Stray isn’t as much a game about a cat, as one about the world said cat accidentally falls into. Rather than building its story around its furry protagonist, it shines the spotlight on a forgotten city, the robot inhabitants inside, and their troubles. Its opening sequence might suggest otherwise but, after a sudden spell of bad luck, your family of stray felines is quickly forgotten and replaced by B12, your new, trusty drone pal.
B12 is instrumental when it comes to interfacing with doors and other electrical equipment, although on a few occasions your claws also work. The drone is also your sole way of communicating with Companions, the city’s robotic population. These conversations rarely run for too long – and there’s a fair bit of reused dialog when trying to get information about the various items you pick up – yet each robot has different interests and slivers of insight about what surrounds them.
But as much as these bricks slot nicely into Stray’s worldbuilding puzzle, I can’t say that I found any of the individual characters to be particularly remarkable, even if, design-wise, you’ll find an array of different clothing and models that make populated areas of the city almost lively.
Humble beginnings, soon to be forgotten
Instead, Stray benefits more from the attention to detail that goes into its rusted hallways, walls overtaken by organic matter, and cluttered rooms. The latter has a strange sense of homeliness that, alongside the colorful neon lights you find across the city, contrast the hopelessness that permeates it.
The forgotten cybercity through which you run, jump, and crawl feels built with the furry protagonist in mind, as pipes, ventilation boxes, and buckets connected to pulleys facilitate clear navigation. In general, you’ll deal with smooth platforming, the game always offering button prompts that point out when you can jump to or from places, unless you turn them off in the settings.
This makes it easy to ignore the reflex to rush for ladders which aren’t that helpful for a cat that can often effortlessly reach the ledges they lead to. There’s no chance to miss jumps and, while it is a guarantee that you won’t be frustrated attempting to land on slim pipes, it also makes the whole process feel a little too uninvolved.
A well-deserved rest
For the most part, Stray is a linear game that blends these platforming elements with some puzzles and stealth. A few of its levels can be relatively freely explored, offering more opportunities to see the work that went into decorating rooms and giving places like bars – where forlorn robots look for an ounce of escapism – just the right atmosphere. They’re not expansive, by any means, but are put together well enough to warrant at least some exploration.
You’ll also have to deal with a couple of uninteresting chase sequences, that see you running away from zurks – small headcrab-like creatures – looking to turn you into a meal. Halfway through the game, you briefly get access to a device that can destroy them by changing the color and intensity of your torchlight. As handy a tool as it is, the short bit during which you get to use it feels longer than it should and comes with a good amount of frustration attached.
You can only use the device in short bursts – since it overheats – which forces you to draw zurks towards you, then run backwards as the device does its job. It’s not necessarily difficult – although I did die a number of times – and instead of applying a dose of tension, it just gives the sequence an annoying stop-start feel.
One of Stray's more open, explorable areas
The game itself also includes some rudimentary stealth sections but is self-aware enough to understand that waiting around to evade drones that can quickly send you back to the last checkpoint is neither novel nor thrilling. Only a handful of levels feature them and, although their inclusion makes sense in terms of worldbuilding, they manage to make what should be relatively short chunks of the game drag on.
Stray’s best moments are the incidental bits during which you do catlike things. I made it a mission to scratch as many sofas, rugs, and walls, despite it being a repetitive action that, for the most part, served no practical purpose. I’d often resort to the dedicated meow button to spice things up during platforming.
I’d happily have the furry protagonist try out every cozy sleeping spot I could find as well as throw things off buildings and tables even when it was entirely optional. The flavor they add, however, isn’t enough to pull the game’s entire weight, even if it only takes a handful of hours to complete.
While I don’t normally have any trouble using the keyboard and mouse for games that recommend a gamepad, Stray made me quickly switch to my PS5 controller. From its first moments, I encountered an issue that saw my camera randomly whipping up or behind me fairly regularly. My Logitech G703 Lightspeed mouse didn’t exhibit the same behavior in other titles and, while your mileage may vary, it was disappointing to experience.
On an i7-8700K, 16 GB RAM, Nvidia RTX 3080@1440p, Stray ran smoothly with all settings maxed out. Aside from two or three bits when loading new areas was a bit rough on the frame rate for a second or two, there’s nothing to complain about.
Not much here, aside from the option to rebind keys and remap controller buttons, although the PS5 controller’s layout is intuitive by default.
Stray is at its best when it lets you do the things you’d expect from a cat – sleeping on cozy pillows, meowing, or scratching sofas – but fails to build consistently compelling gameplay around these flavorful bits. Although it creates a believable world, I found it hard to connect with the robots you encounter across its forgotten city, making the game’s admittedly grand climax feel hollow.
There’s plenty of attention to detail going into certain areas, but once the credits rolled, I was disappointed to see the cat I played as was just a vessel through which I experienced someone else’s story.
Stray works and runs smoothly but is ultimately a fairly inoffensive game with a handful of special moments, that also happens to have a cat as its leading character. You can do much worse, but you can also do much better.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Realizing I can make unaware Companions trip and fall by getting in their way.
You can scratch things as a cat
You can meow as a cat
You can sleep on things as a cat
Platforming is smooth but feels uninvolved, other gameplay elements have been done better elsewhere
Difficult to connect to the robots you encounter and which are central to the plot
Protagonist is merely a vessel to tell someone else's story