I load up Stray, and I’m instantly greeted by our small, ginger Outsider. To progress, I must interact with my fellow feline friends, giving them a groom or play fighting with them, before we all curl up together for a catnap. It becomes apparent, very quickly, that these felines are my family.
Stray fades to black after this short, but powerful, opening scene. Sure enough, there are tears in my eyes already. You may be thinking that I should get a grip, but I’m a cat person through and through. I haven’t had cats for a few years, but Stray has a funny way of reminding you of every cat you may have ever encountered, past and present, and just how impactful these creatures are on our lives.
But this adventure isn’t about me, or any of the cats that I’ve been lucky to care for. Stray is all about the Outsider (our furball), Momo and the Companions, Seamus and his father, and perhaps – most importantly – B-12. Stray is a touching tale of loss, loneliness, environmental destruction, and what it means to be human. But Stray is also a story of hope and meaningful connections, and just how important these are to our survival. Whether you’re a cat or not.
Once our furry friend parts ways with their family after an unfortunate fall down into Dead City, the real adventure begins – and what a beautiful journey it is that we end up embarking on. As the first hour or two unfolds, you’re truly whiskered away into the life of roaming around, four-legged, and the immersion at play is exceptional. Especially given that it’s the role of a cat that you’re stepping into, and not – yet another – human being.
While making progress through The Flat and The Slums, you’ll meet an array of vibrant characters that take the form of robots, and you’ll begin to unravel their individual stories and work out how they fit into the wider narrative. What happened here? Why is the city like this? As you start to paw the narrative threads apart, however, you’re constantly reminded that your protagonist is a cat: knocking over pots of paint, scratching doors or carpets, and nuzzling up to Grandma are just a few of the cat activities that our Outsider can engage in. These can be done standalone, although there are many instances in which they’ll be needed at the height of the action, too.
There is a constant reliance on the Outsider’s agility and dexterity, which is needed to progress, and it’s refreshing to see how deeply embedded the abilities of a cat are into the game's mechanics, as well as the environmental design.
Producer Swann Martin-Raget described the world as being the ‘purr-fect playground’ for a cat in our preview. Now, just a few weeks later, I can see exactly what they mean by this sentiment. From The Slums, to Midtown, and all the way to the Prison, Stray’s environment is not only visually stunning, but it’s scattered with platforms and items for our Outsider to take advantage of. Curtains, bins, towers of books. You name it, our cat can probably climb atop it. Or knock it over.
Not only do you navigate each chapter by naturally dashing through tiny gaps, jumping elegantly from platform to platform, or leaping across rooftops – as cats often do – but the responsibility is often put to you by others that you encounter across The Slums, Midtown, and beyond. These (mostly…) lovely robots that inhabit The Slums, Ant Village, and Midtown will help you on your mission to return home – but you must help them, too. This means navigating sewers and all other kinds of small and finicky areas that your standard robot wouldn’t be able to get through, and every action feels so valuable and so worthwhile. It almost feels as though your impact on these characters is more important than the real task at hand – making it back home – as the automata become so grateful for all that you, a sleek ginger kitty, can do for them.
The friendships that unfold as a result of your efforts are incredibly emotive and will stir up something in your soul. Without giving away too much of the tale, you’re not the only one who longs to be back at home with their family and out of The Slums. It appears that everyone here is lonely, at a loss, and longing for some sort of purpose – a purpose that lies with the outside world. An outside world which everyone has been locked off from, one in which most of our friends didn’t think existed or was safe any more.
So, when our Outsider lands in this unfamiliar world, its inhabitants see him as a sign of hope. For many, that’s what our pets are; they’re so much more than four-legged friends and familiars. Animals are family, and for many, they are symbolic of home and safety, too. In Stray, our four-legged Outsider symbolises just that, so there’s no turning back now – not just for them, but for everyone else we meet along the way too.
I mentioned the environment being ideal for a cat, but what I didn’t mention was how detailed it all was. Each chapter of Stray has its own designated zone, and none of them are any less beautiful or inviting than the last. The neon-drenched landscape is littered with platforms, artwork, signs, and even friendly robots. Not only is every alleyway or abandoned home designed for our cat to waltz around in, but they tell their own stories, too.
When you eventually tire of meowing at security cameras which nod back at you, or have had enough of curling up with Morusque as he plays the sheet music you’ve found for him, you’ll eventually find Momo residing in The Rooftops. Momo and his crew of Outsiders welcome our cute, agile Outsider with open arms once they realise what the adventurous kitty is capable of. Previously committed to finding a way outside, before they eventually gave up, the Outsider provides Momo with a glimmer of hope to keep on going. Here comes our first example of environmental storytelling at its finest.
You’ll be tasked with finding some books for Momo sooner or later, and you must visit a few abandoned flats to do so. While prowling each flat, and just about every other area in the game, you can piece together details to work out what happened and who lived there; you don’t need to do this, but as you attempt to find items and make it to the next chapter, you’ll find yourself often entranced by the environment, and doing so anyway. Let’s not forget to mention the fact that many of these flats are littered with mugs to knock over, keyboards to run across, and cow pictures for your viewing pleasure.
Exploration is further enhanced by B-12. B-12 is a little droid we find early on in Stray, and he becomes our companion throughout. The bot tracks your objectives, stores items, translates for you, and much more. By the end of the game, there’s no doubt that he’s your best and closest companion. During the main show, B-12 also has us find memories. Who’s memories? I can’t say, but most of these are hidden away in areas you’ll only find by going off the beaten path and exploring, thus encouraging you to spend more time really analysing the environment and just how detailed it is from a cat’s-eye view.
Mechanics like this are incredibly important to telling the whole story of Stray, but also so important for encouraging players to look a little harder. To really appreciate the beautiful setting at play and take in the wonderful accompanying synthy soundscape, I’d say it’s critical you go off the critical path – and often, too. You’ll be so pleasantly surprised and incredibly touched by the details of this strange world and its inhabitants that you can unveil.
How long can a game about a cat stay fresh for? Well, I prepared myself for the game to become repetitive, but Stray remains magical. Although, how much can one cat really do? Stray knocked this assumption on its head completely. Even as you advance into the later game, the puzzles and platforming remain fresh as you encounter new environments, new enemies, and new situations to get yourself out of.
By the time you’re in The Sewers, pots of paint and scratching doors to get by are a thing of the past, and everything becomes all the more intense. That doesn’t mean our adventure becomes any less about being a cat, though; every challenge is one that only our Outsider could do, and nobody else, and Stray does not let itself down by repeating anything.
Everywhere you go, there’s detail to bask in, and new playfully cat-sized tasks to complete. Considering I’ve been catless for a while now, the game was a distinct reminder of just how capable these animals are. They’ll simply never fail to find something to knock over or break, that’s for sure.
Stray is a real testament to the passion and dedication of developer, BlueTwelve, and its love for cats. An indie studio founded by two cat-lovers that left Ubisoft to pursue a new project, Stray took seven years to develop and is the studio’s first game – and I sincerely hope it won’t be their last. It has been wonderful to delve into the life of a cat in such an impeccable environment, and even more charming to get to know every character along the way.
The game feels so far from mechanical and is bursting at the seams with love and life, even in a world that seems so far removed from that at times. It’s been a pleasure to be reminded of just how powerful and important animals are to people. The inhabitants of Midtown and below will never forget our Outsider, and yes, I’ll be naming my next cat after Momo. Watch this space.
Stray might ultimately be indie in size, but it’s triple-A in quality, and while it may only last eight to 10 hours, it’s a game that has touched me for a lifetime. I can’t wait to see how Stray brings people together, because that’s exactly what it’s going to do. Now, go hug your cat for me, if you have one.