The cat animations in Stray are so good I think a cat made them – maybe even Ratatouille-style, to take advantage of the dev team's opposable thumbs. There are a lot of kitties on that credit list, so it all makes sense. From the little chirp meows our nameless feline hero emits as they make a larger leap, to just the way they move around between objects and run along railings, everything has been thought about and brought to life with meticulous detail.
Release date: July 19, 2022
Platform(s): PC, PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X, Xbox One
Developer: BlueTwelve Studio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
The fact you are a cat in a world full of robots imbues everything you do with a sense of wonder. You're tiny after all, a lost stray who finds itself trapped in a locked-down city long left behind by human life. It's a place built on decades of trash, with the robots living fairly sad lives in makeshift homes. And yet, somehow it's also rather beautiful. Stray's world is a stunning place to just exist in, which feels odd to say for a trash city. Ray tracing lets you see neon lights reflected in gathered groundwater, and you can almost feel the slight smog that hangs in the air around you – Stray is able to generate atmosphere quite unlike anything else I've played this year.
Updated on August 10 to reflect that Stray is now available on Xbox Series X and Xbox One.
Getting your claws in
But, despite this being the land of robots, developer BlueTwelve Studio has made sure that every part of it feels accessible, and has designed so many elements to make being a cat within this world super rewarding. Whether you're running across piano keys, interfering with a mahjong game, typing a cluster of letters into a computer, knocking paint pots off ledges to splat onto the pavement below, walking through said paint to leave little pawprints along the street, playing with the balls on a pool table, finding various sleep spots to take a nap, or clawing at everything you possibly can. You are, after all, a playful young cat and all of that is just what cats do, something which BlueTwelve Studio captures with ease.
That playful nature also extends to the way you're able to connect with the cat under your command. You can meow on cue with a press of the Circle button, which makes the cry emit from the DualSense controller – which is later joined by the purrs of your sleeping kitty when you take a break. It's a simple but effective way to make you really feel connected to the orange tabby, and it's truly delightful.
The way the city is built really takes advantage of the way a cat can move, opening up the full vertical scale of the playable space. You'll start seeing clear paths for smaller paws opening up the more you figure out how our hero moves and what he can do, squeezing through grates, under cars, and of course leaping from ledge to ledge. I'll admit, I was a touch nervous going into Stray that jumping was accomplished by button prompts, but in reality, it all feels incredibly natural.
The more comfortable you become with the controls over time, the more the city starts to resemble a playground. As the cat, you're always looking for your next spot to jump to. You look, you aim, you press X to leap. Holding down X and moving the camera lets you chain together jumps too, and suddenly you feel as agile as a real-life cat. Although sometimes the camera can feel awkward if you're trying to scale a particularly narrow space when looking for the next spot. But, it's a small grumble, because the majority of the time you always feel nimble and agile, and exploring is always something you're going to want to do more of.
Of course, in Stray, our feline hero can also do much more. It's not long into the story – which lasts for anywhere between 6-10 hours, depending on how much you poke your inquisitive nose into every corner – that you're joined by B-12, the tiny drone who serves as your main connection to the world. Through B-12 you can communicate with the robot civilization, spark up conversations, and search for a way back to the outside world you left behind. It's through these simple interactions that you'll drive the narrative onwards, which is a touching tale of friendship and hardship in equal measure. (If you're anything like me and incredibly protective of the fuzzy hero, then be prepared to feel a touch emotional at points too.)
While Stray's atmosphere does a great job of organically conveying the history of the city, interacting with it will peel back more of its rusted layers. Talking to the robots will give you insight into their lives, how the humans ceased to exist, and how oppressive the living conditions can be. Discovering a TV in a back alley lets you flick through channels to really immerse yourself in their weird world and culture too. I also love the smaller, totally optional, errands that bring you closer to some of the inhabitants, like collecting music sheets for a musician to play from, and then settling down next to them while they strum away on a petrol-can guitar.
The mechanics involved might be limited – you are a cat after all – but being able to carry items in your mouth, scan objects and info with B-12, and jump around with ease is used in so many different ways that Stray never gets boring. There are puzzles to solve, sections of stealth, and plenty of exploring to be done, which all combine beautifully. Figuring out that clawing at a door might get someone to answer it is a lovely touch too. It helps that Stray never outstays its welcome in terms of length, of course, but I dare say I could never get bored of rubbing up against a robot's leg and watching their display change to a love heart.
What I'll never be happy with is watching our hero die. They say that curiosity killed the cat, and sadly, sometimes it does. The world isn't just lived in by robots, there are also tick-like creatures that look so much like headcrabs I feel like Valve might be having a word. Outside of the urban areas of the city, you'll have to try and outrun packs of the creatures, as they burst from gross bulb-shaped sacks and try to suck your blood. If they do get on you, you're able to shake them free, but it's easy to be overwhelmed and perish. Thankfully, this digital feline has far more than nine lives, so it's not too much of a drama to respawn, but my goodness it's not easy to watch. These more perilous sections add a brilliant balance to the calmer, more exploratory moments that make the majority of the game too.
In fact, bar some camera issues, my only frustration with Stray is something only completionists will appreciate – a lack of signposting. There are times where moving through to a new area completely locks off where you've been previously, meaning any side quests left unfinished will have to remain so until after the end credits when you can jump into previous chapters.
Regardless of whether you're a cat lover, or just fancy a brilliant little platformer to sink into, then Stray is an excellent romp. Yes, it does help if you're a cat lover because it is so beautifully animated and captures the cat's personality so perfectly, but there's so much to love here. Between the alluring semi-post-apocalyptic story, the dense, atmospheric world, and the cast of quirky characters that inhabit it, BlueTwelve Studio has created a fantastic experience here. Stray is the perfect game to make everybody want to be a cat this summer.
Stray was reviewed on PS5, with code provided by the publisher.