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Stray (PS5)

Stray (PS5) - Review

by Lee Mehr , posted on 19 August 2022 / 4,805 Views

No matter how routine, every action feels grander from a cat's perspective.  That's where developer BlueTwelve Studios, along with conveniently-named publisher Annapurrrna Interactive, landed on a great concept for a first title.  Sure, there have been scores of meme-games around playable animals, and we're also not that far away from Untitled Goose Game, but something about refashioning a typical 3D adventure through a feline's eyes sounds compelling.  The important question is: does Stray wind up being a gross hairball or the cat's pajamas?

A clowder of cats casually enjoy some daylight and each other's company amid concrete super-structures.  You step into the paws of an orange tabby.  After an old pipe gives way, this unfortunate feline tumbles far below into Walled City 99.  The goal is simple: return to the outside once again.  With the help of B-12, a helpful little drone who's also an archivist of human history, you just might stand a chance.

Beginning at both the physical and metaphorical lowest point of the city, the slums establish two interesting things: the townspeople's initial fear of you and the immense activity this feels like through a cat's eyes.  The developers have referenced Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City as inspiration and it's immediately recognizable.  The dingy several-storied apartments are often separated by slim alleyways.  This domed underworld hasn't seen natural sunlight for ages, but there's plenty replacing it; humming neon signs across every corner, artificial stars algorithmically scattered across the permanent nighttime sky, strings of warm fluorescent bulbs connected between rooftops, and more.  The cyberpunk influences can't be missed, yet this subtle perspective shift shields it from copycat accusations. 

Stray also fast-forwards past typical human/android tension within this setting too.  Those townsfolk you initially scared are all CRT-headed robots who've never seen an animal like you, and no human is around to correct their tense greeting.  This isn't a case of Skynet annihilating people either; in fact, most synthetics speak highly of them.  A lot of dress, work, and recreational customs have been plucked from their fleshy progenitors.  Even though they can't feel hot nor cold, they still know each of grandma's ponchos is sewn with warmth and tenderness.  Naturally, every dive bar also needs a bartender willing to listen to every customer's story, a pool table, and a jukebox. 

Not only does this urban sprawl succeed visually, which is impressive for such a small team, it's enticing to explore.  In a similar vein to Assassin's CreedStray's platforming is trying to capture the athletic heights of the protagonist's abilities while making casual demands of the player.  As long as you're within a reasonable distance and aiming the camera in the correct direction, any edge with a contextual button prompt can be scaled, be it trash cans, A/C units, metal pipes, wooden platforms, and so on. Eventually, you'll memorize the first hub like the back of your hand, and even open up a few small shortcuts to get in and out of important rooms.

Given that this casual platforming is the gameplay's bedrock, not everyone will be on board with the lack of trial 'n error.  I feel like I fall between two camps: the simulative-focused and the atmospheric-focused ideals.  Just saying “the same kind of exploration you've done before, but as a cat” will be met with unironic enthusiasm by many people.  There's an innate appeal of a developer modeling and adequately capturing the locomotion and agility of a cat without the hang-ups of a pure simulation (proper angles, length of a jump, and so on).  I respect that decision while also wishing there was an extra layer of complexity.  Maybe tiny platforms from exposed concrete or something else could've been mixed in to expand how you navigate these areas.

Before even reaching the slums you're quickly introduced to Stray's most notable foe: The Zurk.  These Half-Life 2 head crabs with one glowing orange eye have a hunger for practically everything.  The typical form of eluding them is hauling ass, a la Uncharted chase sequence, but there's some variety thrown in later.  Sometimes you'll have to sneakily corral them to another spot, while others involve B-12 popping them with a modified UV flashlight.  The oppressive atmosphere cast by the pungent, fleshy backdrops feels appropriate for these critters, but neither mechanical distraction feels rewarding.  Most of the luring segments are incredibly one-note and zapping mindless hordes quickly wares out its welcome.

Things take a better turn when popping quadrupedal zits is replaced by sleuthing past a drone's vision cone.  The stealth is relatively basic (avoid the drone's light and sound detection), but still a welcome break.  I was caught by surprise when the one simple suspicious phase (yellow light instead of green) inspired several drones to scour the immediate area and then afterwards have more erratic patrol patterns.  Despite not getting much limelight, these instances of hiding in cardboard boxes or sprinting between objects felt rewarding and fit our protagonist purr-fectly.

Outside of casual platforming through the colorful streets, Stray feels so inviting when treated like an old-school platformer.  Being able to casually walk up to anyone and prompt a potential exchange with your inventory can lead to a few surprises.  And since there's no “Detective Mode,” you're naturally impelled to scour every inch and remember specific spots on your own.  A couple of fetch quests drag on from this, but it also compels you to discover recollections B-12 has about humanity's past, or sheet music for a plucky guitarist.  Whether listening to his jams or drinking in Yann Van Der Cruyssen’s wonderful OST, your ears are constantly perked.

A potential critique of this confection would highlight the decent variety but none of these baubles being fully explored.  Eventually you're getting used to button prompts for platforming, breezing through the puzzles (save for one or two), and whatever concept they want to tease next.  Most of it's done fine enough, but never exceptionally so.  That might technically be true, however it misses the personality embedded into the standard platformer/adventure fare.  Baking in little touches like a dedicated meow button, nuzzling specific robots, dedicated cat-scratching points, knocking things over on a whim, and cat-napping spots (with rhythmic DualSense feedback) give a sense of involvement that wouldn't make sense for a humanoid lead.

By excelling beyond the typical cat game design and boasting impressive production values, its mixed collection of ideas feel more meaningful.

The idea of a cat prompting an exchange with a robot sounds strange, and that's also one of Stray's biggest storytelling hurdles.  I'm going to date myself with this example here, but imagine Homeward Bound, except everyone intuits that you – a literal cat – fluently understand a language.  Even before discovering him, B-12 is directing your attention via TV sets like you were just another person.  His compendium of known languages makes him the de facto translator too.  Everyone just acts straight-faced that they're having full-blown conversations with a stray tabby. 

That kind of dissonance isn't so much a negative as an odd warning to anticipate.  Once you're over that hurdle, Stray's storytelling is modest but quite compelling.  Seeing the dregs of this society eke out a meager, pre-programmed existence helps cement your resolve about reaching the outside world.  Key side characters are willing to risk it all just so you become a symbol of escaping this dour world.  Again, it's still... kinda weird how you're lionized, but eventually that enthusiasm wins you over.

Beyond a tangible end goal, it succeeds at organically building a run-down space with unique characters.  It's amazing how much personality is squeezed out by foregoing animated faces for a range of fullscreen emoticons on CRT screens.  Along with adopting a relatable humanity, their forebear's baggage has also seeped into their binary code.  From the origins of the Zurk to the rigid police state of a specific hub, its expected themes appropriately fit this situation. 

It won't set the world on fire, but it's still a nice yarn that kept my interest.

Similar to its tabby, Stray isn't a behemoth of a game.  For someone who (unsuccessfully) strived for a completionist run, I broke the five-hour mark while nearing the conclusion.  It basically hits a par for a $30 narrative-driven title.  Beyond cold number-crunching, the value I put attention towards is what did & didn't receive enough time.  Stealth segments should've had more breathing room, as well as the final level, the more I think about it.  Even though it's a well-paced jaunt overall, I still wish there was a bit more to chew on.

Even as a rabid dog person, I came away impressed with Stray.  Discounting anthropomorphic animals, most animal-themed adventures like Goat Simulator or Catlateral Damage earn a distinct "appreciate from a distance" attitude from me; there's a short burst of fun in admiring the concept before it fizzles out.  The team at BlueTwelve bet all their chips on a fuller experience – especially with respect to production values – and that paid off for them.  Despite some annoying fleas, that overriding feeling made this cat game ultimately worthwhile.  If most of this seems intriguing, I think it'll be right up your alley too.

Contractor by trade and writer by hobby, Lee's obnoxious criticisms have found a way to be featured across several gaming sites: N4G, VGChartz, Gaming Nexus, DarkStation, and TechRaptor! He started gaming in the mid-90s and has had the privilege in playing many games across a plethora of platforms. Reader warning: each click given to his articles only helps to inflate his Texas-sized ego. Proceed with caution.

VGChartz Verdict


This review is based on a digital copy of Stray for the PS5, provided by the publisher.

Read more about our Review Methodology here

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Jaicee (on 20 August 2022)

I had a paws-itive opinion too. Stray had me from "Press O to meow." The detail and care with which it conveys feline behavior was just a consistent charm across my entire playthrough. I love that there are scratch spaces and opportunities to brush up against other characters! Every so often, it's time to stop and scratch behind the ears, ya know? I even love the fact that jumping is prompt-based because it'd just be ridiculous to have a cat jumping around everywhere like he's Mario or something. Almost as ridiculous as a cat knowing English and also being unable to speak it. Despite the irony though, Lala's such a heart-warmingly meowsterful typist!

The downbeat mood of the game following the initial cat-astrophe is just sorta how I most always feel anyway, but the cat factor gave me so many reasons to smile. There's so much hope to be found here! Certainly enough for me to forgive the game's lame chase sequences and such. May not be a tough game, but it's memorable fur sure, in a good way.

Also Olivia (my cat) seems to now be satisfied with her representation in video games. Communication with Lala was attempted, though it's unclear if he got the message. (The message was "meow".)

  • +10
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Jaicee coolbeans (on 20 August 2022)

Feline better now?

(I was getting worried the game wouldn't get a VGC review there for a while. Thanks!)

  • +6
fauzman (on 22 August 2022)

Love the game and the surprisingly grim tone, though I agree the chase scenes were one of its more tedious moments. Also that "cant catch me" trophy is rage inducing.

  • +5
LivncA_Dis3 (on 22 August 2022)

Cat game deserves 10/10 and goty

  • +4
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Jumpin (on 20 August 2022)

What’s with all the cat games? I keep seeing anywhere from 1 and 4 of them popping up each week. Of course, this one looks quite a bit higher budgeted than the usual.

  • +2
Machina (on 14 January 2023)

Resposting my comment since it got accidentally deleted xD

I did wonder how smitten you'd be with this one; it's piqued my interest in a way no other animal-perspective game has before (mostly because those seem a lot more gimmicky). The setting looks good/interesting, there's some good use of colour in the footage I've seen, and they seem to have captured the movement of a cat quite well. I've put it on my wishlist.

  • +1
SanAndreasX (on 20 August 2022)

I just want to see Squirrel With A Gun.

  • +1
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