable backpack-wearing cat. It came as a welcome surprise that, despite Sony’s decision to avoid adding day one releases to their newly revamped PS Plus, Stray joined the catalogue for Extra and Premium subscribers to download at no additional cost.
Stray opens with our cat protagonist and its family going about their daily lives and doing whatever it is cats do. This section of the game acts as a brief tutorial, introducing us to some of the game’s most basic mechanics as we run, jump and meow our way across pipes and platforms. We even get to nuzzle and roll around with our cat siblings.
As adorable as all that is, it wouldn’t make for much of a game, so naturally, Stray quickly takes a heart-breaking turn. A misjudged jump separates our protagonist from its family, sending them tumbling down into the dark depths of an underground dystopian city inspired by the Kowloon Walled City.
This city, devoid of human life, has become home to robotic servants known as Companions. In the absence of their human counterparts, these Companions have grown self-aware and built their own communities beneath the surface. At first, they are rather cautious of our furry protagonist, but they’re generally harmless.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the Companions who populate Stray’s stunningly detailed cyberpunk city – it is also home to dangerous mutant creatures known as Zurks who, if given the chance, will swarm and devour our protagonist without remorse.
After our first encounter with the Zurks, we meet an amnesiac flying drone called B-12, who promises to aid our protagonist in their quest to return to the surface. B-12 quickly proves itself to be a useful ally, able to translate the language of the Companions, store items and more. These skills will prove instrumental as the pair attempt to make their way to the surface.
Along the way, we have the chance to interact with the majority of the Companions we come across. Some give the same generic responses, but others have their own unique personalities – the nerdy tech guy and knitting grandmother are just two examples. There’s even a small group of freedom fighters called The Outsiders who share our goal of reaching the surface.
B-12 will rediscover lost memories that add a little more insight into the overarching storyline. Some of these memories are unmissable, unlocked through progressing through the story, whilst others can be missed. It’s not essential to collect the other memories, but they are great for worldbuilding as they help us understand more about B-12 and how the underground city came to be.
Stray’s primary selling point is the ability to play as a cat, so going into it, the main thing I was concerned with was the gameplay mechanics. I wanted to truly feel as though I was controlling a cat, and the developers have done an extremely good job at providing us with just such an experience. From the way our protagonist moves and jumps to the occasional little stumble as it misjudges a jump, it genuinely felt like I was playing as a cat. There was also plenty of cat mischief to get up to as well.
From scratching doors and carpets to tripping up robots and even knocking over objects, there’s plenty of fun to be had. You can do some of these things for a specific purpose, like attracting the attention of resident robots, for example, but other things you can do simply because you can. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel powerful.
Platforming and puzzle-solving make up the majority of Stray’s gameplay. Our protagonist can reach heights that a human character could only dream about with near effortless fluidity. The rest of the gameplay revolves around avoiding Zurks and security drones – both of which can kill you. It’s a little disheartening to have to be running away all the time, but our furry protagonist has the chance to get even at one point in the game.
With an average completion time of 5-6 hours, Stray is short but sweet. Any less and it would have felt like a missed opportunity. Any more and I’d have probably grown tired of the cat gimmicks that Stray employs so heavily. There are only so many times I can draw amusement from tripping robots over, after all.
For a game that mostly takes place in the slums of an underground neon city, Stray is absolutely stunning. It boasts an atmospheric flair that makes the world a joy to explore. I just wish it was more open. Aside from areas inhabited by the Companions, most sections were pretty linear to cater to the swarms of Zurks you’ll spend a fair bit of time running from. It makes sense from a gameplay standpoint, but I’d have loved to explore a little more.
I’m sure if I spent some time to really think about it, I’d be able to pick up on mounds of symbolism that may or may not be there, but this isn’t a college essay. As such, I’m content to enjoy Stray for what it is – a fun game with a heartwarming story about a cat trying to find its way home.
Developer: BlueTwelve Studio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Microsoft Windows
Release Date: 19th July 2022