Stray Review – Bucket Hats, Puffer Jackets, And A Brilliant Cat

My cat is a rescue cat, and he has no teeth. If my cat was the hero of Stray, everything would remain exactly as it was, because he likes to sleep upside down with his tongue hanging out for most of the day. Stray is at its best when you are being a cat, and except for the feline’s obvious intelligence (that’s you, darling player) this is the most cat-cat there has ever been in a video game. We should begin with our hero, the tabby cat.

The animations are purrfect—from scratching the carpets of every house you walk into to crawling up for a snooze on the chest of a sleeping robot, the cat is a cat is a cat. Through the game’s clever use of forced perspective, you see everything from the angle of the miaowing protagonist. You, though not a cat, suddenly become one. At moments, I would slow right down to a very cat-like saunter to appreciate the world and its stunning level design.

What surprised me about Stray was not the cat and its impeccable details (we all knew the game was about a cat), but its stylish cyberpunk imagination. Inspired by the dystopian night-scapes of the heaving Walled City of Kowloon, an old British fort in Hong Kong that as many as 33,000 people later inhabited squeezed into a space the size of two football pitches, Stray’s various locations—The Slums, Midtown, the Antvillage—feel tightly packed, dense with colour and life.

Your journey begins in the underbelly of this walled city, a fortress built to protect humanity from the horrors of the outside world. Its inhabitants are now a group of sentient robots, called Companions, who have spent so long in walled confinement that they have created their own language, their own music, and their own culture, all borrowed from remnants of the human world that existed before them. Bucket hats and puffer jackets, boomboxes and Tuk Tuks. Splashes of paint are dashed here and there. Blue and green. The colour of the outside world that they have never seen. Pictures of cows and green fields stuck up on walls and cork boards. You ask a passing robot about the picture of a green field you’re carrying, and they say, ‘The outside? It’s not real. Just an old tale.’

What results from this confusion of ideas is beautiful. The interior design of the spaces you navigate on all four paws is stunning—cosy, but also futuristic, and at the same time tired and worn. Every room tells a story. Each corner is illuminated in the narrow alleyways by glowing neon lights. Strange languages adorn the walls, interspersed with lopsided boxes that read ‘Made In France’ on the side. The excellent soundtrack weaves and thuds with the story. Stray is a linear narrative, but there are moments when the game opens up (albeit in contained, manageable spaces) and you are left to your own devices to navigate the world. As a cat. That’s the important part.

The platforming is not difficult. Stray, in fact, is not a difficult game at all. There is a certain elegance to the cat completing every jump, from air conditioning unit, to hanging neon sign, back to a small ledge. It would be spoiled if you could make a mistake, because cats rarely do. Although all you need to do is press a single button, the smooth animation and intricacy at some points of your cat-parkour still make the platforming a pleasure.

Besides platforming, the game also has elements of stealth, exploration, and very short, cinematic, and quite intense combat scenes. There are two main antagonists within the dark city: the Zurks, small face-crab beasties that have evolved in the sludge of The Sewers, and the Sentinels, a robotic police force designed to keep the world in order, to keep the classes separated (the lower, in The Slums, the middle, in Midtown, and the upper, in the high reaches of the city) and to make sure no one, at all, goes outside. Your cat outsmarts them all. There were moments when I thought these scenes broke my immersion, but I understand the need for them in the context of the game, because eight hours of plodding around as a cat (though very soothing) is not necessarily the easiest sell. There were also gripping moments as you are chased by Zurks, and the Sentinels are cruel in a way that pushes the game’s narrative into a darker place.

While a lot of the writing is meta and pokes fingers at previous famous titles like the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme (I won’t spoil the jokes, that’s half the fun), I was also captured by the story in a way that I did not quite expect. It is nothing revolutionary, but it’s well-formed, and the fact that you experience the entire thing—these robotic lives, their troubles, and their eventual quest to escape the walled city—as an unspeaking cat is such a novel idea that it transformed a fairly ordinary cyberpunk story into something much more special.

The relationship with your companion drone, B-12, and the powerful story that unfolds during the course of the game drives the narrative forward, but it’s in the quieter moments, pestering the locals and causing havoc, that Stray shines brightest. Each character has their own little story to tell in that moment—from the robed figure huffing petrol at the bar, to the helper robot, cleaning the same window for the rest of eternity.

While the game is linear and its gameplay loops break down to a series of puzzles and collectibles, it never feels like you’re on rails. You’re a cat. Everything is fun when you’re a cat, and the dazzling world is a constant distraction. I finished the game on my first run in six hours—I didn’t collect every collectible, but quite a lot of them. I’m already on my next run and I’m taking it much, much slower. My computer is filling up with screenshots. It’s just that beautiful.

What I really love about Stray is the way the world treats you. None of the robots know what a cat is—they’ve never seen one before. You trip them up in the street, ruin their board games, and rub up against their legs, but for the most part, they forget you’re even there at all. Yours is a largely thankless task. But what do you care? You’re a cat. As the characters embrace and cheer, or break down and cry, and when the game comes to its ultimate conclusion, you are just a cat, who saunters off into the night, indifferent to it all.

A PC code was provided for this review.

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