Stray Review: Nearly Purrfect

Stray is easily one of the most unique games releasing in 2022 simply because you get to play as a cat and that's largely how the team behind it has been marketing it. While there is no shortage of feline-related activities like carelessly walking across keyboards or scratching couches, what most people will likely be surprised by is its depth and how earnest it is in its writing. It's a remarkably beautiful game both visually and emotionally. Within the first few seconds of the game, developer BlueTwelve Studio expertly illustrates the story it will be telling for the following 8 to 10 hours without a single line of dialogue. It's a classic example of show, don't tell. It's just a group of cats watching a rain storm, quietly loving each other, and being a family.

After experiencing the bond of these cats within the starting minutes of the game, the unnamed protagonist kitty falls down an abyss and into a grimey, enclosed, neon-soaked city filled with robots that hope to one day see beyond the walled city they live in. He's left to survive as a stray in this new world and hopefully, return to where he came from. Thankfully, he finds a small, flying robo companion named B-12 who helps guide him through this unfamiliar place, translate between him and the other robots, and eventually, defend against dangerous creatures.

The gameplay from here on is pretty simple. Most importantly, there's a dedicated meowing button, as one would hope, and then the rest is largely movement based. You're running, jumping, and squeezing into places only a cat could get into. Although there's some combat, it's relatively minimal and largely comes down to pressing a button and using an area-of-attack weapon for a brief section of the game. The rest of the game's "action" revolves around either big chase sequences where the cat zooms through alleys or via Metal Gear Solid-lite stealth sections which sees the cat using boxes to hide from enemies and sneaking around in the shadows. 

(Photo: Annapurna Interactive)

Although all of this sounds pretty simple and could get quite repetitive if done poorly, Stray paces itself extremely well and spaces out these different forms of gameplay across different chapters. In addition to typical gameplay mechanics, there are a lot of gimmicks such as the ability to put a paper bag over the cat's head which inverts all of the controls. The game carefully ensures you're always getting a fresh experience as a result of this and even extends this kind of variety into the environments. 

Stray is oozing with style courtesy of everything from its moody color palette to its hypnotic electronic score. The world feels familiar and lived in thanks to the filth, yet the city layout defies logic and is more just a series of buildings placed without any thought of how people will travel between them. This isn't an oversight from the developers, so much as one of the many careful cases of environmental storytelling that layers the universe it has created. 

There are a couple of semi-open world sections that allow you to explore two small, but painfully detailed hubs that feature bars, shops, homes, and more. They both contrast each other quite heavily as one is more of a slum and the other feels like the heart of the city. Within these sections, you can find bite-sized side quests that feature objectives like collecting music sheets for a guitarist or destroying security cameras so a group of dancers can jam out. It helps give the world more character and really strengthens the connections between the cat and the various citizens of this sci-fi world.

(Photo: Annapurna Interactive)

While Stray features a rich explorable world and is easy to pick up and play, it excels most in how it tells its story. It's a tale of companionship and our need as a society for it. As you make your way through this vast city, you'll meet a number of characters who are otherwise largely alone. Whether it's B-12 or a robot who has been separated from his child or even a lone rebel looking to do whatever it takes to fight back against the oppressive police state and reach the outside world, they all need this cat. They depend on him to distract hostile drones, steal keys, get to areas that are otherwise inaccessible, and so on. He's more than a tool to them, though. Many of them point out how good of a friend he is and will take naps with him, vent their feelings to the cat, and even put their own wellbeing on the line for him.

Although there's a clear language barrier and total difference in species, it highlights the powerful connection people make with their pets thanks to their love and support. One of the best "mechanics" in the game is the ability to go up to select characters and cuddle up to them, which results in the robot's computer head turning from a digitized face to a digitized heart. Few other games, if any at all, have managed to capture the warm and fuzzy feeling you get when receiving a cat's love, but Stray miraculously finds a way to bottle it all up. It's hard not to be touched by all of this, almost as if the player begins to feel that sense of companionship with the cat too.

Where dogs are usually considered "man's best friend," Stray suggests that cats may be robot's best friend. This is a game that wears its heart on its sleeve and expertly weaves its themes into everything the player does. There will likely be many people who buy this game because they want to play as a cat and their itch will be scratched, but there's also a high chance they will come away moved by its story of companionship and get caught up in its soothing and equally mesmerizing atmosphere. There are a lot of amazing looking games coming this fall, but Stray has already cemented itself as a contender for awards season.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Stray was reviewed on a PlayStation 5 with an early review code provided by the publisher.