The irony of writing my Stray review is that I spent it in the company of my dog, both of us completely fixated on the screen as this sweet ginger cat does its best to traverse a perilous cybercity filled with robots and deadly bacteria. Cat noises seep through my controller, confusing my pet further as to why this tabby has now invaded our home. It's great.
Upon its reveal, Stray slowly built up an allegiance of fans that couldn't wait to get their paws on Annapurna Interactive's new indie project. The excitement only intensified further when the studio partnered with Sony to make the game free as part of its new Netflix-style PS Plus offerings across PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4.
All of this in mind, didn't prepare me for the emotional and wonderful journey that Stray offers from its first moments to its last. Can a game where you play as a cat really be anything more than a gimmick? Yes, and so much more.
Stray review: Price and Release Date
- What is it? A single-player third-person adventure game where you control a cat in a decaying cybercity
- Release Date? July 19, 2022
- What platforms can I play it on? PS5, PS4 and PC
- Price? $26.99 / £24.99 / A$39.95 or free with PS Plus Extra / Premium
Stray review: What is it?
Similar to the Lion King without Scar, Stray begins as our pretty kitty slips and falls into the darkness, separating from its feline friends. Seeing the cat limp after a fall is genuinely heartbreaking. I just wanted to make sure the cat was safe. It's a tragic opening that any animal lover will immediately feel their heart strings pulled at. This continued throughout with my heart in my mouth every time the animal faced hazards.
Now lost in a depraved cybercity, our protagonist comes across the adorable but amnesia-ridden drone B-12, that acts as a companion and translator in this world. The duo now set off into the unknown to retrieve B-12's memories, avoid the carnivorous bacteria – known as Zurks – alongside discovering whether there really is an "outside".
It's the narrative of Stray that surprised me the most. This isn't just a cat simulator, it has deep mythology to its world while touching on topics like capitalism, artificial intelligence, viruses and friendship in unlikely places. I loved it wholeheartedly. At the heart of this is the cat and B-12's relationship – a huge achievement considering one is unable to speak. By the final level, I'd teared up multiple times and didn't want it to the end.
Stray review: How does it play
Playing on PS5, gameplay revolves around traversing streets, climbing up buildings and solving puzzles. One early example is where you need to stop a fan to progress by using a small metal bucket located nearby. It's simple but effective, making use of what the cat can do. A handful of set-pieces where you are chased by a hoard of Zurks through the streets and whatnot (think Crash Bandicoot) help keep the pace flowing.
Naturally, you need to decide where your interest may stem from when looking at whether Stray is worth picking up. Do you like cats? Do you like the idea of controlling a cat, doing cat things like drinking water from puddles, scratching furniture, knocking things off ledges and "meowing" constantly thanks to a dedicated button? If so, you're in for a treat. This is the most cat-like game I've ever played... not that it's a saturated market. But still! It genuinely feels like playing as a cat in all the best ways possible.
After years of playing as a human or humanoid, it's super satisfying to just nonchalantly squeeze through gaps or walk straight underneath entrances that would normally require workarounds. While enjoyable, I did find the platforming a bit mindless a times, simply forced to press the X button excessively to carry forward. No real challenge or danger loomed from the heights, always confident that the cat would land on its feet.
Similarly, fighting Zurks (you unlock a charging weapon called a Defluxor about halfway through) felt unnecessary, even if it was only in small portions. The cat doesn't need a weapon. It detracts from the threat and felt more like a brief gimmick than a natural step forward. On the other hand, I did like the environment taken over by the creatures, one specifically reminding me of The Upside Down in Stranger Things.
When it comes to additional content, there are 67 collectables to pick up from certain chapters. The most interesting of the bunch is B-12 memories that are recollected whenever stumbling upon a place, image or item, not only giving you better insight into the character but the larger world that came before.
Stray review: How does it look and sound?
Stray is an extremely handsome video game considering that the developer, BlueTwelve Studio, is made up of a team of less than a dozen workers. Most impressively, is its use of lighting throughout the neon-lit city, bouncing from corner street to corner street. The Slums are a dirty, grimy place to explore that gives you a good perspective of what it's like to be so low down on the ground, whereas Midtown is a bright district filled with neon signs and holographic statues that bear resemblance to a gloomy night in Shanghai.
Its use of silence in the earlier stages to portray isolation is smartly used. Just the odd trickle of water and low sounds from paw prints making their way across the cold floor. As Stray progresses, it then utilises everything from air raid sirens to further increase the tension, spooky sci-fi bleeps and bloops to portray the mystery and synth beats to signal safety in the bigger cities. Of course, cat noises are used to a good degree, hitting most when hurt and making you really care for the animal's safety. Human danger can't compete with this for me.
Stray review: How long to beat?
Stray took me approximately five hours to roll credits on PlayStation 5, spending most of my time focused on the main story and occasionally exploring the odd sidequest. PlayStation advises that the full playthrough should take about eight hours on average and 10 hours to see everything. The latter seems to be the most accurate, for anyone looking to go for the Platinum trophy. I know I will be returning for more catastic action... okay that's the last cat pun I swear.
Stray is one of the most heartfelt games I've played in recent years, all thanks to the fantastic friendship sprung up by a cat and a drone. The concept of playing as a feline is brought to fruition with great originality while being backed up by a rich world that is fun to explore and offers more than meets the eye. Never mind the fact that combat feels unnecessary, Stray is one of the best games of 2022 and an essential play for anyone subscribed to PS Plus.
Not a cat person? How about foxes? The adorable indie action-adventure Tunic, which takes heavy inspiration from The Legend of Zelda 2D games, is bursting with delightful puzzles and a charming aesthetic. Similar to Stray, there's more to the narrative than meets the eye and it doesn't overstay its welcome either, at 12 hours to complete.