In the modern era of video games, we often see large developers going all in on impressive and realistic visuals. Yet, the games seem to be lacking in other significant elements such as fun gameplay and an engaging story. But when we get a game that offers all of these qualities, and then some more, we know we have something that we will remember for years.

Stray, an indie game where you play as a cat in a post-apocalyptic cyberpunk world, stormed the mainstream media in the past week. Developed by BlueTwelve Studio and published by Annapurna Interactive, the game’s impressive visuals and cute animations had everyone hyped for its release. And with memorable gameplay, a beautiful story and world-building, and an amazing musical score, Stray didn’t disappoint the high expectations that it had set for itself.

As a cat person who has never had the chance to have one before, playing Stray was like a dream come true. I got to experience every cute and adorable mannerism that we have come to expect from all the internet cat videos. I also got to play through engaging and fun adventure gameplay, explore a mysterious and rich world, and take and share an excessive amount of screenshots like someone who has gotten a new kitten and can’t help themselves.

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I’m going to try and hold it together while writing captions for the images. But he is too adorable!

I had Stray on Steam and played it for a bit before deciding to give it a try on PlayStation 5 since it was available with the PlayStation subscription. My PC is a few years old now, and it was struggling to run the game as smoothly as it runs on PlayStation 5. If I had continued my playthrough on PC I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed Stray as much. So, I had to note this at the beginning of my review. This was the experience that the PlayStation 5 offers, and my initial impression of the PC version was slightly less positive.

Stray starts in a small cave, where we get to run around and interact with three other cats. The visuals and the realistic animations between the kittens are overwhelmingly heartwarming. Stray has one of the best openings I have played in a while, and it continues through the whole tutorial area. We learn different mechanics such as jumping and meowing, and the cat sounds are so adorable that many players get the achievement of meowing 100 times right at the beginning.

The starting area is a canal overtaken by nature. Plants and greenery have grown over all the pipes and railings, giving the sense of a place abandoned by humans for a long time. The subtle foreshadowing of what is to come in the rest of the game creates a unique and memorable experience, and one of the first feelings that caught me in Stray is the camera angle and perspective of playing as a cat. We experience the world around us and in many video games as humans, and whenever video games with realistic visuals try to give us the perspective of playing as a smaller creature, there seems to be something off with the scale, the speed, or the way we interact with the world. Stray manages to capture the feeling of playing as a cat perfectly. The world doesn’t seem unnaturally huge and intimidating. Movement and navigation feel right, and the way we jump around and interact with objects and other creatures in Stray is impressively cat-like. I didn’t feel like a human playing as a cat, I felt like I was the cat.

Stray Screenshot - The cat walking in an abandoned industrial area
The starting area, while serene, is a subtle foreshadowing of the state of the world as a whole.

In a heartbreaking scene, we are separated from our friends as we fall down a hole. We find ourselves injured at the bottom of the sewers. We see small glowing creatures rummaging through the trash, and start to find our way out of the sewers, and hopefully, back to the world above. After exiting the sewers, we find ourselves in an abandoned city. At first glance, it seems to be night time, with stars up above. But if we pay closer attention, we realize that they aren’t stars; they are lights at the bottom of a giant roof that encloses this whole city.

Our first moments in the dead city are extremely isolating. There seem to be no living creatures left in the world. But we start to see some cameras following our movement, and shortly after, some neon light on a wall, and four letters turn on to spell the word ‘help’. Someone is watching us. This still feels very ominous, but we continue. We get to an alleyway, and in a brilliant cinematic scene, red lights start to appear in front of us. The same creatures that we saw before, but in greater numbers. And they start to give chase.

Stray has a few of these chase sequences, and they feel exhilarating. The music helps the pace immensely, maneuvering between the small creatures is challenging but fun, and running through the streets makes the world feel even larger, without us needing to explore everything. The creatures, who we later learn are called Zurks, jump and latch on to us if they catch up, and can eventually slow and overwhelm us. But we can shake them off if we are not swarmed, and continue running.

Stray Screenshot - Neon lights spelling the word "Help" in a dark street.
The dead city has a very dark and ominous atmosphere, that changes to a more lighthearted community when we get to the Slums.

After this chase scene, we come into a room with multiple screens that are responsive to our meows. And we learn that whoever is controlling all the lights and screens in the city, is trying to communicate with us and guide us. Whenever we meow, we see lights turn on and show the path that we need to follow. This is an amazing use of the world itself to help navigation without needing quest markers and maps and excessive UI elements.

The UI of Stray is very minimalistic, but in the more complicated platforming sections, I started to see an issue. Whenever you get close to a ledge that you can jump to, an indicator with the jump button shows up on the edge. This was very helpful at the beginning, especially to help us learn how jumping and platforming work in the game. But in the dead city and later stages of the game, we come upon more vertical platforming with multiple possible jump destinations at any given moment. This made the jump indicator jarringly jump around the screen if you wanted to rotate the camera and look around. But luckily, there is the option to turn off this UI element in the settings. This was a very well-thought-of option to add on the part of the developers, and the game looked much better once we got used to the jumping physics and turned the indicators off.

After solving a few puzzles, we realize who was communicating with us. A sentient AI who was trapped in a network. We help them download their consciousness into a drone called B12. They can talk to us, translate the strange futuristic language for us, and give us more options for interacting with the world. The only thing that could make Stray even cuter, was an adorable drone companion, and we got it!

Stray Screenshot - Orange cat meeting the small drone, B12
Meeting B12 for the first time. This little drone will accompany us through the underground city and help us communicate with other robots.

With B12 by our side, we reach an alleyway, and we see a humanoid robot cleaning the street. They freak out as they see us, they sound an alarm, and we experience one of the coolest moments in the game. Red lights and alarm sounds are soaring through the streets, robots are running around, locking their doors and shutting their windows as they see us. A cat. Casually strolling through this mayhem.

We approach one of the robots, who slowly lowers his guard as he realizes we are not a Zurk. After a short conversation, he turns off the alarm, and we get to explore and see this strange robot settlement at the bottom of this underground city. We start to learn about the history of the world. Humans have been gone for a long time, and the robots who were once slaves to them, have made their own society and community in their place. We start to learn about their societal structures, the fate of humans, and the state of the world.

In a unique take, the robots who were once slaves to the human race, have taken up the worst qualities and flaws of the humans. They are separated in the different levels of the city by arbitrary standards, they still fear the outside world that the humans took shelter from, and they are stuck in the same dystopian society that had once led to the destruction of humans before them.

Stray Screenshot - A cat napping beside a robot musician
There were eight music sheets that we could find for this robot musician. Listening to each one while napping beside him and the controller vibrating like a purring cat, was one of the more relaxing moments of Stray.

Stray is also filled with easter eggs of our own culture and media to the point that it feels like they are more than just easter eggs. Sometimes I would recognize two or three of them in a single room, and I can’t imagine how many I’ve missed. These callbacks to famous movies, musical bands, artists, and video games were almost a part of the narrative design. Robots inherited many things from humans, and pop culture is a part of that. We now see signs of them scattered around the world hundreds of years after the humans themselves. For the sake of staying spoiler free, that’s all that I will say about the story. For the rest of the game, we continue to explore the world, learn about those who live in it, and try to find our way back.

The gameplay of Stray is a combination of 3D platformer and classic adventure games. When we need a specific item to progress, we need to go through a chain of side quests, fetching items for different NPCs and doing small tasks until we find what we need. But these side quests aren’t excessive or hard to finish. Actually, with a little patience, we can complete all the side quests, explore every corner of the world, and solve every puzzle in the game. We even get some exciting action in the middle of the game where we build a gun that can blow up the Zurks. I’m not an achievement hunter in video games, but getting to 100% completion in Stray was fairly easy and enjoyable, and doable in one playthrough without any external guides.

Stray is also full of minigames, but not the typical minigames that we are used to in other titles. Minigames in Stray are pushing a basketball into a bucket, trying to play pool and put every ball in the holes, scratching carpets and furniture, pushing objects off of edges, taking a nap and purring while listening to futuristic music, and overall, being a cat. It feels amazing to just run around and interact with different objects in the world. You can perhaps finish Stray‘s main plot in two or three hours, but you are likely to spend a lot more just enjoying the game’s physics and interactivity.

Stray Screenshot - a multileveled underground settlement
This vertical settlements was a small and short section of the game, but it was very fun to explore, and I wish there were more to it.

The hype and expectations surrounding Stray were unprecedented for an indie title, and in the end, it holds up to all of it. Stray gives us a visually stunning world, amazing storytelling, fun gameplay, and tons of adorable moments that we will remember for a long time.

Nima reviewed Stray on PlayStation 5 with a personal copy. Stray is also available on Steam and PlayStation 4.

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