Stray Review - The Cat's Meow

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Stray Review: Cover Art

It's hard to overstate just how popular Stray has become online. With a cute protagonist and great art direction, it's easy to see why. This being said, games like this can sometimes get a little out of their depth when they suddenly explode. Stray lives up to its potential and even manages to hide a couple of nice surprises under its sleeve.

Stray has you play the role of a cat exploring a cyberpunk world after the extinction of all human life. What is left are animals on the outside of the game's major cities and settlements filled with robots - no one to report to anymore.

You, a cat, have to find your way back to the only other cats you have ever seen, way above the city and out into the wild once again. It's a simple premise that is cemented with the lives of all the robot strangers around you.

Stray Review: two cats playing
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Cat's Got Your Tongue

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Setting the story through the eyes of a cat is a very clever way of employing the story style made famous by the likes of Half-Life before it. You are essentially a voiceless protagonist propelled forward by the urge to get back to something you don't quite understand. In service of this, all the landmarks are in a language you don't speak, the map takes a while to get used to and the world is quite confusing. You are simply a cat wandering around.

This being said, you, alongside a robot companion named B-12, get acclimated to each city through translations and muscle memory. Every inch of exploration feels wonderfully organic. It's easy to get lost but also easy to find your way again.

This complements the central story. Although you are initially only looking to get out of the city and back to your cat friends, you are soon engrossed in stories of robot oppression, a deadly invasive species, and a world filled with strangers who need help. Inspired by the walled city of Kowloon, every inch of Stray's architecture is densely packed and filled with little secrets. You can play with robot strangers, or annoy them by dropping bottles or paint on them. This form of exploration is incredibly charming and creative.

Stray Review: cat scratching a doorway
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Cool as a Cat

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The gameplay serves Stray's tone well. You can't jump at will - forcing you to pick out your paths in a more methodical approach. Although restrictive in a way, it allows your cat to be agile and precise. It manages to nail the movement of a cat through this method. Cats don't haphazardly jump everywhere, they are intentional in their movement, even if they don't always land that fall. Alongside this is a meow button, an oddly-fun and gimmicky input. Giving the player the ability to meow their way through cutscenes results in the appropriate cheekiness of a feline friend. In another game, it may be over the top but, here it is fitting.

Although initially stiff, movement becomes fluid quite quickly as you test the parameters of Stray's controls. In your entire time playing the game, you will likely only need a few buttons, but what it does with these buttons is interesting. Stray is as much a puzzle game as an adventure one. You are constantly tasked with getting information from new people, working out codes and doing whatever you can to uncover just a little bit more of what the story has to offer.

It incentivizes this well with the trophy system. You are rewarded for scratching the right things, hitting a basketball into a bin, destroying games of chess and so much more. These tiny interactions make everything else feel so much more alive.

Stray Review: a mural saying "Rip Humans" with a heart beside it
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A Wide World

There's a wonderful dichotomy between the characters of Stray and its world. Those walled cities are cynical and depressing, filled with the decay and rot of old machinery left without a purpose. That being said, its robot inhabitants press on regardless. Very early on, you come across a small mural simply saying "RIP Humans" with a small heart beside it. This sentimentality leaves a human-shaped hole in the world that our cat protagonist fits into nicely. Despite having no people in it, Stray is one of the most human games I've played this year.

Stray's art direction and music serve this purpose well. Inspired by a cyberpunk feel, Stray is a little more muted than this may sound. There's neon lighting the streets and plenty of darkness but you are often forced to explore much more than this. Its cyberpunk setting isn't just an excuse to make pretty screenshots, it's a pastiche that evolved heavily from the starting point. In this vein, the music is explorational. Stray's sounds don't just sit in one place - they are the expression of the tropes of our music put through the slowly evolving consciousness of a robotic civilization.

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Stray Review: A Screenshot of a Doorway
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Curiosity

Unfortunately, some of the game's puzzles aren't quite as interesting as others, and its attempts to add so much to the world can leave the story feeling a little short. Some may grow a little tired of the game's relative simplicity but, if you're looking to get engrossed in a world, it does it so well.

Stray is a lot more linear than you may expect but it makes up for this with plenty of organic worldbuilding and interesting new sites. As you get to every city, you have relative freedom to roam but, in the grand scheme, those areas are all pretty small. Given the premise of playing as a cat, you may wish for a little more to explore but what it does with those sights can be pretty incredible.

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Stray
Stray is a wonderful exercise in organic worldbuilding with enough heart to hold its own against the best of this year. Despite having no people in it, Stray is one of the most human games I've played this year.
PS5