Over the past couple of years, Stray has slowly become one of the most anticipated indie titles. The unique choice of a protagonist, the cyberpunk aesthetic, and the intriguing world of humanoid robots contributed to the title topping the Steam wishlist chart.
Even before coming across the machines, threats, or the world beneath the surface, I was absolutely fascinated by how meticulously the developers of Stray had brought to life its feline protagonist.
Be it the movement, vocalization, or interaction with objects, machines, or other cats, the game is a treat for any cat lover who has long wanted to see their feline friends as the protagonist of any game.
In their very first title, BlueTwelve Studio has nailed what they had set out to achieve. I have been eagerly waiting to step into Stray's world ever since I saw the trailers, steeped in expectations and excitement. After my playthrough, I can honestly say it has lived up to it all.
Stroll into Stray's Dead City - A world with walls, oppression, resistance, and hope
You first step into the game world as a ginger cat accompanied by three others who make up your family. All four are playfully roaming around an abandoned area with cement walls high on both sides, with rusted metal bars, stairs, platforms, and the likes available for the paws to traverse.
A slight misstep sees our protagonist miss their footing and slip down into the dark depths of the forgotten cybercity that is the playspace for the game. What follows is a careful journey through the tunnels, dimly lit alleyways, and tight spaces with neon-lit signs acting as subtle guides.
Players soon come across an ever-hungry horde of fluffy ball-like creatures known as Zurks. They are quickly triggered by the presence of the cat and start hunting it en masse. Although the game allows the option to shake them off in case a couple latches on, we see the cat struggle as the screen quickly turns red before resulting in death.
Ironically, when players finally arrive at the robot village, a.k.a. the Slums, the inhabitants there mistake the cat for a Zurk and sound the alarm. Thankfully, the confusion is soon cleared up, opening up the hamlet for exploration. This is where the game truly begins.
Meowing, purring, and scratching all the way
The developers have done an impeccable job at the realistic rendering of Stray's furry protagonist. Playing as the feline, I did not feel that the choice of a cat was shoehorned into the world or the narrative.
As expected, the gameplay is imbued with the simplest of nuances that are generally associated with cats. You will get to scratch up carpets, sofas, and walls during your time in Stray. Oftentimes, mere scratching is needed to figure out puzzles or move ahead toward the objective.
Early on in the robot village, I came across two of them passing paint cans to each other from one rooftop to another. I had already talked to a robot who let me know that they better not drop the can of paint, or the owner of the shop directly beneath would be cross.
All I had to do was get up to them, sit patiently, and meow at the purrfect moment for them to drop the can. It was a simple mischief but one that filled me with joy. Stray indulges in what makes cats cats, and it does so unapologetically.
You will be knocking over glass bottles, basketballs, and paint cans. You can trip robots as they walk. You can even walk over the paint spilled from the dropped can in front of the shop as the owner's face turns red. You have the freedom to be a general nuisance whenever you feel like it. Exactly what I would have expected from a cat.
The game also allows players to nuzzle up to certain robots and see their faces turn into heart emojis. One of my favorite things to do was to find music sheets for Mozarque and then lie down into a bundle next to him as he plays the song on his petrol can guitar. Stray is replete with such nuances, and I had a gala time coming across them.
The movement feels fluid, with each sprint and jump feeling realistic and life-like. Scaling the heights, I was reminded of the superhuman protagonists of Assassin's Creed and how easily they climb up the walls, albeit unrealistically. In Stray, the developers have carefully placed objects like pipes, AC vents, and tin sheds for the cat to leap on.
Stray perfectly utilizes the notion of verticality in how the levels are designed and how seamlessly it compliments the flexibility of its protagonist.
The only way is up
Stray's primary quest is to escape the Dead City and come up to the surface. The cat is assisted by a group of robots who have been trying to make it to the Outside and a sentient drone called B-12 who accompanies the protagonist almost all along.
B-12 is instrumental in translating and communicating with the robots, hacking electronics, and even eliminating Zurks when players are later equipped with such a device. The drone has its own backstory that players will slowly unveil, with a number of memories scattered around various sections of the world which, although optional, adds to B-12's history.
Stray shines in how beautiful its world looks across each section of the map, especially the Slums, where marginalized low-class robots reside and are terrorized by Zurks.
Another noteworthy location is Midtown, a more affluent area marked by a nightclub, clothes shop, eateries, and more but oppressed by a capitalistic company with its own militia and sentinels.
BlueTwelve intricately carves the cyberpunk aesthetic both through the gorgeous visual design of these places but also with its narrative and world-building. It is a dystopian society where humans have disappeared, and robots have taken up their mannerisms.
Yet, the social divisions, the threat of a climate disaster, and the oppression by a police state all persist. And against these lies the hopes and dreams of some of these robots for resistance and even a revolution to reach the surface and step outside the walled city.
I found Stray's social commentary to be topical and nuanced without overstepping its boundaries and becoming preachy.
Realizing how the Zurks were formed, the way the upper class oppresses the lower class, and how the police order reforms any dissident captures the essence of the impending doom that threatens the current world we live in. Stray portrays all this but through the lens of a mere animal rather than the usual human protagonists.
I would be remiss to only praise the title, although it deserves every bit of it, and not share a thing or two that it could have done better. The puzzles felt a bit more straightforward than I would have liked. A little more complexity and nuance utilizing the uniqueness of the protagonist would have been perfect.
I also faced a couple of glitches during my playthrough, one involving a Sentinel drone going into a frenzy while the other had my helpful companion stuck without any option. These were minor issues and did not really affect immersion.
Stray is indeed one of the most exciting titles that I have come across this year. The indie game has a refreshing new premise in its protagonist and the perspective the cat provides in exploring the urban world. The dystopian cyberpunk world has been painstakingly created with love and care, with the soundtrack duly complementing the gameplay.
The social commentary it provides is an added bonus that furthers player immersion. Although the game could very well have had more complexity and layers in its puzzles, Stray does an excellent job in bringing its novel concept to life.
Platform(s): Windows PC, PlayStation 4 & 5, Xbox Series X|S & One (August 10, 2023)
Developer(s): BlueTwelve Studio
Publisher(s): Annapurna Interactive
Release Date: July 19, 2022