When it comes to video games, the Cyberpunk genre has seen somewhat of a resurgence over the past couple of years. From small indie titles that place an emphasis on narratives, to more traditional turn-based RPGs, and even a massive AAA action blockbuster that never really managed to live up to the hype, there is a lot of content for potential fans to feast on.
And then all of a sudden, back in 2020 when the fervor surrounding Cyberpunk 2077 was at its highest peak, we got a short teaser trailer for a game called Stray. It depicted a tiny little cat wandering around a strange world, climbing obstacles as robots performed menial tasks all around it. There were no words being said in the video, and yet the atmosphere and premise were more than enough to captivate millions of people. It was that, and the fact that we would eventually get to play as a cute little cat as the main protagonist of the story.
Now a little over two years after the initial reveal, Stray has finally come out after an excruciatingly long wait. And you know what? This little adventure was one of the best surprises I’ve had this year.
Setting And Story
When the game first starts off, you meet a small group of cats taking shelter from the weather in what seems to be an abandoned facility of sorts. It’s raining and the mood is somber, but the animals have each other for support and comfort. In a brief few moments, the game establishes these animals as a sort of family unit, almost instantly giving you a reason to care for, and empathize with, them.
The striped orange cat in this group is the player, and while exploring this facility a bit later, you fall down a hole and get separated from your friends. From here, you wake up in an underground city populated by robotic humanoids, and your goal now is to reunite with your group once more. You are lost, alone, and completely out of your element as a literal cat, but that simply makes your quest that much more intriguing.
And the great thing about Stray is that from this point on it never actually treats you as some sort of special character. You are not uniquely gifted, you have no special abilities, and you cannot talk. You are simply another cat lost in a world that is much bigger and more mysterious than you first expected it to be. And that’s what makes it all so appealing, that is what makes you want to root for this little ball of fur.
You’re also not alone on your journey, as early on in the game you meet a robot companion known as B-12. This small fellow travels alongside you in your backpack and comes out in key moments where it is needed. All of the dialogue in the game is filtered through B-12, who acts as a translator between the denizens of the Dead City and you the protagonist, allowing you to interact with and learn about the world in more detail. It is also through this companion that most of the actual exposition is delivered.
And while I won’t go into too much detail about the actual story, I would like to say that it is generally pretty great as far as cyberpunk dystopian plots go. It’s not particularly unique, but there is an overarching question that hooks you in. The city, the robots, and everything else within it was built by someone and for a purpose, and part of the appeal of the game is discovering exactly what that purpose was. I enjoyed piecing together the different pieces of the puzzle, and by the end, the game delivered a pretty satisfying conclusion.
What doesn’t always work narratively however is the cat itself. Because while I acknowledge that there is a certain level of disbelief that has to be maintained to enjoy any fictional story, I also feel like in the case of Stray it’s slightly incompatible. On one hand, the game is adamant about letting us know that we are a regular cat with no special abilities. And the joy of exploring this beautiful world comes from the fact that we are seeing it from the perspective of someone so small and tiny. What would otherwise be a simple obstacle for a regular human, can be something insurmountable for a tiny cat.
But on the other hand, we’re also supposed to believe that we’re going along with the whims of B-12, solving puzzles and generally showcasing a level of intelligence that is not normal for a feline simply because the story demands it of us. And I know that this complaint is going to sound ridiculous to a lot of readers, but I do genuinely think that the writers could have done a bit more to make everything feel more organic.
We’re a cat, and we go through most of the game behaving like a regular cat, so why does our lead exhibit such an extraordinary intellect only in select instances when it is convenient? I think it would have suited the game much better if we could always stumble our way through, making mistakes and generally goofing off.
I know most people won’t agree with me on this criticism, but I will still stand by it. You know why? Because there are actually a few moments in the game where your actions are depicted as the random aloofness of a regular cat and not calculated moves with planning behind them. The game actually gives you opportunities to progress the plot this way, and I wish that this could have extended to more of the gameplay.
As a cat, your interactions with the world are mostly limited to traversal and other simple actions like pushing or pulling objects. The game is not complex at all, and as briefly mentioned above, some of the best moments come from allowing players to mess with items in the environment in order to organically solve puzzles to open up the path forward. From dropping items on an NPC to wake them up, to walking on a keyboard to activate a door, there are a lot of variations of the push and pull rule, and almost all of them are really fun to engage with.
Movement on the other hand is a bit of a mixed bag. You are able to jump up and climb onto most large items and surfaces within the environment as long as they are within reach. And even if something is out of reach, the world is built in such a way that you can usually find a way to climb onto it one way or another. And being able to climb is in fact the primary way to solve puzzles. You see a key item on a table, you climb up to collect it. You see a lever, you can jump on it in order to pull it down.
The problem however is that the game does not have a dedicated jump button, so you cannot randomly hop around platforms like a lot of us would have liked to. Instead, when you come across a climbable item or a ledge, a button prompt appears that allows you to automatically close the distance to your target in an instance. Not only is this extremely unsatisfying, it actually takes away any feeling of momentum that you might have built up when traversing the city.
This eliminates any of the stakes of a traditional platformer, and makes it so failure is extremely rare. I didn’t like having my hand held, and I liked being led on a guided tour even less. An open-ended jumping mechanic could have been the perfect way for the developers to make the experience of being a cat feel amazing, but it simply isn’t there. I’m not going to say something outlandish like how this makes Stray a bad game, but it does make it a dull platformer.
The routine of platforming is broken up by stealth sections where you have to avoid sentries as they patrol different areas. During these you have to stick to cover and stay away from prying eyes, hiding in boxes to conceal yourself. These aren’t extremely common, but when they do show up it’s a really welcome change of pace.
Stray does not have traditional combat either, but it does have small mutant enemies known as Zurks. When you first encounter them, you do not have any way of killing them and your one and only tactic is to run away. You can use the environment to lead them on a goose chase away from where you have to go and loop around in order to clear paths.
But a bit later on you learn that these enemies are vulnerable to Ultraviolet light, and B-12 can get equipped with a UV lamp that can be used to kill them. And while this seems like a good mechanic on paper, the actual encounters devolve into you running around in infested areas, flashing the Zurks with UV light and then running away until you can recharge. Rinse and repeat, and you have your combat loop. It’s not great, and once again the saving grace is the fact that this is a short game and so there aren’t a lot of these encounters.
On the other hand, when it comes to the actual act of embodying a cat, this game absolutely knocks it out of the park. Perhaps more than anything else in the entire game, the developers understood that being a cat is more than simply aesthetics. These are not static creatures, they do not behave in the same way a person might. These are tiny little balls of fur that like to play, cuddle, and occasionally create mayhem. So that’s exactly what you’re allowed to do.
Stray lets you perform a number of different actions whose sole purpose is not to contribute anything to the story or the overall gameplay, but to simply let you relax and immerse yourself. When you’re with your group of felines at the start of the game, you can walk up to them to interact with them.
It’s all relegated to a single button press, but you can mess with their tails, play fight, and even get your fur groomed. Pressing the dedicated ‘Meow’ button causes your friends to meow back at you in response, in what is one of the most memorable scenes in the entire journey.
Later on, when you reach the Dead City, the robots in it also react to you. You can meow at them or rub up on their legs, and in response they might get annoyed or be charmed by you. There are spots in the world where you can simply take a nap for a while, or even sharpen your claws against random objects. This is a simple little addition, but it makes Stray infinitely more enjoyable. More games should let you interact with the world like this.
Visuals And Performance
While not the prettiest game you will ever play, Stray is nonetheless one of the most visually distinct games to come out this year. It’s a perfect example of a title that uses the atmosphere and the lighting to elevate what could have been an otherwise average looking world, into a breathtaking cyberpunk setting that is simply oozing with detail.
I absolutely loved exploring every single inch of the Dead City. From its grimy back alleys, to the neon-drenched main streets, to the overgrown rooftops and even the cozy interiors of the multiple different homes, there is so much to see and take in. So often we get games that manage to nail the visuals and the aesthetics, but they fail to make their worlds feel like real places. I know that’s a cliche at this point, but Dead City does genuinely feel like a real place, and it feels lived-in even without any actual living humans in it.
In terms of performance, the game is not incredibly demanding and it runs really well on all three of the platforms it is available on; PC, PlayStation 4, and PlayStation 5.
Our tests on a GTX 1060 showed no notable performance issues either, and we even tried the game on some older cards like the RX 580 and found that it manages to stay over 30 FPS, but doesn’t quite hit 60. The point is that the game manages to run well on a wide selection of GPUs, but you might have to make some minor sacrifices with the visuals to hit 60 FPS on older cards.
The standard PS4 consoles are obviously limited to 1920×1080 resolution, but I’m a bit surprised that the PS4 Pro version is also limited to the exact same parameters. The Pro version does look a bit better to be fair, but at this point, that should be obvious to anyone and both are also limited to 30 FPS. For the most part, this stays stable, but there are semi-frequent drops when the autosave mechanic kicks in. Otherwise, it’s pretty good.
Playstation 5 on the other hand runs the game at 3840×2160 resolution. The textures are much sharper, and the game overall simply looks much more detailed on the current gen hardware. The PS5 is also able to maintain a solid 60 FPS without ever dipping below that mark.
I think that right now the PlayStation 5 is the best place to play the game.
While Stray is an extremely short game, it uses its runtime to tell a great story from an extremely unique perspective. I never would have expected a cat to be the protagonist of a cyberpunk dystopia, but that’s exactly why this game is so special. The puzzles are fun, the world is absolutely gorgeous, and I’m still thinking about Dead City days after I have already finished the game. I’m also thinking about all the items I could have scratched, and all the spots I could have napped, but never managed to discover.
I would have liked to have a bit more control in terms of how we traverse the world, and I do think that Stray would be a much stronger title if it got rid of some of the repetitive combat sequences. I might also be one of the few people who found our furry protagonist’s occasional bouts of intelligence a bit too immersive-breaking.
But overall though I would like to say that even though I have a bunch of criticisms of Stray, it is still one of the most immersive games I have played in a long time. If you value video games as a storytelling medium, beyond simply the narrative, I highly recommend that you pick it up.
- Adorable Protagonist.
- Gorgeous World.
- Great Main Story.
- Fantastic Worldbuilding.
- Lighting Is Superb
- No Dedicated Jump Button.
- Forced Combat Sequences.
Stray Rating – 4/5
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