Stray Title

Stray Review – Everybody Wants To Be A Cat

For all it’s been reduced to being “The Cat Game”, Stray ends up being a visually stunning classical indie puzzle platforming adventure.

Stray was originally titled HK by the team at BlueTwelve Studio and was inspired by the imagery of Kowloon Walled City, with the tight overlapping vertical structures of the location standing out in their mind as the the perfect place for a platforming game featuring some small animal. 

To their credit, it’s a great inspiration to play on. As the Stray cat of the title, you find yourself inside a walled city after the end of the world. Previously occupied by humans, now by a cargo cult of AI that have adopted human behaviours, you’ll explore and platform around and try to find your way out. 

Stray Market

First things first, your base controls feel delightfully catlike in spite of “just” being a third person action game.

You have your dedicated “Meow” button. Simply press and you’ll mew. Even (quite brilliantly) during cutscenes, which has a lovely effect of giving you a way to respond to events. It’s helped by the evocative nature of the animation work, with the cat behaviours being very well realised. 

Little details like the Stray’s eyes glowing when caught at the right angle, legs slinking around obstacles. They sell the fantasy well, especially the movement. 

The platonic ideal of Cats (unless they’re in a funny gif) is that they’re graceful, confident and never put a foot wrong. 

You’re playing that type of cat. 

As you wander through the concrete jungle, you can pivot the camera and watch contextual jump prompts appear. A simple tap of the button and you’ll leap to wherever you want to be.

It’s the parkour from Assassin’s Creed. But as a cat.

And it feels superb, stickily bouncing across rooftops and between obstacles in a world that’s populated by a robot cargo cult – living among the wreckage of humanity, replicating their actions and habits. 

What a world it is to explore too. The Art and Texture work is very impressive. They’re aiming for a grime soaked photorealism that’s again been heavily inspired by Kowloon Walled City. At certain points it even goes as far as replicating imagery from documentaries of the location.

There’s a great novelty in wandering round a human sized world at ankle height.

This is helped immensely by how the environmental design and level design work hand in hand. There’s no UI, so street signs, graffiti and a plethora of neon lighting end up being the tools for directing the player. It seems effortlessly effective in making sure you know where to go.

Stray Alley

It’s a design philosophy that shines whenever it appears in Stray. One of my favourite elements early on was a moment that played right into the fantasy. Coming across a ledge and finding several paint buckets sitting above a void. 

You get a prompt on the paint bucket. You interact, and as expected, the cat pushes the bucket off the ledge. 

But you’ve also just learned that the void is deep and therefore a platforming threat.

It’s a great example of the theme being used to inform the gameplay in a meaningful way, though it’s not wholly consistent throughout the game.  

As the story continues, you’ll meet up with a AI companion, meet a cast of robotic citizens from all strata of the society you’re trapped within, and deal with the gross threat that lurks below the city. The mechanics change a touch as you go, layering more on top as you progress.

It introduces crash bandicoot style sprinting sequences, recharge based weapon combat against a swarm of truly revolting tick-like enemies and then ends the game with some so-so stealth sequences.
All of this on top of puzzles built around platforming to higher locations, finding physics objects to solve challenges and exploring the vertical environment.

It’s a grab bag of mechanics, all implemented well enough that each level feels fresh.

However, the core fantasy is “be a cat”. And when you’re nuzzling legs or scratching posts or deftly hopping from place to place, that feels like cat behaviour. 

When you search a room for three electrical plugs to plug into sockets, that’s less catlike.

Ironically, I think this might be partly due to the strive for authenticity in the depiction of the titular Stray. If the cat was more stylised like in Untitled Goose Game, or more absurd seeming like in Man-eater, it might be less frictional. As it is, I wonder why the cat listens to anyone. 

At around four hours long, more if you want to get every collectible and side story, Stray avoids feeling like it’s outstayed its welcome. Gameplay mechanics shift around enough that it’s hard to get bogged down in repetition. The game stays visually interesting throughout, as you shift through the stratified social elements of the walled city. 

Stray Bar

What Stray is most of all though, is comfortable. It never really strains to achieve some new feat of mechanical complexity, and while the art and animation are very pretty, they’re also heavily couched in replication of reality. It’s also narratively built from familiar elements and ideas an audience will be able to intuit fairly quickly. 

I don’t think that’s a bad thing, necessarily.

But I did keep wondering if there would be more from Stray on a conceptual level. Whether I’d get more detail on the world outside the city, the circumstances that led to its creation. I was hoping for some reasoning behind the game’s setting or the cargo cult society that sprung up there.

And I didn’t get that. 

Stray isn’t interested in delving deep into those topics. There’s not quite enough presented to the player to encourage pondering any implications outside the direct presentation of the game. 

And that’s okay! For me it left the experience as a little slight overall, but still enjoyable. What Stray brings to the table is a fun few hours in a well presented world; especially with the animations and mechanics that really help the player get into the mind of their feline character.

Stray is available now on Playstation and on PC via Steam