It’s a pure, cold, panic time to realize you’re lost. An inch of time has passed as the mind rolled uncontrollably – was the last turn wrong? Why is there no sign in this city? How did you get on this path? Because it’s definitely off the map and you don’t like the look of the house it leads to. With that feeling, imagine now that you’re a little furry creature that’s not only lost, but surrounded by giant, two-legged metal creatures that don’t get when you knock something off the table Impress while you have something close to the plight of Stray’s poor protagonist cat.
On the surface, it’s a simple sci-fi game about a cat, after plunging into the heart of the city, Lion King-esque, and must escape a mysterious place in hopes of being reunited with his family. But there’s more below that.
Still, developer BlueTwelve Studio has done an excellent job of simply recreating the experience of being a cat. Playing as a cat feels unique and at the same time very easy to master. However, it’s all the little features that really capture the essence of a cat, from knocking items off a ledge, to the little paw prints you make when you walk through wet paint, or how the controls work when you investigate a paper bag reversed. These are not purely cosmetic things, and each screen saver-like moment will serve your journey. Meowing, for example, can attract enemies so you can trap them, while scratching on blinds can reveal windows that you can climb through. Even sleeping goes beyond momentary cuteness by making the camera zoom out, so you can get a wider view of your current location.
Stray constantly encourages you to explore like this – discover how high cats can climb. Helpfully, the act of navigating the city is an incredible pleasure in itself. Your ginger claws pierce the roof and climb the side of the building one vent at a time, while exploring through the feline’s point of view underscores how labyrinth the city is, with dead ends or dangerous possibilities at any corner. Almost every object you come across can be climbed or jumped on – why take stairs when you can run along handrails? While a zipline (you jump into a keg in case you’re wondering how a cat does it) provides a quick descent from a height, giving you a good view of your surroundings when you fall. You’ll quickly learn that there are multiple ways to get to certain locations, and especially in slums, you may find yourself ditching alleys for rooftops. As your confidence grows, you’ll spend less time planning your route and instead jump naturally, like a rooster on the real streets of your town.
The only very small obstacle to roleplaying is that you can’t customize or change the breed of your cat, but that doesn’t stop you from embodying the type of cat that lives in your soul. Are you a snuggle beast always looking for a robot to rub or sleep with? Maybe you are a dedicated climber? Or maybe you’re a force of chaos – ready to scrape every wall, knock down every stack of books, and meow incessantly in every cutscene.
Besides immersing himself in a cat mentality, another important aspect of Stray is that it is puzzling. Traveling through the city will take you through a series of environmental puzzles that are solved using discarded pieces; for example, barrels can be positioned near unreachable ledges by rolling containers from the inside. Delving into the cyber city will lead to puzzles where you have to work with the B-12 (the drone you befriend) by accomplishing certain actions such as leading the enemy astray while it hacks the machine. (Though it doesn’t follow the hacker tradition of “green text on a black screen”, so I’m a little skeptical of its skill.)
While the environmental puzzles are short, the longer puzzle sequences involve hunting down robots or objects, thus turning you into a cat detective. These sequences are my favorite parts of Stray because it prevents you from being forced by the game’s narrative by allowing you to solve certain parts before they gain plot relevance. I had a poncho in stock for an hour before I actually needed it – admittedly, I thought I received a cat-sized poncho, but alas. This freedom can lead to a very rewarding moment when you realize that an almost random little action you made a while ago is now the key to progress.
Stray runs through all of this, telling its story through a series of chapters, some of which release you into an open area perfect for investigation, while others focus on navigating part of a decaying city. While the latter follow a more linear structure, they still offer an intriguing challenge, especially when avoiding Zurks—the fleshy, one-eyed, grub-like creatures that happily eat cats if given the chance. Stray does allow you to relive any past chapter without consequences, giving you control over its linearity so you can find lost collectibles or do more cat antics.
Stray’s main quest has a few diversions, the best and longest of which is to allow you to restore the B-12’s corrupted memories. It’s reminiscent of the memory locations in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and in addition to the beautiful views, you’ll see glitchy pictures of walls, plants, or hidden corners that you have to find in the city. It’s another way Stray encourages exploration – while some are encountered by simply following the plot, most of the memories are hidden off the beaten track. Like any good cat, you have to go through broken fences and lurk in alleys to find them. Doing so will help you piece together more of the city’s history and what led to its current state. However, the farther you go, the more Stray discovers that it’s also the story of the B-12, the robots, and the city itself.
The B-12 embarks on a journey of self-discovery, by traveling with you beyond the helpful companions that carry your inven tory and light up dark corners. Through the robots, you can see their attempts to create existence, only to learn that their efforts are being stifled by the behaviors and social structures created by the long dead. On your travels, you’ll meet a group of robots known as the Outsiders, eager to escape the city and help another man find his missing father. (We’re not going to discuss robot breeding here—let’s move on.) Part of the city’s history is told through ambient stories—posters, graffiti, and recurring dates all suggest things that happened long ago. These different threads combine into a larger narrative about how long people are going to live and how that desire is tainted. Which line appeals to you the most depends on your taste – for me, that’s the city.
Stray’s city is a claustrophobic building, with houses tightly packed together, cramped safe open spaces and neon lights providing grim comfort on endless nights. The only sights of the outside world within its walls are the repeated pictures of tropical beaches and, oddly enough, the occasional picture of cows that start to feel sarcastic when you wonder how long the day is from the city. Sometimes you really understand its scale – ziplining the skyline, or just standing on top of an area you’ve explored before – in those moments, the city feels expansive, but then you notice the Zurk in flesh How the orange glow is steadily encroaching on small areas of the Robot Sanctuary. It’s a battle the robots will lose as you venture through the sewers through a period of delicious body horror. Gradually, the city became a prison—robots trapped at the bottom of the pit, subject to the failures of their predecessors, and the spotlight shone from the rooftops like false stars.
It is by doing so – seeing the world through feline eyes – Stray has created a journey full of discovery, in addition to the opportunity to indulge in as much cat leash as possible. In doing so, though, it also crafts a touching story about the human desires of those who, at first glance, seem devoid of humanity—whether it’s reuniting with loved ones, protecting a community, or reaching out to the outside world. The result is a wonderful combination: a game about the desire for freedom, clever climbing mechanics, and every cat’s eternal desire to knock items off the shelf.
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