It’s felt a long time coming has Stray, even though it’s probably only really been about 24 months since we first laid eyes on Bluetwelve and Annapurna Interactive’s cyberpunk cat simulator. The story and setting has been fairly well kept under wraps too, so players donning the paws of this feline companion are in for a few reveals and surprises along the way that will delight even those with the stoniest of hearts. It isn’t just a cute character model strolling through a neon drenched world though, scratch through the surface and there’s an emotive tale about the end of humanity, classism, systemic control, loss and hope. It pretty much covers all bases, but does it manage to become the first absolute must play of 2022?
Things don’t start off too well for our cat in Stray, and the name of the game really does set the scene. Separated from their family, they find themselves in the depths of an underground city that holds mysteries, dangers and a strange robot population. Picking their way through the decaying ruins, it feels as if they’re being guided along the way, and it doesn’t take too long for them to encounter a digital consciousness that’s been waiting for someone or something to come by and help get them in a body. In this case, it’s the body of a small flying robot called B12. Making friends with the little robot brings a level of understanding and communication to the cat’s world, and as the pair journey from the depths of the Dead City to the Control Room at the top of the massive sealed structure, they both learn what’s happened to the humans that used to live there, who the automatons are that have taken their place, and that they should never, ever stop running whilst Zurks are around.
Controls are simple and the cat is agile, so getting around the environments is a breeze. Stray limits the core button inputs to one for jump, one for meow, one to run and one for chatting; and the layout and design of each area is really clear as to where you can and can’t go. Set in a massive city, the actual play areas are relatively small, but they’re dense and have height to them that gives you the impression of a cats approach to verticality – they love it. All combined it makes for a fun experience that plays out beautifully over the course of the 4 – 6 hour runtime. Complimenting the traversal elements are puzzles to solve and the odd quest given by the robots, so it’s not simply a case of walking in through an entrance and out through the exit… there’s plenty of exploration and figuring out what will help you progress. Nothing is too taxing, and B12 is on hand to provide hints in case you get stuck, so it’s more a case of settling in and soaking up the atmosphere of this strange world.
Our hero/heroine (there’s no gender specified at any point for the lead character) doesn’t want to dwell too long in the city though, they may lose their outside family completely if they don’t get to the exit, so you’ll find that the levels are fairly brief. That doesn’t mean you can’t spend time in them marvelling at the way they’re put together, but it does mean that the core thread can be completed quite quickly. There’s even a speedrun trophy in the list for getting to the end of Stray in under two hours. Running it that way though does mean missing out on a lot of the nuance, and particularly the interactions with the robots. Each populated area has a number of citizens that you can talk to through B12, and every now and then there are interesting side missions thrown your way that will give a specific reward, or are good way of getting you to check every nook and cranny of the level. Not that you’ll need much encouragement, even the dingy infested areas are glorious to look at.
With neon lighting littering the place, fantastic reflections in the water soaked streets, and a plethora of little details all over, Stray really brings the busy, inhabited city to life. It’s reminiscent of Tokyo more than any other current city I’d say with narrow alleyways and high rising buildings; and searching through the doorways, windows and side streets is one of the most interesting parts of the game. A cat goes where it pleases, and with the odd exception you’re able to do the same in Stray. It’s gorgeous throughout and manages to distract you from the actual character modelling of the cat. Spend some time looking at it though and you’ll see that the team at Bluetwelve know their moggies, it’s pretty much perfect. Sound design delivers on the fronts that you want it to, and with no true verbal communication, even the robot noises and cat mewls stay interesting and varied… even when you’re spamming the meow button, which you might be if you get swarmed by the ravenous Zurks.
With the beautifully dilapidated presentation and the excellent realisation of the inhabitants that help sell the overall story, there’s little to dislike about Stray. By the nature of the main character this is no action shooter, so you will have to endure some enforced stealth and linear running from danger sections, but they’re never too long and far from frustrating. The game is all about absorbing the atmosphere and developing the relationship between the mechanical and living, and making it too hard to progress would have ruined that. It’s entirely possible to die multiple times, yet you will probably have to actively work at it, and there’s lots of incentive to revisit certain areas to hunt collectibles and complete additional quests. You can even just enjoy the thrum of the DualSense as it emits the purring of a contented cat going to sleep.
Stray is a joy to play and one of those rare titles that brings something fresh to the gaming genre, and puts me in mind of the type of games that Sony used to support all the time through the PS3 era. It’s a bit of a risk to take with a highly polished narrative adventure, but we wouldn’t expect anything less from Annapurna, and it’s paid off. I don’t think there’s any doubt that it’s been embraced by gamers globally, and digital cat shenanigans are all over social media at the moment. For me it absolutely is a must play game, and it’s an early contender for game of the year, and not just for the way it looks and plays… it hits you in the feels too.
Stray is out now on PC and PlayStation for around £30 depending on where you buy it, or is free if you’re subscribed to PS+ Extra or Premium.