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Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X
Genre: Adventure
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: BlueTwelve
Release Date: July 19, 2022


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PC Review - 'Stray'

by Cody Medellin on July 19, 2022 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

Stray is a third-person cat adventure game set amidst the detailed neon-lit alleys of a decaying cybercity and the murky environments of its seedy underbelly.

According to the internet, people love cats. Games like to feature cats, with a number of them featuring felines as the protagonists, doing things like sneaking around to rob a building or piloting attack vehicles or venturing forth with a sword and shield to save a kingdom. These grand things seem rather fantastical, especially since almost all of the games star anthropomorphic cats. Stray is very different, and while it has gathered loads of attention for starring an actual four-legged feline, it also feeds into one of the more notable traits about cats: curiosity.

Stray has you playing as an orange tabby cat, and the game starts with you hanging out with your small clowder in a service entry. The next day, as the family of cats wanders, you leap onto a pipe only to fall into a large ravine. You wake up in a sewer, hurt but not dead, and you're ready to explore after a few moments. It doesn't take long before you find a small town full of robots and a drone named B-12, who is suffering from amnesia. With your newfound drone partner, you try to make it through this new world to figure out the mysteries behind it while also finding a way back to your own kind.

You may have an idea about where the story is going, but you'll still be surprised with the journey. Without spoiling anything, you go from a sense of eerie quiet to a full-on adventure with a bit of stealth thrown into the mix and some pure horror for good measure. The tonal shifts aren't very jarring within the flow of the story, and the story beats hit logically. All of the characters are endearing, including the robots you only converse with once. The world seems permanently stuck in a grungy sort of 1980s Hong Kong look, with robot script replacing most human writing, almost like an alternate form of cyberpunk. In short, you have a well-told story taking place in a fully fleshed-out world that is interesting all the way to the end.

The game is focused more on exploration. There are a few mandatory fetch quests, and they use verticality well to expand the amount of space you need to search. The same goes for side-quests, like getting all of B-12's memories back; a good chunk of them are tucked away in places you'll miss unless you're observant. The power of observation is going to be your greatest tool, as the other game elements aren't so taxing. The game features some puzzles, and some are physics-based, but nothing needs precision. Other puzzles are simple, but those without experience with in-game puzzles may need some help. Getting caught while in stealth mode isn't an immediate game over, and you can easily outwit pursuers. There is some combat for a short while, and nothing requires much dexterity. You can die in the game, but that's difficult to do unless you're perishing on purpose; we haven't unlocked the achievement for dying more than nine times … yet. It's challenging, but completing the main questline shouldn't be overly difficult.

Despite the futuristic setting, Stray doesn't go for something easy by giving your feline superpowers or anything out of the ordinary. You are a normal cat. You can't attack directly by scratching, but you can scratch at doors to catch someone's attention. You can leap up rather high on small platforms and activate levers, and you can squeeze through tight spaces. You can run and do some context-sensitive things, like hide in boxes or open up passages by knocking down barriers. In other words, everything you see your tabby doing is exactly what you'd see just about any other cat do in real life.

To facilitate the more video-gamey aspects of the adventure, B-12 does all of that work for you. The drone acts as a means of item storage and is the one that talks to other robots and does sign translations. The idea of being a silent protagonist makes sense, as it would be a leap for a cat to suddenly understand a robot language when the robots have no idea what a cat is. Except for large levers, B-12 is the one hitting switches and pressing buttons, including a few that are out of the way. The drone acts as a flashlight and does the (quick) fighting, albeit with non-violent weapons that are effective.

The combination of cat and drone actions creates a game that doesn't feel cumbersome. Despite the B-12 being your companion, you don't have to be in close contact, so you can run away while it activates a switch; you'll appreciate that in a later part of the game. The constant jumping and leaping can mean hitting the same jump button, but that can be lessened by holding down the button.

Players who are new to adventure games may have taken to this one because of a cat, but they'll be pleased to know that the controls aren't complicated. You can do a bunch of things without using every button on a gamepad. As mentioned earlier, the puzzles are easy because the items you gather don't lead to obtuse solutions, and you don't have to travel further than the current area to get what you need. Also, the game saves very often, so you're never very far from a checkpoint if you die or need to restart.

One of the more charming things about the game is that it doesn't forget that you're playing as a normal cat, so you can do lots of normal cat things that aren't directly related to gameplay. Scratching on doors might get some robot's attention, but you can start clawing at rugs just because you can. The same goes for knocking things over, which come with no consequences most of the time. You can meow to catch the attention of enemies during stealth and combat sequences, but just meowing is also perfectly acceptable. You can drink from water puddles and bowls even though you don't have a thirst meter, you can rub up against the legs of some robots or run to trip them while they walk, and you can sleep, which only serves to get some good photos of the environment and get an achievement for sleeping for more than an hour in-game. Even if you ignore the task, you have a fully functioning cat simulator that is appealing instead of being a joke, and that attention to detail is something that most players will appreciate.

There's little to complain about with the gameplay. There are times when it's difficult to get a button prompt to appear, so you can leap to another platform above or below. Thankfully, it only happens during the slower moments and not during more hectic times that can result in your death. Knocking over things can result in things flying due to some occasional physics glitches. Unless you're trying to get every memory and complete every side-quest, there's no reason to return to the main story mode, and no other modes keep you playing for much longer. At least completionists don't have to trudge through the whole game again thanks to the chapter select feature. That's about it, and those complaints are quite minor, especially when the experience works so well.

The presentation does just about everything right. There isn't much in the way of voices, as all of the robots communicate with deep mumbling while your cat produces a variety of meow types. The soundtrack is the real highlight of the audio package, as it is reminiscent of "Blade Runner," with only a few deeply haunting tracks for one section of the game. The rest is permeated with a mix of upbeat and more calming synthwave that fits with the environment and game tone. Graphically, the environments are brimming with detail, and everything from the dirty walls to the tiny portraits of other robots comes through without blurry textures and no signs of Unreal Engine texture load. The animations are excellent, and the game runs rather well on low-spec hardware. For those with the Steam Deck, it runs well on the default settings.

The game's only flaw in this area has to do with hitching. Going in a straight line is fine, and traversing the area multiple times is also good, but break into a run or a prolonged steady walk with constant camera turning into new areas, and the game starts to hitch, whether you're on a Steam Deck or a high-powered PC. This never occurs during the more action-oriented areas, so hitching is never the reason why your cat will get shot by other drones. It is an annoyance that hopefully gets patched out soon.

Stray hits all of the right marks for a memorable adventure game. The ability to play solely as a normal cat with normal cat abilities is alluring. It's a great game hook, but every other element does its part to keep one playing. The familiar story remains fascinating, as do the characters you meet. The world is great to explore, while the game's overall pacing and mechanics keep you glued until the end. It's been a pretty good year for games thus far, and Stray is currently up there with Elden Ring and Tunic as being serious contenders for the best the year has to offer.

Score: 9.0/10

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