Review for Stray
“PRESS CIRCLE TO MEOW”. It’s the kind of simple yet joyful little feature that Stray, the third-person (third-cat?) platforming adventure game, loves to throw at the player repeatedly throughout their time in it. But while many will be enthralled with the chance to prance about rooftops, scratch doors, and get up to general feline mischief, don’t be fooled by all the frivolity – this kitten’s got claws. Blending the leafy apocalyptic wasteland settings of The Last of Us series with terrifying parasitic enemies akin to those of the Half-Life universe, Stray also has an intriguing sci-fi story. Sprinkle in the unbridled joy of being a nuisance not seen since the likes of Untitled Goose Game, and you can see why it’s putting the cat amongst the pigeons.
Throughout the game you play as a rather loveable, if naughty ginger kitty on a somewhat unrecognizable version of Earth. The beginning sees you strutting your stuff with your cat besties throughout the overgrown, desolate environment of the Outside wastelands until disaster strikes, and you get separated from your furry friends. Plunged into the depths of the Slums, you discover a group of cautious yet friendly robots. They are terrorized into never straying outside their town boundaries by packs of small, fast-moving, bloodsucking Zurks that roam outside, waiting to pounce like a terrifying version of Half-Life’s head crabs. Along the way, you’ll discover a talking droid, B12, who has lost all memory of its former life and you begin to piece together what happened to humankind and the planet. That’s all while trying to help your new robot companions find a way out of their self-imposed confinement and perhaps reunite with your kitten kind once again.
The controls in Stray are pretty simple. The game suggests you use a gamepad if playing on a PC like I was, and doing so means that the tap of an X on a PlayStation controller will see our purr-fect protagonist jump onto a nearby ledge or over a gap. You can only jump by a context-sensitive object like a bin, rooftop, or barrel, rather than in general, which I initially found a little constrictive. The idea is presumably to stop you leaping to your death every five seconds, which would have our hero’s nine lives wiped out in no time. L2 sees you observe your surroundings, while the triangle button is used to interact with environmental objects. But, alongside being able to interact with things helpful to the game like levers, you can also, being a cat, simply bat lots of things. For example you can push paint tins off rooftops, paw a snooker ball into a hole, and my favorite of all, dig your claws into the side of a sofa, rug or door and give it a good scratch. The developers had great fun coming up with these little prompts, which add nothing to the game’s general purpose and are a nice touch to help you get into the spirit of going full cat mode.
While there’s no sense of danger of dying from Stray's platforming elements, you can die if you’re overcome too quickly by the clingy Zurks. Tapping the circle button will get some of them off your back but wait too long, and our ginger moggie will be in cat heaven. There are quite a few sections where you’ll have to use stealth, distraction techniques, and sheer speed to outrun the creepy critters. Later gameplay also sees you get equipped with a type of light gun that will vaporize the beasts with the tap of L1, but which can’t also be used for too long without overheating. The scenes spent having to outrun the Zurks are tense but never feel too tricky – but if you do die, the game auto-saves frequently at checkpoints along the way, meaning you’re never too far from where you left off.
When not fleeing or fighting Zurks there’s plenty of exploration in Stray. As you progress through the story, you’ll come across several hub areas populated by robot communities. You can meet every robot and, using B12 to translate, hear their conversations with you. There are plenty of bots to get to know - the geeky Elliot, the emotional Momo, and the darling Grandmother who wants the material to knit you a poncho, to name just a few. There’s no voice acting, just bleep and bloop sound effects alongside text dialogue, while our whiskered friend stays mute throughout (save of course, for the meows). I didn’t mind not being able to hear from my friendly robot companions, though, as this felt appropriate for existing in the alien world Earth had become.
Exploring each area will throw up some side quests to complete alongside the main story tasks. Many of them come in the form of collectibles – finding sheet music for an aspiring musician for example, or bits of scrap to trade with a local merchant. Meanwhile, particular objects will also unlock memories for B12 to gather and collect. There’s lots of fun to be had scouring every nook and cranny of these places, especially the huge Slums area, which is breathtaking in size and detail. Stray’s intrepid mouser animations are as smooth as you’d expect for a self-assured ginger tom. Jumping up and down from rooftops, ledges, and the precipice with the press of a button feels fluid and effortless, like a vertical (and ever so slightly furrier) Spiderman.
The game also includes a bit of light puzzle-solving. Some challenges, such as how to get to a specific lever or stop a fan, are necessary to move forward. In contrast, others, for example, working out a keycode for a safe, are a way of unlocking extras or side-quest materials. B12 will digitize objects and store them in your snug-fitting backpack, which works as an inventory for items you need to use while interacting with things in the game. These puzzles won’t trouble anyone who regularly plays adventure games but add another extra layer to the gameplay.
Stray’s world is a joy to do all of this in because it looks fantastic. The robot shanties are packed to the brim with scattered relics of the past: old bicycles, beaten-up vending machines, and walls full of alien graffiti, alongside beaming bright neon signs. Figuring your way to the top of a tall rooftop to survey your landscape like a four-legged Assassin’s Creed character is rewarded with stunning vistas of sprawling, dilapidated buildings, the very essence of a final resistance against decline. Meanwhile, the outside areas of these camps tell the story of humankind’s demise, blistering with decay and red rot and disturbing, forever-watching eyes. It helps that accompanying your journey into this strange world, the game soundtrack’s soothing, brooding beats and synths make you feel at home in a very alien environment. In contrast, the Zurk’s horrible squealing, squelching noises sent a shiver down my spine and had me holding the run button.
The story should take around 6 - 8 hours to finish, depending on how much of B12’s memory you want to restore and how much of a completionist you are with the game’s collectibles. The plot, a well-worn tale of surviving in the apocalypse, works due to its precise, believable writing and likable characters. A word of warning with the game’s auto-saving when going about your item hunting: it doesn’t appear to save after you find treasures consistently, but more after story points. If you find yourself shutting the game down before moving the plot on, you may lose some of the objects you spent a little while uncovering.
Overall, cat lovers will purr to their heart’s content with Stray’s interactive features and superb animations. But its detailed environments coupled with a terrific minimalistic soundtrack and involving story mean even dog devotees won’t have much to growl about.