Stray is the cat game. If you pay attention to games you’ve heard about the cat game—the game where you play as a cat. It’s not like the goose game, where you’re an asshole to people, or the goat game, where, uh, you’re an asshole to people, even if cats are nature’s most lovable and snuggleable assholes. No, this generally well-meaning cat has to navigate a post-apocalyptic underground city populated by the robotic helpers left behind after climate devastation and a pandemic destroyed humanity years earlier, and you get to help it. Congrats.
Stray absolutely understands what it’s like to be a cat—at least from a human’s perspective. This cat will scratch on rugs, walls, and furniture. This cat will nonchalantly knock glasses, vases, and even open cans of paint off shelves. This cat will get its head stuck in paper bags, hang out in empty boxes, or idly swat balls back and forth, if you want it to. This cat will even jump onto a table in the middle of a game of dominoes, knocking the pieces all over the floor. It’ll also purr and meow, rub itself lovingly against the legs of those it likes, and even snuggle up against a robot as it takes a nap. Stray captures the mischief, aloofness, and sweetness of a cat, while also uncannily recreating the way they look and move.
Stray’s first few minutes feel like a revelation. Your cat and a few of its fellow strays strut about some overgrown industrial site, just being cats. There’s no clear motivation, no clear goals, just curiosity and the joy of movement. The promise of an open-ended cat exploration game is palpably exciting. Obviously this game is going to have to become a game, though, so as the tutorial ends your kitty is separated from its clowder, introduced to fearful robots (who are, themselves, strays) who need the help of a (very small, very furry) stranger just like you, and Stray starts to introduce its sad yet hopeful themes. And since a cat will need some way to interact and communicate with the world around it, Stray quickly teams your little buddy up with its own little buddy: B-12, a small drone with a big brain and a bad memory. B-12 is navigator, translator, hacker, weapon, flashlight, and more, all in one—and with a mystery that becomes crucial to Stray’s story.
Although you play as a cat, there’s no way to really play like a cat. We can’t really think like a cat, and technology has not advanced to the point where we can play videogames without the use of our own human thoughts and emotions. Add in the talkative helper, the meeting and greeting of every robot who doesn’t try to kill you, and the quid pro quo quests, and you have a fairly traditional adventure game despite its unique hero. Once that realization settles in, and you’re in the middle of doing a favor for a robot so he can give you the whatsis you need to do a favor for ANOTHER robot, you might have a hard time remembering the excitement of that tutorial.
The emotional stakes continue to increase, though. You learn more about your drone friend and how it came to get its personality. You get deeper and deeper into the world these robots live in, and what happened to make it this way. You start to care, not just about yourself or your buddy, but about the robots you meet along the way, from the ones who’ve spent years trying to break out of their mundane lives, to those who are just happy getting by where they are. Stray works not because of its lovable cat hero, but because it makes you care about its story, both through the fiction it creates and the real-world facts it evokes.
The cat gets the hype, but it’s the cat’s robot friend that ultimately makes the biggest impression. If B-12 was just a typical guide—a hint system and blinking arrow in character form—Stray wouldn’t work. B-12’s journey of self-discovery is the main emotional through line in the game, the wire upon which the entire experience hangs, and even if you can tell where that story is going before the drone can, it’s told with a clarity and forthrightness that adds to its power. To its credit, Stray never gets too cute, too clever, or too complicated, relaying its twists and developments quickly and directly.
When you’re not exploring or helping robots, you’ll mostly be hiding or running from two different kinds of enemies that want to kill you. The first is a sort of mutated sewer rodent called a Zurk that has developed the ability to eat through anything, including metal. Your first encounters with Zurks will see you run like hell to avoid packs of them as they surge towards you. You can briefly weather a few Zurks on your back, but if you don’t shake them off quickly they will kill you. Later on you’ll have to avoid sentry drones armed with machine guns; this leads to stealth sections so primordially stealthy that you’ll be hiding in cardboard boxes like this cat is a Snake.
In a clear attempt at adding variety, there’s one passage where you wield a weapon that can destroy the Zurks. B-12 can shine a purple light that makes them explode, but it overheats quickly, so you have to juggle how often you’ll use it as swarms of Zurks surround you. It’s a fine mechanic that thematically fits the game’s notion of abandoned robots trying to scrape by in a world made for and ruined by their human creators, but it’s only used in one section of the game. Economy in art is usually a good thing—most songs should be two minutes or less, with no more than two repetitions of the chorus, unless they’re just one or two chords for like a half hour straight (the best kind of song)—but one-time-only mechanics in games tend to be an exception that proves the rule. Mechanics that appear once and then vanish for the rest of the game can often feel like a distraction, or like a nail sticking out of a floorboard, and that’s true with Stray’s light zapper.
Despite that one design digression, Stray is focused and straight-forward in both its story and structure. You’ll get to a new robot settlement, help out its residents until you have what you need to progress, brave a dangerous passage to the next robot town, and repeat, until your cat and B-12 finally complete their mission. B-12’s memories are a kind of collectible you’ll have to search for, and a few optional side-quests require scrounging up assorted bric-a-brac, but Stray doesn’t make you wander about examining every nook and cranny for something you may or may not actually need. That’s a good thing for a videogame, but if you were hoping to really just play as a cat doing cat-like things, “pointlessly searching for stuff you don’t need” would be exactly what you wanted. The cat game might be less about the cat and more about the existential crises facing mankind and the artificial intelligences that will be left behind, but at least there’s a dedicated meow button.
Stray was developed by BlueTwelve Studio and published by Annapurna Interactive. Our review is based on the PlayStation 5 version. It is also available for PC and PlayStation 4.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.