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Game review 18 July 2022, 18:00

author: Giancarlo Saldana

Giancarlo Saldana has been covering video games and tech for over a decade for publications like 1UP, GamesRadar, TechRadar, MacLife, Blast Magazine, and more. Twitter: @giansaldana

Stray Review: A Purr-fect Adventure

You wouldn’t think a little cat holds the key to saving humanity, but this dystopian adventure will make you think otherwise. Find out why Stray is one game you don’t want to miss.

The review is based on the PS5 version. It's also relevant to PC, PS4 version(s).

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but in Stray, curiosity rewards you with an exploratory experience in an atmospheric wonderland that keeps you glued to your screen until the credits roll. It’s an impressive game that’s filled with emotion and intrigue, featuring surprisingly simple controls because, well, you’re a cat.

In Stray, you play as an orange cat who gets separated from his family and gets trapped in an underground city populated by human-like robots called Companions, who act and live their lives just like humans did. You soon discover that some of them want to get out and see the outside world, but various threats have kept them locked in for years. It’s an adventure game filled with exploratory elements, light puzzles, and a mysterious world that keeps making more sense the more you play.

Dystopian Kitty

What happens next is a series of events that puts your cat at the center of a mission to not only find a way out, but eventually lift the lid off this forgotten city and help these robots find freedom. The story is told through chapters, each one not only getting you closer to the surface, but also revealing more about your surroundings and the various threats that have prevented the Companions from escaping. Like any good post-apocalyptic game, Stray introduces you to mysterious concepts and slowly starts peeling away the layers until you reach that pivotal eureka! moment, where it all makes sense.

While the game is mainly linear and progresses as you travel towards the top of the city, you do visit a couple of areas that act like temporary hubs for you to explore and tend to optional tasks. Despite being riddled with trash or looking like slums, these districts are truly amazing to behold and are rich with personality and flavor. Think Cyberpunk 2077, but from the eye level of a cat, with the perfect synth soundtrack that makes you feel like you’re in dystopian future. Contrary to these environments, the game’s clean, minimalist HUD lets you truly appreciate your gorgeous surroundings without needless clutter. Yes, even a rundown street corner features a plethora of interesting details to admire.

PROS:
  1. Excellent and meaningful exploratory elements;
  2. Beautiful cyberpunk visuals and sounds;
  3. Simple controls that encourage exploring as a cat would.
CONS:
  1. A little too easy;
  2. Autosaves can make redoing things tedious.

The first district you encounter, for instance, features a couple of robots throwing paint cans across a roof. When they drop one of them, the robot below grumbles as he has to clean up their mess. Later, you will even witness a touching exchange between a robot father and his son after they get reunited thanks to your cat. When they meet again, the son’s face (screen) even changes to show a heart. Getting emotional seeing two robots hug might be surprising, but Stray makes it easy to feel for the characters you meet even though they’re, well, robots.

Later, you will visit this huge city that resembles Hong Kong with colorful neon lights, various shops, clubs, and storefronts that beg you to explore them. And please, make sure you do. While the game can be finished in a little over six hours, you will want to check out every corner, enter every building, and talk to as many robots as you can to simply absorb all the wonders the game has in store for you.

Cat-like Wonder

Note that your cat doesn’t talk, but you do meet a friendly drone called B-12 along the way that serves as your interpreter to understand the Companions. It also helps your cat with various actions like activating switches, shining light onto things, and digitizing items like keys and documents to use later. B-12 also serves as the narrator in your journey, but he never ruins the mood and simply chimes in during conversations, or if you ask him for more details about an important item. As with all the characters you will meet, he is sure to grow on you.

I need to mention that the cat’s sex or name is never revealed, so it’s really up to you to decide what to call your feline friend. To me, my cat was a good boy named Catthew who was playful, helpful, and quite friendly. Being a cat, your controls aren’t complex at all so the pet behaves a lot like how you would imagine a four-legged feline would behave, and the game takes advantage of this by creating a layered world filled with verticality for you to discover and exploit.

Jumping and climbing up atop ledges, shelves, and gutters is as easy as tilting your controller in the direction you want to jump to and tapping a button. There are no bad jumps here and the game keeps your boundaries in check so you don’t accidentally walk off a ledge or jump to your death. You can’t die by way of exploring, and this gives you a safety blanket to jump as high as you want to, enter all the windows you see open, and use your limber frame to squeeze through small tunnels. Even the Companions allude to your cat being nimble and fast enough to do things they can’t do, so even though you may not have hands to open doors, you can easily figure things out on your own.

Stray never fails to remind you that you are playing as a cat, either, so you will see various actions that you can perform in certain areas like clawing on furniture, wiping your paws on rugs, and even curling up and just taking a nap. These actions don’t merely add to the cuteness of the game –they also highlight how successful the controls are in making you feel like a cat. There are even some robots you can cuddle up against that will trigger an adorable purr and a slight rumble of your control. Does it serve any in-game purpose? No. Does it make you appreciate the details in the game even more and make you want to show some love to your nonexistent pet cat? Most definitely yes.

VERDICT:

At its core, Stray is a beautiful game of exploration that can be finished at your own pace. Its gameplay constitutes a calming experience that makes typically mundane activities such as jumping on ledges, walking around corners, and even just meowing, feel powerful. Ultimately, the emotional connections you build throughout your adventure are a testament that you should never underestimate an unassuming cat as it could very well be destined for greatness.

Your cat’s movement and speed also prove useful in moments when the adrenaline kicks in and you are being chased by enemies. While the game doesn’t feature any combat, there will be areas where you will need to evade or outsmart certain threats like flesh-eating headcrabs called Zurks, or sentry robots that will shoot you on sight. What’s impressive, too, is that the game doesn’t overuse these instances, so each time you encounter enemies, it will feel like a fresh, albeit dangerous, experience. If you do end up dying, the game’s autosaves are the only flaw forcing you to re-trigger and listen to conversations you already heard.

Final Thoughts

While the game itself isn’t very difficult and often holds your hand (even a bit too much), you can also choose to ignore the main path and explore as much as you want. That lets you discover collectible memories that help B-12 remember the world, while completing side quests gets you some cool pins that your cat will wear for the rest of the game. Not only does it extend your play time, but these memories add context to the rest of the story.

At its core, Stray is a beautiful game of exploration that can be finished at your own pace. Its gameplay constitutes a calming experience that makes typically mundane activities such as jumping on ledges, walking around corners, and even just meowing, feel powerful.

Stray Review: A Purr-fect Adventure - picture #6

Our reviews are featured on Metacritic.

In fact, the power of Stray is that it’s consequent and consistent with its goals –all the mechanics feel so good and the game lets them work in its favor. Limiting your movements and actions to that of a cat means it can focus on setting the stage – which it does so well – and developing a narrative that gets more interesting as the game progresses. Ultimately, the emotional connections you build throughout your adventure are a testament that you should never underestimate an unassuming cat as it could very well be destined for greatness.

Giancarlo Saldana | Gamepressure.com

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