Review: Stray

Posted 3 weeks ago by Jordan Devore
Stray review

Homeward bound

Stray isn’t just a good time for cat lovers, it’s a good video game, period. A great one, even.

The unassuming protagonist — a normal cat in a not-so-normal sci-fi world in which humans are long gone — is the star of the show. But the game’s surprisingly endearing robot companions, and strange, decaying yet vibrant city they inhabit, are also high points. I didn’t expect the setting to draw me in and capture my imagination this much.

If you like the sound of a puzzle-adventure game that rewards curiosity and stays fresh the whole way through with a wonderfully fleshed-out world, you’ve gotta play Stray.

Stray has fantastic lighting
The lighting and color deserve a shout-out.

Stray (PC, PS4, PS5 [reviewed])
Developer: BlueTwelve Studio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Released: July 19, 2022
MSRP: $29.99

Just as a general concept, I was afraid Stray would end up feeling too one-note — anyone else? Coming into this review, I feel like that’s one of the main questions to answer.

It’s something we’ve seen before with games that capture the wider internet’s attention with a flashy idea. And as a fan of more simulation-minded games that try to nail a specific animal’s vibe while still being fun to play, I’ve been burned before, definitely.

Stray pulls off the balancing act, though — it’s inherently engaging to explore as a cat, and the ruined city is a perfect playground. There’s so much space to explore vertically as a nimble cat, yet the “way forward” is never overwhelming or obtuse. In less capable hands, this game wouldn’t have nearly as much flow, and I think that’s the crucial ingredient.

In Stray, if it looks like the cat can leap onto a surface, chances are, it can. And to keep things moving along, instead of manually jumping and landing like in a 3D platformer, you’ll just tap “jump” when you see a visual “land here” prompt. The result is a game about mentally charting a path ahead, rather than one where you need to make meticulous precision jumps. You’ll never worry about falling off, and it all feels believable enough.

A robot named Grandma
With your helper B-12, you can chat with the locals.

Look up (and every which way)

Early on, in the first of two major hub-like chunks of the city, I spent so much time leaping on pipes, air conditioners, walls, roofs, you name it — all sorts of stuff that would just be a background detail in any other game. I was determined to find energy drinks to trade with a merchant, sheet music to give to a musician, and collectible “memories” for my little drone companion, B-12, who is the guiding force for this great-escape story.

I didn’t *need* to comb over the Slums to the point of memorization, but I was so absorbed in finding every tucked-away nook and cranny, I didn’t mind — I was having a blast, and the effort wasn’t wasted. The same can be said for a hustling, bustling later area, Midtown, with a couple of tricky critical-path puzzles to think through. The challenge felt right to me. When in doubt, ask around, and let the neon lights draw your gaze.

With your drone’s help, you can communicate with the city’s robots, and easily store puzzle-solving items, presenting them to characters mid-conversation when the situation calls for it. It’s a really streamlined system — you’re never juggling too many items or worrying about inventory space — and the NPC chatter is concise, yet personable.

The screen-headed bots all have names, and you’ll likely remember them, too; they leave a lasting impression. Grandma, a knitting fiend, is a personal favorite. (Detail-wise, it feels like there’s a reason everything is the way that it is, including the robots’ clothing.)

Zurks
You can actually die in Stray — and these are why!

Unexpected Half-Life vibes

In between the larger zones, you’ll push forward in linear sequences, some of which are hectic chases. The main threat? A ravenous horde of leaping Zurks that even the robots fear — one of a few elements in Stray that reminds me of the all-time-great Half-Life 2.

At first, you don’t have any real recourse other than to run — or mash a button to shake off the Zurks if they leap on you. Later though, you’ll get a weaponized light to zap ’em.

Thankfully, in both cases, the developers don’t overdo it with this creepy crawly horde. The Zurks raise the early stakes, for sure, and the action sits nicely alongside the stress-free exploration. But Stray has more up its sleeve in the later chapters. I wouldn’t say there’s “combat,” and even if I did, it’s very limited. So if that was a concern (same!), don’t worry.

Further in, you’ll need to be sneaky, and I appreciated all the room for stealth slip-ups. If you’re spotted, there’s a chance to leap in a cardboard box. You know, cat stuff.

Stray stealth sequence
Stray has stealth sequences, but they aren’t too demanding or overdone.

How long is it?

I have to commend the pacing, too. I ended up (happily) finishing Stray in one sitting.

That said, the game is longer than I expected — it took me a good five to six hours. I searched thoroughly in most areas but still came up short on several collectibles.

If you know precisely where to go, you could speedrun this game in a couple of hours (there’s a trophy, in fact), but that’s not indicative of a first-time playthrough. I’m sure it’ll take me a few more hours to find my missing secrets, and thankfully, there’s a chapter select option after clearing the game, so you can mop up without needing to start over.

All around, the scope feels spot-on — Stray will likely be more expansive than first impressions suggest, but it doesn’t keep tacking on new problems to solve for the sake of it. Toward the end, you’ll know when the final moments are near; they arrive right on cue.

Stray club
This club looks like a scene out of Hitman 3.

The best of both worlds

To really drive it all home, I think Stray would be worth talking about even if you didn’t play as a cat. But because you do — and because the cat looks and feels and acts exactly as it should — the game ends up hitting that much harder. At times, it can be emotional without saying a word. The little behavioral details in the animation go so far.

Again, you don’t have to be a “cat person” — there’s a lot to appreciate about this post-human cybercity setting, which feels appropriately lived-in (and doubles as a fun vertical play space). You can tell the creators know the full picture of this universe, but they leave room for our imaginations to fill in certain gaps. Stray ends up feeling complete.

This ruined yet hopeful sci-fi world is built in an authentic, thought-through way, and throwing in a normal cat — who likes to shred couches, knock over paint buckets, and snuggle up in the most random cozy spots — is such great foil. Playful mischief and other cat tendencies won’t get in the way of you, a human player, feeling like you’re “in control.”

Stray‘s expressive art direction, curious music, stop-and-snap-a-pic lighting, and thoughtful level design coalesce into one of my favorite gaming experiences of the year.

I’m so happy Stray exists and that BlueTwelve Studio stuck the landing.

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

9

Superb

A hallmark of excellence. There may be flaws, but they are negligible and won't cause massive damage.

Jordan Devore
Jordan is a founding member of Destructoid and poster of seemingly random pictures. They are anything but random.