Stray Review "A Remarkably Original Take On The Apocalypse Trope"
Stray is a third-person adventure game with puzzle elements that sets you in the footsteps – or should that be paw prints? - of a stray cat who is separated from its litter and must escape an underground city of droids to be reunited with them. From developers, BlueTwelve Studio, Stray is an insightful game that begs the question of what truly makes something human – from the perspective of a wily orange tabby.
Let's get the most important question out of the way first. Yes – the cat can be petted.
Although the BlueTwelve Studio team opted out of using motion capture, they’ve managed to seamlessly replicate the graceful movement of felines. The team used videos of cats owned by employees to build Stray's animation from the ground up, with effective results.
How Stray interacts with the world is a striking homage to cats. The developers explore behavioural instincts throughout the game with sequences that include powerful jumps, raised hackles when sensing danger, and more peaceful times when Stray can curl up to sleep in the strangest nooks and crannies, as cats are known to do. They even programmed Stray's eyes to flash a ghostly green hue just as the light perfectly catches them, showing an exquisite calibre of animation. The team have also captured what it's like to live with a cat and their peculiar ways. Jumping on tables and keyboards will sometime illicit responses from the robot Companions around Stray, for amusing results.
There are objects scattered throughout the city that Stray can interact with for special animations. It's worth exploring to uncover these as the subtle nod to the imperious but otherwise charming nature of cats is endearing. Stray's idle animations also include feline traits such as self-cleaning and ear twitches that show real care and attention to detail from the team at BlueTwelve.
This leads to the biggest complaint of the entire game, however, as there is no photo mode. In a game with such flawless art design, it seems a shame that there isn’t an integrated photo mode where we can put Stray into adorable poses in the environment around them. Perhaps this can be a feature added to the game post-launch, similar to how the 2018 God of War photo mode was.
The Dead City
The setting for the game is a dim underground city aptly named The Dead City, for its sole inhabitants are robots called 'Companions'. The only trace of humanity left behind is through graffiti and other environmental storytelling.
Although a storyline that has been potentially overdone the past few years, Stray is a remarkably original take on the apocalypse trope. The mysteries of where the humans have disappeared and why a city full of robots are left behind to mimic humans is as gripping as you want it to be. You can simply follow the linear aspects of the narrative and complete the story missions, or you can explore more of The Dead City and unlock the answers to these mysteries through the environment around you.
Even though the dynamic of playing as a cat is unusual at first, the lower UI perspective is surprisingly easy to get used to. The Dead City is full of rusted, dilapidated buildings with overarching signs and pipes. This industrial setting lends itself well to the gameplay as jumping from building to building as a cat is smoothly animated and feels seamless.
Turning can seem a tad slow at times, however, as the cat will move its entire body around, which can cause a delay. This rarely affects gameplay but is something to be mindful of in fast-paced missions that require quick action. Dialogue also requires two separate keys to cycle through if playing on PC, which can be annoying to swap between. The game itself recommends using a controller which would make sense for experiencing optimal gameplay.
Although The Dead City is exclusively home to robot Companions, the city itself feels lively in so many ways. Companions form relationships, go to bars and set up trades. Plot-wise the potential reasons for this are interesting as it induces questions of what makes us human, what is a soul, and are robots capable of compassion and creativity? These questions underly everything that Stray presents. Again, you can explore this as little or as much as you wish.
Although Stray proves themselves as a capable protagonist, without opposable thumbs there are simply some things a cat cannot do. BlueTwelve Studio's answer to this is to give Stray a lovable AI sidekick named B12.
B12 is introduced to the game relatively early, and is perhaps the only lifeform that can help you succeed in your mission of escaping The Dead City and gaining access to the outside world. Along the way, you will uncover B12's backstory, slowly unveiling more of the plot as you progress through quests.
For a game that doesn’t use real language at all, the friendship that builds between B12 and Stray is very human. B12 helps Stray communicate, gain access to doors, use a torch, and fend off predators. B12 is a useful aid and expands the gameplay mechanics on offer through this. Of course, the more the game endears B12 and Stray to you, the more motivated you feel to see their adventure through.
In a plot that closely resembles most childhood animal films like Homeward Bound; you play as a cat that wants to find its way back to its litter. You don’t need to know Stray's name – if they even have one, you have a mission to help a kitty find its way and that’s enough.
Purr-haps Stray Is Worth Your Time?
Whether you’re a fan of cats or not, the added dimension of playing as one in a game is a fascinating feature that hasn’t been explored much in other franchises. Rather than bruting your way through a situation, you have to take a different angle. You must assess your surroundings and judge what you can climb or squeeze through. There are enemies to the game, but this amounts to nail-biting sequences where you must think on your feet to get away.
The story is compelling enough to carry you through, and as a game that takes 8-10 hours to complete (depending on how thorough you are about collectables), the game does not outstay its welcome. If anything, more puzzles would be welcome as they feel as though they only scratch the surface of what the game could be capable of.
If you are a cat-lover then the game is an absolute must, you'll be instantly connected to the main character of Stray – who must be protected and cherished at all costs.
Reviewed on PC. Code provided by the publisher.