Stray Review: Purrfection

The game, developed by BlueTwelve 12 Studio and published by Annapurna Interactive, is available now for PlayStation 4/5, and PC.

Stray Review

Every now and then, there comes along a game that captures the public’s imagination unlike any other, and quite often, the game feels to live up to its initial promise – thankfully, that is not the case with Stray.

The current trend in the gaming industry appears to dictate games being one of two scales – the smallest indie or the largest AAA game. For some time now, publishers have been wary of investing in mid-level budget games as the returns on the typical AA game aren’t quite impressive as a low-budget smash hit like Among Us or a mammoth AAA game like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

Yet, over the past few years, because of services like Xbox Game Pass and now PlayStation Plus – publishers now have a way of getting a return without depending on direct sales. That has led to the return of the AA game, the likes of Sifu, Stray, and As Dusk Falls.

BlueTwelve and Annapurna’s cat platformer puzzle game had almost everything going for it. A feline protagonist who was immediately the cutest hero players had ever seen, a Blade Runner sort of world that was compelling to a great degree, and an air of mystique. In all likelihood, the game would have been successful even if it didn’t have the highest levels of polish or fine-tuned controls and gameplay.

Yet, BlueTwelve Studio manages to deliver one of the best-looking games on the PS5 with some of the most responsive and intuitive controls I had ever experienced. Stray goes above and beyond to prove it is far more than just a “cute cat game” and is the perfect palette cleanser coming off of gigantic, bloated AAA games of our time.

Stray: The Adventures of a Pixar Cat on a Blade Runner Journey

Gameplay

Stray Review

Stray is a game with not a lot of bells and whistles, in fact, the game is a true expression of minimalism and stripping back everything that is not essential. To that end, the game has the absolute cleanest UI in modern gaming, in that, it has no UI apart from button prompts for platforming and the occasional dialogue box.

The minimalist UI brings its own set of problems, however, for one – it doesn’t tell players of their current objective so if you’re coming back to a certain area such as the Slums, you’re going to have a hard time remembering exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. On the other hand, the lack of a mini-map, objective trackers or icons makes sure that the player is paying attention to the world around them and actually listening to the characters.

After spending enough time in the area, the player should have a real sense of the layout in a way that feels rewarding and if not, they can always rely on signposts and lighting to find their way. Even though it might seem the game does little to no hand-holding, it does so quietly in the background with very subtle techniques.

The game does an incredible job of teaching players the basics in the first 20 minutes – and from that point on, it is up to the player to figure out exactly how to use their feline agility and limited strength to complete fairly complex puzzles. Speaking of puzzles, there are lots of them.

Stray is fairly and squarely a platformer puzzle game, so in the 4-5 hours you’ll spend in the game, a good chunk of it will be spent solving puzzles and figuring out exactly how to get from point A to point B.

Stray

The conceit of Stray is that it doesn’t demand you to like puzzle games or even be good at them. If the puzzle-solving aspects of the game don’t do it for you – playing as a cat and doing all sorts of cat things such as pushing things off ledges, and scratching carpets and doors are certainly going to be a lot of fun.

With that said, it is also important to know that Stray is a brief experience. The game, if you’re playing just the main story content, is about 4-5 hours long, depending on how good you are with puzzles. That means the game is going to fly by quickly if you don’t stop to smell the roses and engage with the world.

There is a lot to do in Stray, but it’s worth noting that this isn’t exactly an open-world game. Rather, there are two city-type areas that allow the player to roam about freely and pick up side quests from the people inhabiting the city. These hub worlds contain not only important story beats for progression, but also fun side quests that let players get to know more about this fascinating, desolate world.

The platforming, puzzle-solving, and exploration are often broken up by moments of tension with the occasional stealth and chase section. The primary enemies that the player will be going up against are these little white crab-looking creatures that will chase you around an area and attach themselves to your body. These sections were initially fairly straightforward but over time, the game ramps up the tension and introduces more intense sections with new enemy types and challenges.

The stealth sections were my most dreaded parts of the game because it felt like breaking away from things I enjoyed the most – the exploration and puzzles. However, once I was done lamenting – I discovered these sections to be exceptionally fun.

For one, the game throws incredible set-pieces at you with some of the best chase sequences I have seen this side of Uncharted. The game, at no point, feels like it is making concessions due to a smaller budget than big AAA games, as it manages to hit all the high points you’d expect from a AAA blockbuster – both in terms of story and gameplay.

Stray

On their journey in the game, players are assisted by a drone called “B12” (I see what you did their BlueTwelve) that will translate the robot population’s language, light your way with a flashlight, and provide you with an inventory and acts as your guide. We will come to talking about B12 a little more later in the review.

My only complaint when it comes to the gameplay is also something I previously mentioned as a positive. The lack of any sort of UI or quest tracker will force players to engage in some level of trial and error as they try and remember who they were speaking to and finish their quest.

Story

Stray Review

Keeping in line with the philosophy of stripping back unessential parts of the game, Stray has virtually no fat, both in terms of gameplay and story. It gets things going almost immediately, and from that point on, players have a very Pixar meets Blade Runner-type story.

I’d suggest staying away from all promotional material of the game and going in blind for Stray as it is that much more exciting to learn about the world and the state it finds itself in at the moment. The simple gist of the story is that the protagonist cat, apparently called “Winston”, finds himself separated from the “Outside”, where his mates/family are and must now navigate through a dangerous world to find his way back.

The locations are populated by robots that seemed to have gained some sort of sentience. Each one of these robots has a unique personality and responsibilities in the world and has pretty much replaced human beings. Human beings, in this world, seem to have done what humans do best and punished themselves into what appears like extinction as a result of wanton ambition and a misplaced sense of ingenuity.

Review

Stray’s story takes players through multiple locations, including two hub-like cities/slums that make up the biggest areas in the game. Others are fairly linear locations such as a Sewer that pack equal amounts of beauty as they do a horrible sense of dread that lingers in the air.

The world of Stray is one stuck in a moment of time with no perceptible future and a deeply unsettling past. The streets are adorned with all sorts of “Pandemic Protocol” and warnings about creatures that have pretty much swallowed the city whole in certain areas.

This makes exploration not only visually engaging but discovering memories and translating signs on the wall is also a great way of world-building and allows players to immerse themselves. The break-neck pace of the story along with the zero-frills approach to the narrative makes for a brief but enthralling experience that will leave players utterly satisfied by the time the credits roll.

When I first picked up the game, I knew I was going to be charmed and maybe have a chuckle or two in the game, but I wasn’t quite ready for the emotional rollercoaster the game takes you on. Despite the lack of any humans around, Stray is, about forming connections and friendships. B12, over time, became one of my favourite video game companions without having uttered a single intelligible sound.

Graphics and Presentation

Review

It isn’t enough to say Stray looks amazing, it is important to figure out exactly why it does. It doesn’t have the AAA fidelity of games like The Last of Us Part II nor does it have the Unreal Engine 5’s incredibly life-like human models – so what is it?

Blade Runner, suffice to say, has had a vice grip on any depictions of a dystopian future and many games and movies have tried replicating the brutal beauty of Blade Runner. However, Stray takes perhaps the most clever approach to the cyberpunk-ish dystopian world. First off, it eliminates one of the key features of what makes a city feel alive for the most part – people.

Instead, you will find people-like robots and weird creatures lurking in the dark waiting to pounce on you the first chance they get. The nightmarish soundscapes of the darkened city are only offset by the playful use of lighting and architecture.

The lighting here plays a double role as it not only provides players with something pretty to look at but also helps guide the players through an area without the use of quest markers and a mini-map. In my time in the game, even when I was in the Sewers area, did I ever feel like I had nothing interesting to look at.

Stray is one of the most visually appealing games I have played yet on my PS5 and its fantastic sound design and clever use of music make for one of the most immersive worlds that I want to see and hear more of.

Final Thoughts – Stray

Stray

One of the things the game helped me realise is that I am just now noticing how so many of our favourite games could have been better if only the protagonist was a cat. Putting players in the shoes, or the bare feet of, the cat was not only an ingenious gameplay decision but it also endears the game to the player, forming an immediate bond right out of the gate.

There aren’t many games I can compare Stray to, but the most immediate comparison I can make is with Sifu. Although two clearly very different games, they are both similar AA experiences that set out to accomplish similar goals. For one, both games are brief – with Sifu being one of the shorter gaming experiences I had this year.

The goal of Stray isn’t to provide players with a vast, non-linear sandbox full of unlimited possibilities. It is to provide a laser-focused, linear experience that has been finely tuned to deliver a solid, knockout blow when the credits finally roll.

The result is an incredible well-paced 5-hour game that can easily be stretched to an 8-hour game that never feels repetitive, bloated, or uninspired. Stray is one of those rare games of today that respects the player’s time and delivers quality and value with each minute the player spends in the game. The game is a fantastic endeavour in minimalist design and I can only hope more AAA single-player experiences take cues from it and deliver as lean an experience as Stray.

The game is available now for purchase on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and PC. Reviewed on a PlayStation 5. 

Stray

Rs 749 (Steam) , Rs 1,999 (PlayStation)
9.1

Gameplay

9.5/10

Story/Narrative

9.0/10

Graphics

9.0/10

Performance

9.0/10

Value for Money

9.0/10

What Is Good?

  • Fantastic World-Building
  • Incredible Art-Style and Visual Presentation
  • Intuitive Controls
  • Clean UI and Overall Design.

What Is Bad?

  • Occasional Frame Rate Drops
  • Lack of UI Complicates Quests

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I possess the dexterity of a toddler when it comes to fighting games, but the confidence of a hundred Jay-Zs. Absolutely love narrative-driven games - with a particular obsession with indie side scrollers and retro wave scores. Currently playing: Deliver Us the Moon.