Stray review: The game where you play as a cat is a meow-sterpiece
You play as a nameless orange cat trying to get home after an unfortunate jump lands you in the sewers of a dilapidated cybercity. Androids who roam its neon-lit streets call it the Dead City, where they live among what appear to be relics of a once human population. You team up with a small drone, B-12, which connects to a harness and can hack into terminals, translate the language of robotic townspeople, and unlock clues called “memories” to learn more about what happened. in this location.
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Before you ask, yes the cat freezes and falls when first put into the harness just like a real cat would. The developers have taken great pains to authentically capture all the cuteness and mayhem of cats in its gameplay. Playing “Stray” felt like a surreal 4D experience at times: there was a dedicated “meow” button, and my orange cat Cheeto, who lay next to me while I played, reared up every time I hit him and the sound echoed through the PS5 controller (the cat will also randomly meow – again, just like a real cat).
You can scratch doors and furniture by alternating L2 and R2 triggers, leaving scratches behind or knocking things off tables just because you jump on a pile of books to knock them over. Some of these behaviors are gameplay-related – in one puzzle, I pushed a paint bucket over a ledge to smash a glass enclosure below, unlocking a new area – but many don’t, such as jamming the head of the cat in a bag or curl up for a nap.
The controller also vibrates when you purr.
Your ability to move around the world like a cat informs much of “Stray’s” level design, which has a heavy focus on verticality. Tight alleyways, neon signs and towering crumbling apartment buildings become a jungle gym as you wander through the city, easily jumping from an air conditioning unit to an apartment balcony and of a telephone pole. The platforming is broken up by puzzle-solving sequences reminiscent of “Half-Life 2” in the way they seamlessly integrate the environment into physics-based puzzles, forcing you to examine your surroundings in new ways. ways to find the solution. You push planks to create walkways, for example, or slide into an overturned barrel to roll it around like a hamster wheel a few more feet to use as a step.
“Stray” is by no means a difficult game, and the stakes are low: you have an infinite number of lives, and there is no fall damage. Even still, it has no trouble building up the tension during its more action-packed sequences. The city’s slum dwellers live in constant fear of the Zurks, squawking little critters that eat everything they see and will invade you on sight. They look like Half-Life headcrabs and cling to you the same way. Even though I knew I could just restart the level if I died, their disturbing high-pitched sounds and jerky movements were no less terrifying, and every time I was caught I panicked and mashed the button to shake it off. . Even after getting a weapon (a B-12 powered ray gun that fires UV rays) to fight against them, they still feel dangerous, especially in numbers. The gun can easily overheat and needs to reload when it does, and that sound of a fuse blowing with a horde of Zurks rushing towards me never failed to make my stomach drop.
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“Stray” is a masterclass in environmental storytelling and level design. From your first moments in the slums, it feels like the city is alive (despite its name), a character in its own right that not only knows you’re there, but is looking for that poor wandering kitty who has ventured into something bigger than itself. An invisible mechanical force, quickly revealed to be B-12, guides the way. Neon signs light up with arrows pointing you in the right direction, string lights criss-crossing the alleyways flash one by one to reveal ledges you can jump to, and you’re followed by the soft mechanical hum of cameras. security as they follow you at a trot.
Later, after B-12 joins you directly, “Stray” incorporates the lights of the city – the signs, the lampposts, the soft glow of a window – in an incredibly subtle way to tell you where to go, even when you don’t. I don’t even realize it consciously. During a chase sequence with a horde of Zurks chasing me, I felt like I was making split-second decisions, but I never accidentally stumbled upon a stationary object or hit a dead end. In the city itself, I rarely felt like I was being directed one way or the other, but rather as if I was wandering on my own, curious about everything I saw in the distance. The quest structure of “Stray” reflects this: whenever I felt like I had stumbled upon a side quest, it almost always ended up looping back into the main plot in some way or other. another one.
Much of “Stray’s” narrative is told through memories and snippets of information you glean from your surroundings as you climb through the city levels. This constant trickle of insight meant that I never stopped scouring every area I entered in search of clues, eager to piece together the mystery of the city’s past. And I was totally okay with that, because the world of “Stray” is a world you’re only too happy to bask in. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time in a video game doing nothing. Every time the cat curled up for a nap, I sat up and vibrated, watching the camera slowly zoom in to reveal more of the beautiful surroundings as soft music played, listening to the city breathe as a soft purr echoed through my controller. . I deliciously scratched furniture and knocked over stacks of books, knocked things off shelves, and meowed a million times (mostly because Cheeto was meowing back or looking for another cat). No in-game achievements or incentives were needed to encourage me to be my most boring cat self.
I suspect one of the reasons it’s so compelling to bask in the world of “Stray” is that, for a robot city, it’s full of life. Playing as a cat makes this easy to convey without an explicit explanation: a heart will appear on a robot’s face when you hug its leg; an angry face flashes when you hurt; they stumble if you rush between their legs. Taking pleasure in petting a stray cat and treating it with great affection are traits immediately recognizable as human, even when enacted by a machine.
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“Stray” is not without flaws. He signals in the third act, where he trades the platform for stealthy mechanics that feel out of place. You weave through a stark concrete facility that looks like it could have been pulled from any other stealth game, which is especially a shame considering how other parts of the city are remembered. Its controls are tricky at times, especially when trying to get back down to ground level, which could turn into a battle with the camera to get the jump prompt to appear on the correct surface. It was not still clear why I could jump on one surface but not another either, and a lot of the frustration could have been avoided with some sort of mechanic to highlight the Horizon-series climbable ledges.
Minor complaints aside, “Stray” is an engrossing experience, the kind of game that doesn’t leave your brain after the credits roll. Namely, immediately after beating the game, I jumped into the Chapter Select feature, excited to unlock more memories and replay areas with fresh eyes.
Its ending leaves a lot of open questions that I wish I had answered, but at the same time, I’m glad they didn’t try to fix all the issues. On the one hand, it left me wanting to know more. All too often, stories get bogged down with the whys and wherefores of every detail, muddying the waters with thoroughness and realism. For a dystopian narrative, “Stray” isn’t interested in preaching to the player. He doesn’t try to make grand claims about human pride or short-sighted innovation. Instead, it guides you through a living, breathing city where robots have fashioned their own society from the ashes of another, and lets players make humanity’s self-destruction what they want. want. And that impression will stay with you long after the game is over.