Stray Game Review: Nails Feline Experience, as Cat Jumps and Slinkers Through a Dystopian World


In Stray – released on PC, PS4 and PS5 on Tuesday – humans are nowhere to be found. Either they left for another world or they perished as a species. You can piece together bits and pieces that Stray feeds you through its narrative. Although the humans are gone, their fingerprints are all over the world of Stray, a cyber-city locked under a giant dome that reminded me of Zion from The Matrix. You’re safe within its confines, but dangers lurk – or rather, zurk. I’ll explain that to you in a minute – everywhere outside of this one. And just like in the Wachowskis’ seminal film, the outside, open-air world is considered uninhabitable in Stray.

Misplaced game length

According to developer BlueTwelve Studio, you’ll need around eight hours to play Stray in its entirety, and 10 hours max if you’re a finalist.

The hours I spent in Stray were all spent largely in the game’s dome world, which is inhabited by lanky AI robots with screens as faces, which I imagine were also designed by the missing humans. They take after their creators in many ways, whether it’s being cold, wearing clothes, or living in apartments reminiscent of our own. They even divided themselves into various roles and occupations. There is a caretaker, weaver, bartender, programmer, market vendor, and garbage collectors. Others are content to throw buckets of paint from one roof to another. For all intents and purposes, robots are Stray’s humans.

And in the middle of it all, it’s you, a cat. If you didn’t already know/the cover image didn’t reveal it, Stray puts you in control of a stray cat that somehow finds its way into the world of the dome. Early on, you’ll be provided with a floating droid companion in B-12, who will help you carry an unlimited inventory of items, interact with gadgets, scan and translate text, and provide clues. Assisted by B-12 whose memory has been corrupted, you – as the Nameless Cat – set out to piece together the mystery of the dome world. What happened to it, how to get out of it, where have the humans gone and why the world seems devoid of any form of life.

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There is a softness and a solitary nature to Stray. For one thing, the cat doesn’t talk, except it can meow at the press of a button (“O,” or circle, on the DualSense or DualShock 4.) And while you have a companion in B-12, it does not offer running feedback. He only speaks in beeps and boops when you tell him to do something. For the most part, in Stray, you feel like you’re floating through the game world, while finding out what exactly happened in its universe. AI robots, meanwhile, have little understanding of their 7-foot presence. When they first spot you in Stray, they’re terrified for their lives, which makes absolutely no sense. Who’s Afraid of a Cat?

Well, to be fair, there’s more to it though. For robots, the cat looks like a zurk. In their size and how they are both on all fours. What’s a zurk, you say? I don’t wish to spoil Stray lore any further, so I’ll keep the description to a minimum. The Zurks are, in a way, Stray’s main enemy. They are tiny, four-legged creatures that travel in packs, can run at high speeds, lunge at anyone who moves, and can cling fiercely to you. They suck your life – and therefore, as a cat, you should do your best to stay away from them. And if they latch onto you, press a button (“O” again, incidentally) to throw them off and run to safety (“R2”, right trigger.)

Because a cat is smaller and more agile than Stray’s humans and robots, it has a better chance against zurks. In addition, its size allows it to squeeze into nooks and crannies, and to walk in places where humans could not, either because of their size or their weight. Much of Stray is about traversal, as you climb in and through levels, the game literally taking you. But climbing isn’t natural – and you can only do it if Stray lets you. You need to move around until the “X” (or cross) button appears, after which you can hit it and make the cat jump. I would have preferred a more natural, free-form method, a bit like Assassin’s Creed, where you push the left stick in one direction, and the cat just climbs.

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Zurks hunts the cat in Stray
Photo credit: Annapurna/BlueTwelve Studio

While I was content with Stray’s implementation of jumping during traversal bits, it can get in the way during combat sequences where you have to move quickly to stay alive. A precious second or a half of waiting for “X” to appear can mean the difference between life and death. Especially when there’s a swarm of zurks behind you. It’s frustrating having to redo part of the level just because the prompt didn’t show up. (For what it’s worth, the prompt-driven approach makes Stray’s simple puzzles pretty easy to navigate. Stray is a mix of traversal, combat, puzzle solving, and interacting with others, most part of the game being devoted to the first and last pieces. .)

Stray game download size

On the PS5 – our system of choice – Stray was a roughly 7.5GB download. Steam says you’ll need 10GB of free space to install Stray on PC.

The biggest frustrations though are the bugs, one of which more or less halted my progress. An NPC got stuck in the air, several meters from where he was supposed to be. It didn’t help that they never interacted with the entrance they were trying to direct me to, and the fact that said entrance was shrouded in darkness. More annoyingly, even a full restart of Stray didn’t fix the issues, with the bug apparently being logged as is. (I wrote to the developers at Stray, but did not receive a comment in time for publication.) I almost gave up on the game altogether, and if there hadn’t been a walkthrough video , I can’t imagine that I would want to go back there.

I wish Stray wouldn’t stop me from enjoying it. That said, kudos to the developers for recreating what it’s like to slink as a cat. From gait to jumps, Stray really nails cat-like movement. Surprisingly, they didn’t go the mo-cap route, but rather good hand animation. Stray also replicates beloved cat memes, including their love of putting their heads in bags (completely losing all sense of direction and very funny) and jumping into cardboard boxes (used in the scenes of stealth combat). Like that specter, Stray swings between a variety of genres, from heartfelt anime to atmospheric horror, and sleepy backwaters to heart-pounding thriller.

While animals have served as human companions, attacking aids, and Easter egg distractions throughout video game history, Stray – in what’s a rare thing – asks you to play as only one. It’s far from a purr, but it’s a delight nonetheless.

Advantages:

  • Intriguing world
  • Balance of various genres
  • Feline movement of the nails

The inconvenients:

  • Frustrating bugs
  • The crossing is not natural
  • Very simple puzzles

Score (out of 10): seven

Stray releases on Tuesday, July 19 on PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5. Pricing starts at Rs. 749 on Steam and Rs. 1,999 on PlayStation Store. Stray is also available as part of the PlayStation Plus Extra subscription which costs Rs. 749 per month, Rs. 1,999 for three months, and Rs. 4,999 for one year.


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