Very rarely does a game release where you play as a character in a world that's larger than life. It's common to play games with sweeping landscapes, fantasy monsters, and an open world waiting to be discovered. One of the other games I've given a "5-star" rating to, Elden Ring, is a prime example of this trope done right. As much praise as that game has received, there may be a new contender to take the throne on "game immersion." There are plenty of reasons why I feel Stray should join in the GOTY discussions despite it not being a "perfect" game.
Players who dive into Stray expecting to play as a cat will appreciate and enjoy the ride. Those who expect it to be a "cat simulator," exploring a "vast open world" and doing things that cats do will be disappointed, in a manner of speaking. Stray has a story and it tells it through the eyes of a stray cat. A cog in the machine of a vast underground network of East Asian-inspired metropolises. There's a lot to break down and I'll mark when things enter spoiler territory out of courtesy.
Stray begins with the player controlling the titular orange cat, belonging to a pack of cats who are just like them. They explore an abandoned facility, which serves as the game's tutorial for controlling the cat until they eventually fall from a broken pipe. As the cat plummets into the underground, they come across a seemingly abandoned city, separated from their friends. Eventually, the cat meets a drone named B-12 who tells them the situation. B-12 also promises to help the cat reach the Surface to their friends again if the cat helps them with their own quest. Thus a friendship between cat and machine is born, with many machines or Companions to befriend.
The gameplay is simple yet it's something I'm not the biggest fan of. The cat is nimble enough to sprint and dodge out of harm's way, allowing itself to jump across ledges and platforms when there's a button prompt for it. You cannot jump organically in Stray, rather the game will tell you which objects you can climb or traverse across. Holding the button will cause the cat to traverse across several gaps without breaking momentum.
Stray is not the first game to do this but I'd honestly rather have a way to jump manually without "Press X to Jump and Climb." There were several instances towards the end of the game as I was pursued by these killer drones known as Sentinels that I would be stuck in a jam. Pointless deaths were among my mild annoyances simply because I was not in the right area of a wooden beam to get out of harm's way. Once you get used to what's climbable and what isn't, the player can find shortcuts and reach heights by simply pouncing on AC units and windowsills.
The cat doesn't have a name and the many Companions who meet the cat will simply call them a cat or something else entirely. For the sake of this review and because I feel the cat was left without a name because "self-insertion" is a thing, I'll name the cat Snickerdoodle. Its dark orange fur reminded me of a snickerdoodle so that's the cat's name, deal with it. Before Snickerdoodle can safely reach the city, they must fend off the game's biggest threat to our feline hero, the Zurks. These flesh-eating parasites may appear "cute" but these maggots are anything but.
Outside of the game's three main safe zones, the underground city looms with the Zurks, often coming in groups. They see our Snickerdoodle as a walking buffet and will stop at nothing to devour them. How players deal with the Zurks comes in two sections, the first is during chase sequences much like the beginning. There are sections where the player will need to avoid the Zurks as they will overwhelm the cat and start to take a bite out of them.
Sustaining too much damage will cause the cat to perish, restarting back to the previous checkpoint. Already, Stray is shaping up to be more than just a "slice-of-life play as a cat" game as there's a sense of urgency. There's a lingering sense of horror as close encounters and uncomfortable scenarios are established. The stakes are high, but at least in city limits you're safe, right?
The first friend outside of B-12 that Snickerdoodle will meet is Momo, one of the four Companions who make up a group known as the Outsiders. The Outsiders believe that there is such a thing as "the Surface" and have spent years trying to prove it. It's worth mentioning that The Slums is one of the first "civilian locations" introduced in Stray. In these neighborhoods, the cat travels through tight alleyways with buildings high as a cat can see. There are plenty of ways to get to the roofs and seek higher ground, yet it didn't take me a long time to notice the East Asian influences in Stray.
From 'Sleeping Dogs' to 'Napping Cats'
One of the first NPCs the player meets is known as The Guardian, whose appearance along with several others in the slums is based on Buddhism. The tightly packed alleyways and buildings are also based on the Walled City of Kowloon, something that was confirmed by the developers two years ago. The "beta name" for Stray was initially named "HK_Project," further proving the location's influence.
While the underground city draws influence from Hong Kong, it's interesting to consider what was Stray's inspiration for the "Surface." An abandoned forest with broken technology from a bygone era. It most certainly treads a similar path to that of Crysis 3, but I wish the "surface" was something more to explore in Stray.
Stray keeps its story tied to a "small cat in a big city," yet its inhabitants are equal parts kind and apathetic to the cat. Half of the inhabitants have never seen a live human before much less an animal while others who have lived long enough will become aware of their existence. The game does a fantastic job at painting a picture where a city of robots does their best to live human lives. The city is filled with bars filled with patrons, a barbershop with a barber running maintenance on a fellow robot, and there's even a nightclub for recreation. Even the interactions are genuine, some questioning life while others are trying to have a good time.
The higher the cat reaches to the "Surface," the more intense security gets which alludes to the social commentary of a police state. It's interesting to note that by the time the cat enters the underground city, we've entered a world unique and foreign to us because we're looking at things through perspective. When, in fact, the Companions have been living here for years, some even centuries. It doesn't mean that our Snickerdoodle can't create mischief. Causing mischief is a requirement to progress and it is here that I felt more like a cat than anything.
One of the early examples is a robot who is shivering and refuses to help the cat until they have enough warmth to concentrate. There's a kind granny who can weave a blanket for us but she's missing a wire needed to bind the blanket together. Coincidentally, there's a marketplace that sells the wire needed to make the blanket, but the owner wants a bottle of laundry detergent in exchange for the wire.
The laundromat that has the detergent the merchant needs is locked and there just so happens to be two Companions tossing tubs of paint across the rooftops directly above. It would be unfortunate if a certain orange kitten meowed loud enough for the robots to drop the paint down below, forcing the laundry lady out to clean the mess, thus granting you passage into the laundromat.
A similar chain of events happens later on in the game when the player needs to retrieve several articles of clothing. Without saying much, the chain begins with receiving a cassette tape and ending with a grand heist of worker's clothing. There are also several chances to make a mess of things by completely ruining a game of Mahjong by simply being a cat. Stray is at its best when it lives up to the promise of being a cat. It's questionable in other aspects when it dares to be different.
Major-ish Spoilers Ahead
Despite an impressive beginning for Stray, with a healthy dose of exploration and treading unsafe territory with the Zurks, there is a moment where the game flips upside-down. I'm talking about the Sewers level and the events leading up to it. The main goal in Stray is for our kitten to reunite the Outsiders by meeting each of them and finding a way to the Surface. One of the Outsiders, Doc, gives us an upgrade to B-12 that allows us to fight the Zurks. It seems they hate intense light as they simply evaporate with high UV light. Shortly after this is the one and only section of the game that made me consider Stray as a horror game.
You read it right, at one point I considered Stray a horror game simply because the atmosphere in the Sewers is vastly different from the rest of the game. The Sewers have been inhabitable for many years, becoming a festering breeding ground for the Zurks. As such, there's danger at every corner with entire Zurk hives and eggs waiting to be hatched. Snickerdoodle can eliminate the threat with their new UV beam, but then the scenery begins to change the deeper out feline traverses.
Like, the blinking eyeballs from a mutated wall type of scenery.
This is never explained nor is this ever brought up again for the rest of the game, but it was definitely an eye-opener no pun intended. Shortly after, the player enters the aforementioned village that offers a peaceful and well-appreciated contrast. There's also a later level that introduces Sentinels. These flying drones will immediately immobilize Snickerdoodle, effectively cutting our game short should they get captured. As such, the final third of the game turns into a stealth game where the player will need to do some careful platforming to avoid the rather unfair instakill laser beams.
This wasn't enough for me to turn the game off in disgust as I've actually appreciated this part of the game. It subtly builds up a dystopian totalitarian state where the police Companions seek to retain order at any cost. They see our Snickerdoodle and the rest of the Outsiders as threats to the status quo. We're even placed in jail courtesy of our "Companion" who has sold us out for money, as it were. This is the final section of the game and it's split into two parts, finding our friend B-12 and escaping with the last Outsider, Clementine. For a final level, it's nothing that the player hasn't experienced before. I almost missed our "flesh-eating parasitic" Zurks as dealing with the Sentinels is a waiting game.
The final part of the level involves trapping the Sentinels into jail cells with careful maneuverability, which is a unique concept but it would have been better if I could freely jump instead of praying for cover from getting shot. It's the end-game so Stray doesn't pull any punches in letting the player know that this is indeed a game and not a cat simulator. If the player has made it this far, it shouldn't be difficult to grasp but alas.
Finally, the "final level" is nothing more than a way to wrap the story up. There's no imminent threat or danger here and the goals are clear. One missed opportunity is the ability to fully explore this final area, though given the circumstances there wouldn't be anything to explore. The contrast with the clean and pristine final level compared to the dirt and grittiness of the rest of the underground city is polarizing. Almost as polarizing as knowing that the upper echelon was simply following orders left from a race long since extinct.
The ending to Stray is predictable if not emotional, to me at least. I find many things easily emotional and the ending served its purpose. As our Snickerdoodle finally finds its way out to the surface with no resistance from the remaining Companions, the cat looks back once more, realizing they were a small cat who was responsible for a huge change in many livelihoods.
Spoilers Over, Time To Stretch And Nap
My final thought on Stray is that it's a game where you play as a cat on a mission to return back from whence it came. The idea of having a talking ally in the form of a drone is a clever way of giving our protagonist a voice. All our cat can do is "meow" and they do not understand the language of the Companions. Instances, where we are without B-12, are meant to fill the player with a sense of loneliness, especially in the later levels. I feel as if the devs were able to convey the vast world and characterization of Stray by making robots feel more human than actual humans.
Stray is a short game that can be easily beaten on average about 4 hours should the player forego most of the optional side quests. Players can earn badges for going out of their way to complete objectives like helping a botanist with their plants or providing a busker with sheet music to play their songs. There's even a trophy for beating the game in under 2 hours, a feat easily done once the player knows what to do before the game asks them to do it.
As such, I can recommend Stray for the experience it provides and the subtle messages it gives the player through its world-building and story. On the surface, you play as a cute cat while doing things a stray cat is prone to doing. As the player dives deeper, they'll discover a world that's parallel with ours and an adventure that ends in satisfaction.
Stray is available on the PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows.