You’d have to be keeping a pretty low profile to have missed the hype surrounding Stray – the debut indie title from French development team BlueTwelve Studio that puts players in the shoes (or paws?) of a cat in a post-human world. After being picked up for publishing by Annapurna Interactive all the way back in 2016, the wait is over and the cat game is finally here! And I’m happy to say it’s bloody excellent.
The majority of Stray’s narrative takes place across a mysterious walled-in city (inspired by the now-demolished one in Kowloon), originally designed to keep its citizens safe from ‘The Outside’. Only, what was once a haven populated by humans is now a relic passed down to some of the only beings to have outlived catastrophe on the inside – a community of former companion robots. After accidentally falling into the city while exploring with its clowder of cat companions, our feline protagonist finds itself befriending a drone named B12 and starting off on a quest to find its way back.
With a translator now on hand to communicate with the robot population it quickly becomes clear that all are still living in deep fear of the outside, but the trail of a group of rebellious bots looking to prove that things are better beyond the walls leads the pair of hopeful escapees on an adventure across the city. It’s a simple but compelling enough setup that asks little of the player except to enjoy its stunningly-crafted little world and endearing characters and to that end it succeeds. Not least because the entire thing is a sumptuous visual feast that’s lush with detail soaked in gorgeous lighting and packed with impressively-rendered and animated characters. It’s the kind of video game space that I’d happily occupy well beyond the events contained within and just take in the sights and sounds. It’s one of the best-looking games I’ve played in ages both technically and artistically, and a seriously impressive effort from a small team.
Beyond its exemplary work in every other area, BlueTwelve’s greatest feat with Stray is crafting one of the most convincing and endearing video game heroes of our time. The unnamed leading kitty is a joy to control, bounding naturally up and down objects and structures in exactly the ways you’d expect from a cat. Better yet, there are countless opportunities to truly embody the cat life by unnecessarily knocking things over, scratching up furniture, nuzzling against the legs of strangers, sleeping and doing a heap of meowing – that last action even comes with its own dedicated button. There’s a really strong commitment on show to making sure that whatever challenges the game presents you the solutions really require you to ask the question, “What would a cat do?”
Stray also triumphs at making its adventure simple and satisfying to navigate which, given the perspective and agility of a cat, is impressive. Despite having all manner of structures, objects and furniture to climb, narrow walkways to cross or nooks to slip into it’s nearly always a cinch to read the environment and understand how and where to manoeuvre though. In lieu of a dedicated jump button, simply looking at something traversable will result in a button prompt to appear and allow you to perform the appropriate action. Your drone companion is also consistently helpful, reaching for switches and items you can’t and keeping track of whatever it is you’re meant to be doing.
The whole adventure is split up into distinct chapters with most new locations offering a slight change-up in gameplay. Some, like the slums or midtown, will give you some breathing room to explore populated areas and pick up a smattering of optional collectibles on your way to your core goals. Others are more linear, with some based around platforming, others around (fairly forgiving) stealth puzzles and some occasionally dipped in action sequences that see you trying to avoid or eradicate Zurks – gross, rat-like glowing alien creatures that eat just about anything have been decimating the robot population. It’s a good mix that means you won’t spend too long doing the same thing, but the chance to just wander around, get into mischief and interact with the often hilariously-written robot citizens in the more open sections is a definite highlight.
Whatever you’re doing, the pitch-perfect pacing and continuously inventive ways in which Stray presents cat-centric solutions to classic video game problems are very much worth celebrating. After the roughly five hours of gameplay required to see and do absolutely everything in Stray it’s not likely that you’ll come away having seen or done anything you haven’t before, but that’s hardly the point. This is a game about being a curious cat in an even more curious circumstance, and to that end it excels admirably. One aspect of the game’s ending does fall into a disappointing trap that feels unnecessary but is otherwise as cathartic and hopeful as you’d want.
Stray is a brisk and relentlessly charming adventure that offers a very unique window into a gorgeous sci-fi world. It won't challenge your mind or your reflexes too much but it'll absolutely delight your senses. Importantly, it's a video game with a dedicated 'meow' button, and what could possibly be better than that?
Feline protagonist is unbearably adorable
Visually stunning and dripping with atmosphere
Short and sharp with a good sense of momentum
Smart gameplay and traversal that sells the cat fantasy
Fun, breezy trophy list
If any game deserves a photo mode, surely it's this one