The most realistic cat ever to appear in a video game is the star of a peculiar cyberpunk style adventure in a world ruled by robots.
No matter how popular they may be on YouTube, cats are always the last choice for an animal hero, whether it’s movies, TV, or video games. Bubsy Bobcat, Mae from Night In The Woods, and Meowth are already scraping the bottom of the barrel in terms of cat-themed protagonists and the reason for that seems obvious: as cute as they are, a cat wouldn’t lift a paw to help anyone. But there’s always an exception to the rule.
Stray is an unusual game in a number of ways. For starters, it’s an indie title that often looks better than many a full price game. Although it’s actually completely free if you’re a PS Plus Extra or Premium subscriber, as this is the first example of a new game being available from day one on the service. (There’s also a free trial for PS Plus Premium this week, so theoretically everyone can play the game for nothing.)
You play as a cat, an ordinary non-anthropomorphised cat, but in a post-apocalyptic, Blade Runner style city populated by robots and what look like the headcrabs from Half-Life. The game flits between whimsical fetch quests, such as making someone a poncho to keep them warm, to survival horror style elements accompanied by a discordant industrial soundtrack. Like we said, it’s an unusual game, but rarely a dull one.
Although nothing is explained in any detail, the implication is that hundreds of years ago the Earth suffered some kind of ecological breakdown, exacerbated by the creation of a special bacteria to break down waste that, by the time of the game, has evolved into the headcrab-like Zurks. At first, the cat (he doesn’t have a name so we’re going to call him George) knows nothing of this because he and his pals live in an area where nature has grown back, but after taking a fall George finds himself in a subterranean walled city, purposefully locked off from the rest of the world.
The idea seems to have been to lock everyone inside until nature has had a chance to repair itself, but humans have long since died out and the only inhabitants of the city are robots, who also live in fear of the Zurks and have begun to believe that the outside world is just a myth. For a game about a cute furball, Stray has a peculiarly melancholy atmosphere, with the virtual immortality of the robots having forced most of them into a state of lethargic ennui.
A few have rebelled though and it’s these that George befriends, as he journeys through the sewer system, the dystopian Midtown, and onwards towards the city’s administrative centre. There are two or three open world hub areas in the game, where you’re in no danger, while the other sections are more linear but still with a few hidden secrets.
Stray is essentially a puzzle platformer. There’s no jump button as such but as long as you’re close enough to a platform George will automatically leap there. There’s some inconsistencies in terms of what surfaces are reachable but generally this works very well at maintaining the illusion you’re controlling a real cat, and not a cartoon character that vaguely looks like one.
We do hate to use the term, for obvious reasons, but Stray has one of the most extreme cases of ludonarrative dissonance we’ve seen in a long time. That is to say, there’s a major disconnect between the story and what you actually do in the gameplay. Despite George being an ordinary cat he not only seems to understand everything said to him but he happily carries around things like buckets and power supplies in his mouth, to solve physics based puzzles like an ordinary video game character.
Obviously, he’s doing that because you’re controlling him, but in the context of the story itself it makes no sense. Indeed, the fact that he’s a cat has no real bearing on anything, other than the fact that he’s good at jumping. It doesn’t have to, in order to be a good game, but something along the lines of Untitled Goose Game seems a much better template for a cat simulator than Super Cyberpunk Bros.
As it is, early on in the game you meet a little drone who attaches a backpack to George and helps by translating the robots and acting as a gun to deal with the Zurks (they don’t like ultraviolet light). The Zurks only seem to lurk in the sewers though and once you’re through to Midtown they’re completely forgotten about and instead the threat becomes overzealous security robots.
Midtown looks absolutely amazing, like the best Blade Runner adaptation never made, but there’s less to do in it than the opening hub area and the whole surveillance society angle is severely undercooked, with no indication of who’s in charge or what they actually believe.
It does provide the opportunity for some perfectly enjoyable stealth elements, which involve such stalwarts as staying outside of an enemy’s zone of vision and hiding in boxes. Although the tone is odd, especially the creepier stuff with the Zurks, the game seems to be aimed primarily at casual gamers and as such it’s a good primer for many common elements, including platforming, shooting, stealth, and fetch quests.
Even with the, often literal, signposting It’s not patronisingly easy but you’ll speed through it in six hours or so and while you’ll probably miss some collectables there’s not really much incentive to play any of it again. At normal price we’d struggle to recommend the game but since it is free with PS Plus Extra, and that’s how most people are going to play it, this is an agreeably undemanding adventure.
Whether it will inspire others to give cats more starring roles we’ll have to wait and see but if nothing else this is the most realistic portrayal of the feline form ever seen in a video game. Saying it’s not something you’d necessarily want to pay for sounds like a damning indictment, but it shouldn’t be taken that way. This is a perfect introduction to traditional video games, for those that don’t usually play them, and a fun diversion, that doesn’t overstay its welcome, for those that do.
Stray video game review summary
In Short: A peculiar mix of cyberpunk dystopia and whimsical platformer that is just about held together by some excellent visuals and a very cute cat.
Pros: The platforming, puzzle-solving, stealth, and gunplay all work well and are very accessible for casual gamers. Excellent visuals and great presentation all round.
Cons: Short, simplistic, and with little real replayability. Odd tone that makes little sense considering you’re controlling an ordinary cat.
Formats: PlayStation 5 (reviewed), PlayStation 4, and PC
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Developer: BlueTwelve Studio
Release Date: 19th July 2022
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