I’m not a cat person but I can’t deny how fascinating they are. They are creatures of contradictions, leaping from one behaviour to the next like a bipolar sufferer on a freaking pogo stick. One minute they are affectionate and loving, the next they want to murder your face and burn down your house. They can be fiercely independent and willing to completely ignore your existence, and then two minutes later they become needy little bastards who won’t even let you go to the bathroom alone. They’re astonishing, they really are. And now a cat is a star of this fantastic new indie title called Stray that has taken the Internet by storm, mostly because of people posting videos showing their own cat entranced by their digital facsimile.
Before we pounce into this review like a cat pouncing on your poor, unsuspecting toes I think it’d be good to chat about the inspiration for Stray. You see, the co-founders of small French developer BlueTwelve Studio rescued a stray cat that they named Murtaugh, more commonly referred to as “The Boss” around the office. It is this orange tabby that provided a lot of the inspiration for the nameless star of Stray, while a Sphynx cat named Oscar was the model on which BlueTwelve based a lot of the animation as his hairless nature made it easier to see how he moved. Meanwhile, the adorable Lala provided all the voice acting, delivering a killer performance that should surely earn her an Oscar, although I’m sure her lack of connections will result in a snub. And finally, there was Jun the cat who holds the coveted title of “executive chief general president commander director officer” at the studio and who is charged with making sure everyone is actually doing their jobs.
None of this is actually pertinent to the review, you understand, but the videogame industry is often full of headlines that make you want to sigh so hard and so loud that you deflate into a sack of flabby skin on a chair. It’s nice to focus on something cute and heartwarming, and that is exactly what Stray is. It’s the gaming equivalent of a cat rubbing on your leg and then falling asleep in your lap, gently purring all the while.
The star cat of Stray is a nameless orange tabby, who I’m going to refer to as Murtaugh simply to make things easy. Little Murtaugh is just chilling out with his cat pals as the game opens, waiting for the rain to subside. As the rain abates the little group heads out to explore a world devoid of humans, a world that has suffered through some sort of disaster, the nature of which is kept mysterious. But during their journey, a metal pipe breaks under our little hero’s paws, sending him plummeting down into the depths of a massive underground city that was constructed so that humanity could survive the catastrophe that made the outside unliveable. Now, though, the place is only inhabited by robots who act in a surprisingly human manner but who seem to have no knowledge of what happened to the “soft ones” that came before. They wear clothes, live in houses and go about their days believing themselves trapped in the confines of the city.
Being a cat, Murtaugh can’t exactly communicate with the many robots he encounters on his journey back to his fluffy family, but he quickly comes across a little companion by the name of B-12 who has lost his memory. Like Murtaugh, he wants to check out the surface, too, and he can communicate with the other robots they happen across. B-12 pops himself in an adorable little vest made for Murtaugh, who promptly falls over when it’s put on him, and the duo head out on their quest, which will take about 4-6 hours across a linear adventure game with simple platforming and light puzzle solving.
As a cat simulator Stray ticks pretty much all the boxes before pushing them off the table. There’s a dedicated button for meowing, a useful tool for luring Zurks, but mostly just there to be spammed. The developers were clearly aware of this fact because there’s even a Trophy for meowing a whole hell of a lot. There are also plenty of places where you can curl up and take a quick cat nap or scratch a carpet/couch/wall. Or you can jump up onto some shelves and casually knock everything off. Truly, we have reached the pinnacle of gaming and there will undoubtedly be a bunch of moments that make avid cat-lovers go all googly-eyed at the sheer cuteness on display. And yet despite the clear reverence for feline frolicking, there is not a button to cough up hairballs on command. Missed opportunity? Absolutely.
BlueTwelve clearly subscribes to the idea that cats are infallible beings when it comes to climbing and jumping, despite the literal thousands of videos to the contrary which demonstrates that cats are perfectly capable of derping themselves into a wall. In the game, this means there’s no skill required when hopping up seemingly impossible heights or leaping between points – you just look at where you want to go, tap X and the cat will handle the rest, agilely leaping like gravity was busy looking at something in the other direction. Hold the button down and you can chain jumps, hops and climbs together, smoothly navigating the world as only a cat can. It’s sort of like the systems found in the new Tomb Raider titles, except it’s not as automated since you do have to look around to find the next traversal point. It lets you move about with the innate confidence of a feline, and it makes sense from a thematic viewpoint – after all, how quickly would the immersion be shattered by watching cat fail to make a jump for the tenth time? I
This puts the focus on exploring the world and discovering routes rather than worrying about whether or not you can clear a gap. Although Stray is a mostly linear game there are also several hub towns where the map opens up and lets you explore the streets, rooftops and buildings without a care in the world, free of mini-maps or on-screen markers shoving you towards any of the interlinking objectives needed to move the story forward. These hubs were probably my favourite parts of the game, lazily exploring the gorgeous world that BlueTwelve has created. The cat’s-eye view offers a different perspective than the ones we usually see and BlueTwelve have used that to their advantage, packing in plentiful detail from the lowest points to the highest. Wherever you look there seems to be something that adds to the world’s story, from the decorations in a robot’s home to the graffiti on the walls. There’s a good amount of variety, too, because as you move up toward the top of the city the environment gradually becomes nicer, giving you a glimpse into an obvious class system at work. You start in the murky slums defined by grit, then discover a charming little group living around a massive silo where fauna has managed to take hold, and then explore a bigger city filled with neon lights.
It’s amazing how well-suited a cat is to being a videogame protagonist. They’re agile and curious creatures, and I love that you can squeeze through gaps that in other games would be impassable walls. Playing Stray made me consider just how little developers are taking advantage of different forms and species in their games. I mean, look at something like BioMutant. Sure, you’re a mutated animal, but you still do mostly humanoid stuff. BlueTwelve try to maximise their choice of feline protagonist, and hopefully more games do something similar. Hell, maybe we can get a dog-based sequel.
A lot of Stray is just chilling out as a cat, checking out the world and pondering the idea that if there was a button to spray on stuff you probably would have short-circuited every robot in the game by now. But there is some danger to be found in Stray, coming in two forms. The first is the Zurk which are strange blobs that were originally created to eat the garbage that would quickly build up in a sealed-off city before they eventually moved on to munching humans, and then evolved to nom on metal as well. When you encounter these weird little bastards, who strongly resemble Half-Life’s Headcrabs, it will be in one of two scenarios: a chase, or a light puzzle where you have to cleverly evade or herd them. That might mean luring them into a place where they can be contained, or just getting them out of the way long enough for you to hop over a wall with a haughty flick of your tail.
The chase sequences are typically a lot less enjoyable and most definitely feels rougher around the edges. While the route you need to take is quite clearly indicated, the little Zurks ( I can’t take that name seriously) yeet themselves at you like like a suicidal guinea pig that’s just spotted a handy food blender. You can zig-zag to avoid this, but quite a lot of the time you’ll get piled upon seemingly at random, even when you haven’t put a paw wrong. I only died from this once, but it was a baffling experience because I couldn’t fathom where I had messed up. On replaying various chase sections several times over I can only surmise that sometimes you just get unlucky. It’s a very small flaw, though, and probably won’t even affect your game.
The only other time you’re in true danger is during one of the small sections that pop up later where you have to dodge patrolling Sentinel drones. This was the only point in the whole game that I encountered some weird behaviour, perhaps because they are the only areas that feature slightly more complex AI. A few times I was spotted and had to dart for cover only to find myself cornered, but the drone would simply float forwards and stare blankly at a wall beside for a minute or two, oblivious to my obvious cowering form.
If you aren’t exploring or running for your life then you’re most likely going to be completing some fairly basic puzzles which are naturally constrained by the fact you’re only a cat. These might involve hunting down a code for a safe, rolling a barrel around so a higher point can be reached or figuring out how to bypass a drone. This is one aspect of Stray I wish BlueTwelve had built upon more. Knocking over some books to reveal a safe or scaring a robot so they drop paint is fine but most of it is forgettable. Perhaps getting B12 involved in puzzles would have helped, as well as playing into Murtaugh’s size and speed. A couple of earlier ideas like shoving a paint can to break a window or finding an object to jam a fan also get ditched when they could have been worked into more multi-faceted puzzles. However, I do think BlueTwelve probably wanted to keep the whole experience feeling light and easy.
At no point is Stray ever challenging. It’s content to just keep you moving forwards, to keep you enjoying the beautiful world and simple gameplay while only throwing the occasional tense moment at you. That’s the vibe of the whole game, really: engaging, simple and enjoyable. You certainly couldn’t claim that Stray is a mechanically deep game. In fact, some people might look at it and reckon it’s a 4-hour game about wandering around as a cat and doing some basic puzzle solving and platforming. They wouldn’t be wrong. But just like a cat, Stray is a sleek package that’s confident in what it is and what it’s trying to do.
Throughout everything Stray quietly weaves its story. Interesting new robots are met and helped, new locations are visited and a couple of bittersweet moments tug at the heartstrings, although I don’t think that it’s a spoiler to say Stray ends on a happy note. All the dialogue is kept fairly short and simple, and it does sometimes suffer from the fact that Murtaugh doesn’t exactly understand what’s being said or happening. The digitized faces of the robots and B12 do their best to convey reactions, but Murtaugh is probably just wishing he could find somewhere for a nice nap. The actual writing, then, is pretty simple, but BlueTwelve is good at conveying the story in other ways. The robots themselves also drop little clues to the history of the world and their wider culture and the environment relays numerous details that help fill in the bigger picture. Yet many questions stay deliberately unanswered, left to the player to decide the exact details of what happened. I’ll be curious to read forums and see what conclusions people draw and if dedicated sleuths manage to unearth important clues. But putting aside the grander questions of what happened to humans and how the robots became what they are now, Stray is the charming story of a cat trying to get back to its family, a drone rediscovering who it was and a society of robots whose entire world gets turned upside by the arrival of a small, friendly feline.
Instead of being a typical post-apocalyptic world full of doom and gloom, there’s a hopefulness to Stray, a light at the end of the tunnel. Yes, humanity is gone but the world has become safe again and the robots who have survived are worthy successors.
Playing Stray is much like the fluffiest cat coming up and asking for cuddles. It’s warm, comforting and relaxing. The decision to have a feline as the player character was an inspired choice because it adds so much to the experience, from the lower perspective to the natural agility that comes from having four springy legs and a small frame that can fit through small gaps. Without a doubt, cat-lovers will be the ones who get the most from Stray, and may even find themselves tearing up a little over the sweeter moments or the sadder ones. But I think even people like me, who maybe wish it was a bark button instead of a meow button, will love the adventure that BlueTwelve has made.