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Stray Review

Stray

One would assume that cats and platforming would be a combination like chocolate and peanut butter. The two ideas seem like they would go extremely well together and you’d be right to assume so. Cats by nature are flexible, agile and quick; they’re a natural pick for a game centered on platforming and exploration.

When Stray was first revealed, it captured the attention of many gamers with its cyberpunk dystopia and the premise of playing as a cat. Everyone was pumped for a sci-fi cat-parkour game but that isn’t what you’re going to get. If you want a sci-fi cat-platformer, stick to Bubsy 3D.

While it can be easy to fall into the trap of what Stray isn’t; what we do get is a leisurely adventure game that has more in common with the likes of a point-and-click adventure game or Little Nightmares II. For an adventure game, how well does Stray land on its feet? Find out in our Stray review!

Stray  
Developer: BlueTwelve Studio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Platforms: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 (reviewed)
Release Date: July 19, 2022
Players: 1
Price: $29.99 USD 

After getting over the initial disappointment of Stray’s highly scripted platforming, it becomes obvious why the developers went this route. The derelict setting is a highly dense industrial wasteland, festooned with garbage and remnants of a lost human civilization.

All that remains are the abandoned accouterments and robot servants. These droids have seemingly developed sentience and personalities based on the leftovers of what humanity left behind. They have adopted various aspects of our culture without fully understanding the significance.

None of these machines have ever encountered any living organism other than the zurk; a vicious predator that travels in swarms. Not only do swarms of zurk devour machines like piranha stripping a cow of its flesh, but a cat is fine too.

The story to Stray is very simple, but told efficiently. Orange tabby lives on the surface where nature has reclaimed Earth and while gallivanting with his pack, he falls down into an abyss of the old civilization that is buried deep within a massive dome. The journey is to escape to the surface while helping out a few droids along the way.

It is kind of like The Adventures of Milo and Otis, but with a sci-fi horror twist from the mind of David Cronenberg, but instead of Dudley Moore, the talking is done by a friendly drone named B-12. Amusingly, the drone’s name is the name of the developer, “BlueTwelve”.

This meta-commentary from the developer is probably making a statement on “guiding players” in game design, by literally inserting themselves into the game. This is seemingly the only messaging in Stray from the developers. It is refreshing to play something modern that doesn’t try to have a ham-fisted agenda.

Stray’s goals as a game are to provide an atmospheric adventure game with a lot of mood. It is a very linear game with some spikes of excitement where gamers will engage in chases like in an Uncharted game, or use a UV lamp to fry some bugs.

There are a few brief instances where the orange tabby will be in a hub town area where there are some optional objectives to partake in. Usually this amounts to typical point-and-click adventure game shenanigans of finding an object and getting it to the right NPC or trigger point.

The developers put a lot of detail into the setting of Stray. As a tabby, players can do all kinds of amusing shenanigans and mischief that results in amusing distractions. Most of it is completely superficial and only serves to draw the player into the world and make it seem all the more believable.

Activities like scratching up the side of a couch or tracking paint all over the floor and even knocking stuff off a shelf don’t add anything meaningful to Stray, but it does add to the authenticity of playing as a cat. The game design could have gone further with the concept, but there is satisfaction in playing something that is focused and lean.

The level is made up of many tight, suspended platforms that range in verticality. This is why the gameplay relies on a contextual automated jump system; the platforming might have become too difficult and possibly unplayable.

The designers wanted to capture the effortlessness of how felines would negotiate a gauntlet of narrow girders, extruding AC units, and winding beams and pipes. Stray is not a skill-based parkour game like Mirror’s Edge– but fans of Assassin’s Creed will appreciate the similar and simplistic approach.

What sells Stray more than its basic gameplay is its visuals. Upon closer examination, Stray‘s graphics are average- even the cat models are outdone by the Wedge’s cats in Final Fantasy VII Remake. Everything looks so good in Stray because of meticulous lighting, genius use of color and design.

Moldy garbage never looked so good. The wetness of streets and varied dirt textures mixed with the hazy fluorescent lights that illuminate the tufts of heavy fog makes the slums feel almost inviting. The warmth of the interior of some droid’s homey apartment feels inviting and contrasts to the harsh, cold, metallic and concrete labyrinth in the Dead End.

Stray not only looks good, but its mood is also enhanced by its sublime sound design and music. Ambiance of the echoing ruins make the small world feel cavernous and vast. There is always some indistinct electrical hum or the sound of water dripping somewhere to suggest that there is some life in this world.

The otherworldly music is a mix of low-fi hip-hop beats and electronica. Sometimes it sounds like the soundtrack to Fight Club and there are moments when it seems inspired by Aphex Twin. There are tracks that emphasize the action with a driving beat and there are some pieces that feel whimsical with upbeat tones and relaxing samples.

It probably shouldn’t be too surprising that Stray is such a basic adventure game. What is surprising is the lack of a photo mode and how short it is. Games should be as long as they need to be, but Stray moves very quickly and ends before you know it, leaving the player wishing there was more of it. Thankfully, it is appropriately priced.

Stray may not be for everyone, but it is enjoyable so long that gamers check their expectations before playing. Its got a bit of puzzle solving, chases and simple navigation, but its never demanding much accuracy or dexterity from the player. Merely aim camera and prompt to jump will make cat 100% land on target- anyone can play it.

Stray was reviewed on PlayStation 5 using a copy purchased by Nichegamer. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s review/ethics policy here. Stray is now available for Windows PC (via Steam), PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.

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The Verdict: 7

The Good

  • A gripping scenario with unbelievably beautiful visuals and impeccable atmosphere
  • Clever but simple logic puzzles that make sense for a cat
  • Unique and otherworldly electronic soundtrack
  • Hub areas help break up the linear gameplay
  • Different gimmicks and set-pieces to mix things up

The Bad

  • No photo mode
  • Highly restrictive gameplay and short length may disappoint some gamers
  • Some awkward and unconvincing animations

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A youth destined for damnation.