Stray review: Kitty caper compels, keeps campaign cursory
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When Annapurna first announced Stray in 2020, it caught everyone’s eye thanks to its simple elevator pitch: In a grimy cyberpunk city inhabited by robots, you play an adorable cat out on an adventure. The essence of the game is identical to that original trailer, and Stray lives up to the potential promised in that initial reveal.
This adorable adventure is one of the more delightful experiences I’ve had with a game in 2022. It also does not wear out its welcome, with my full playthrough coming in at just under seven hours. That’s key to its charm: It will only take up about a day’s worth of playtime, but you’ll enjoy that day.
Cat got your tongue?
The game stars the nameless Cat, a dexterous orange feline in a post-apocalyptic forest world who, through an accident, is separated from its cat family and ends up in a vast underground city populated by robots. Now it must attempt to escape the city, inadvertently sparking a revolution among the city’s grim, unhappy residents.
The Cat wanders through a multiplicity of urban environments, exploring a mostly-ruined city trapped under a dome. The robots who inhabit the city believe a blue sky is a myth, and that “the Outside” is contaminated and dangerous. The Cat disrupts all they know and understand. The Cat covers everywhere from the city’s poor-but-oddly cheerful slums, its bright, neon-lit midtown, and its dark, terrifying underbelly.
It’s assisted in this endeavor by B-12, a tiny drone robot that manages the Cat’s inventory and communications with the robots. They also store the “memories,” or bits of information that explain why the world is in the state it’s in. They even materialize a vest on the Cat’s back into which they fit while they’re not active (my favorite moment of the game is the feral Cat’s uncomfortable contortions upon being forced into said vest).
The story of the game, while not complicated, is told well. Stray doesn’t explicitly spell out why the world is the way it is — likely because the feline hero would not care to know. The characters with whom the Cat interacts sometimes offer in-universe context, but just as often give non sequiturs or information about themselves. The world feels authentic and lived-in, and though the levels are small, they are filled to bursting with detail.
Cat scratch fever
Despite the vast differences in design and art style, the game Stray most reminds me of is Okami. Despite neither the Cat nor Amaterasu (the wolf-deity protagonist of Okami) speaking, somehow both manage to convey a personality and an interior life, and both somehow manage to attract the love and respect of almost all around them.
The main character has both a simple, animal charm to them and also a bit of mystery. The Cat frequently displays exceptionally high intelligence, even for your typical feline. During the opening sequence, it has to follow a series of signs written in English in order to escape a dangerous area. It’s never explained how the Cat is able to read and understand the written word, nor how it knows to follow the signs in order to escape.
Yet, despite the breadth of knowledge in its head, the Cat still behaves like a cat. It rubs itself on the legs of the robot people it meets. It knocks cups and bottles off of shelves upon which it walks. It scratches carpets, sofas, wooden walls … anything remotely soft enough to sink its claws into.
One of Stray’s strong points are these injections of humor and levity, in what is otherwise a rather dark, occasionally scary world. It’s moments like these that the Cat, as an animal who doesn’t react to the world around them as the people, works so well as the protagonist of this world.
Nine lives and counting
Stray’s platformer-style exploration involves the Cat jumping using context-specific commands. In other words, you have no free-jump option, but the Cat can easily scale walls that would flummox an Assassin’s Creed protagonist. Your mileage may vary on whether that’s better than the Cat being able to jump whenever they wish, but I never felt constrained by this form of gameplay.
The game has stealth elements, points where the Cat has to sneak to evade its pursuers. Conversely, you won’t encounter any combat, though you will occasionally have to book it to avoid getting caught. For lack of a better way of describing it, everything you do is cat-like, and that’s a compliment to the developers.
If I have one major complaint about the game, it’s about the areas where the Cat encounters the Zurk, the head-crabby enemies that swarm them en masse. While these areas aren’t bad as gameplay encounters go, they’re nowhere near as enjoyable as the city sections. The graphics are also at their weakest here — the Zurk-infested sections have this bizarre flesh-colored webbing texture that slices through other assets in the environment. It’s so bad that it distracted me, even though I wouldn’t ordinarily care about something like that.
I also encountered just one too many sections where the Cat must flee an oncoming horde of the bugs. These on-rails “racing” sections are also the weakest part of the game, since the Cat cannot both sprint and shake off the Zurk that attach to them, at least not on PC. As soon as a Zurk grabbed them, the Cat stopped sprinting even if I was holding down that button. That slows the pacing of these parts down considerably, and they were the only areas where I consistently died. It feels as though the gameplay is holding me back. This is the one place where I didn’t feel like an actual cat.
Everybody’s picking up on that feline beat
Stray is a wonderful game, and it’s everything you might want from a cat cyberpunk game. I had no idea that was something I wanted, but I’m pleased to have it now. I can’t honestly say everyone will love it — if adventure games aren’t your deal, then even the Cat likely won’t change your mind. And the game has its not-so-great moments.
However, it’s overall a great experience to play. It delights in its subject matter, and what the protagonist lacks in dialogue, they make up for in puckish charm. Yes, the story is short, but it doesn’t waste any of its space or time. It’s a wonderful game to play, especially now before the really massive releases start later this year.
Stray is out now for PC, PlayStation 5, and PlayStation 4. Annapurna Interactive provided us with a PC code for this review.
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