‘Stray’ Review: Annoying Cat Simulator Is A GOTY Contender
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Featured Image Credit: Annapurna Interactive
I once watched my cat stare at a specific spot in the corner of the room for a full 20 minutes before she jumped up onto the sofa, climbed the curtains, screamed, fell down, and grumbled herself to sleep under the coffee table. I looked on, confused and maybe a little scared of the small furry monster I’d invited to live with me.
As I play through Stray, the long-awaited cat sim/sci-fi detective game from BlueTwelve Studio and Annapurna Interactive, I feel I’ve finally been granted some insight into why cats are such weird little dudes.
Exploring the beautifully desolate ruins of a lost underground civilization as an unnamed stray feline separated from its family, you view the world differently. When I’m playing Stray and I see a shelf with a series of perfectly lined up bottles? I’m going to jump up and knock them all off. If I see a sofa or a carpet lying there unsullied by claw or paw, you’d best believe I’m stopping to scratch that bad boy up.
Thanks to Stray, I get it. Cats pull shit like this because they can.
The best video games, in my opinion, are the ones that really put you in the shoes of the character you’re playing. Arkham Asylum makes you feel exactly like Batman, combining stealth, gadgets, and plenty of detective work. Red Dead Redemption 2 makes you feel like a cowboy living in 1899 because everything takes 100 times longer than it needs to. By this measure - and almost any other you’d care to mention - Stray is a tremendous success, and one of the best games of 2022.
From the game’s adorable opening minutes, you’re invited to go full feline. A dedicated button for meowing allows you to constantly holler and wail as you prowl through a post-apocalyptic world, lithely jumping between old bits of railing and pipe, stopping only to lap up water from a puddle or scratch a nearby tree. BlueTwelve wisely opted to make the cat’s jumps feel as precise as possible so as to maintain the immersion - all you’ll do as a player is hold the control stick towards where you want to jump and, provided it’s in range, you’ll leap right up with all the grace of, well, a cat.
The game’s jaw-droppingly stylish environments are also filled with optional prompts and opportunities for a little mischief. Scratch sofas, knock paint cans off the roof, mess with TV remotes, trip up passerby by running under their feet, pop a paper bag over your head and scramble around crying until it comes off - short of being able to curl out a fat turd in the corner of the bedroom at 3am, Stray lets you do pretty much every weird, annoying, and irrefutably lovable thing cats are known for doing.
It’s more than an asshole cat sim, although it would have been worth the price of admission for that stuff alone. The cat-based antics are effectively set dressing for a much deeper, more thoughtful game that’s focused on thorough exploration and puzzle solving intercut with some more action-oriented setpieces.
While you can run around for hours causing chaos in the game’s sandbox areas - and you certainly will - there’s more pressing business to attend to. A larger story looms, one that involves an amnesiac robot, a terrible disaster, and some surprisingly tense moments of horror. Stray is effectively made up of two distinct parts: the aforementioned sandbox areas, and a handful of more linear levels that blend stealth, light puzzle solving, and even a little bit of combat.
The former is by far the stronger part of the game for its focus on exploration and detective work. The majority of Stray takes place in a completely sealed off city inhabited by creaky old robots, all with their own names, personalities, and desires. Before long you join up with a small drone-like companion who effectively serves as a means to communicate with the other robots and do certain things you can’t do as a cat, like press buttons, enter codes, and carry larger items.
Exactly where the humans have gone and why all these robots are living underground is a mystery you’ll solve simply by playing through the game’s story, although there are plenty of optional bits of lore scattered across the world to further flesh things out.
Hands down, Stray is one of the best-looking games I’ve seen on PlayStation 5 yet. The open world-esque areas are nothing short of spectacular - all grimy narrow alleyways littered with the detritus of a forgotten world, and dingy bars dimly lit by the glow of ancient neon signs. There’s a real sense of claustrophobia to the world: buildings and characters loom large over our small feline hero. Stray’s world doesn’t just feel lived-in, it feels like it’s been lived-in for centuries.
Thoroughly exploring every nook and cranny of the two larger districts you’re given to prowl around is essential to progress, sure, but you’ll also want to spend as much time in these places as possible. From a dusty old library tucked away high above the street to a gorgeous apartment filled with so many houseplants and blankets that it’d make the most successful Instagram influencers green with envy, there are surprises around every corner - and you’ll need to pay attention to everything around you to move forward.
Most of the adventure will be spent in these larger areas as you go back and forth figuring out how to get (steal) important items that certain major NPCs need to help you escape the city. While that may sound dull on paper, there’s never quite a straight line between the item you need and the person that needs it. Better still, you’re encouraged to solve these puzzles by thinking like a cat, which usually means causing as big a mess as possible. You’ll smash bottles, hide in boxes, scream at NPCs, and generally be a massive asshole. There’s actually a touch of House House’s viral hit Untitled Goose Game to some of the puzzles’ winning blend of humour and creativity.
These parts of the game are linked together by more linear segments that see you explore some of the more dangerous areas of the post-apocalyptic world. While these sections certainly aren’t as interesting as simply wandering the city’s residential streets and chattering away at NPCs, BlueTwelve has at least worked to ensure you’re never really doing the same thing twice.
One early level will force you into running away from enemies, for example, before the game gives you a cool way to fight back and turn the tide. These horror-action levels are later swapped out for Metal Gear-style stealth, complete with evil robots and boxes to hide in. BlueTwelve’s insistence of keeping these sequences as varied as possible ensures that they feel a lot less like padding between the real meat of the game.
Really, if I have one complaint, it’s that Stray is a little on the short side. I’m all for a game that can be smashed through in five or six hours, don’t get me wrong, but Stray’s world and characters are so engaging, thoughtfully designed, and a joy to spend time with that I was thoroughly gutted to see the credits roll when I did. Still, this is a minor niggle that has ultimately done very little to diminish the very warm feelings I have toward Stray. Much in the same way that my cat can poop in the bath and then immediately roll over and show me her big pink tummy, the problems I have with Stray are very quickly forgiven thanks to its sheer personality and style.
We can all rest easy, then: Stray is stunning, creative, funny, and filled with moments that genuinely made my jaw drop. Whether you adore cats, or have some fundamental piece of your soul missing and don’t really care about them either way, this game is the real deal. It might be a little on the short side, but I was never anything less than utterly captivated and thoroughly entertained during the entire adventure. And really, what more could you want from a video game in these trying times?
Pros: Absolutely stunning visuals, a fascinating world to explore, frequently hilarious, smol cat beans
Cons: I wasn’t ready for it to be over!
For fans of: Inside, Untitled Goose Game, The Last Of Us
Stray is available July 19 for PlayStation 5 (version tested), PlayStation 4, and PC. Code for review was supplied by the publisher.
Find a guide to GAMINGbible's review scores here.
Topics: Indie Games