I couldn’t contain my excitement the first time I saw a glimpse of Stray. The premise of playing as a stray cat in a post-human, cyberpunk world is inherently compelling because cats are the ultimate little creatures. But I’ve seen what unregulated hype can do to a cyberpunk game, so my optimism for Stray over the past couple of years has been cautious. After watching a hands-off presentation — getting a preview of its dilapidated city’s ripe stories and the developer’s dedication to crafting a feline facsimile — I’m happy to say that Stray looks like a fuzzy, authentic feel-good adventure for cat lovers everywhere.
A small group of developers in France founded BlueTwelve Studio to create Stray, the third-person cat-based adventure. In Stray, an unnamed orange feline (based on the co-founders’ pet) is mysteriously thrust into a robot-inhabited city, desperate to limp past his injuries and find his loved ones.
As a lifelong friend of cats, it was shocking for me to see the lengths to which BlueTwelve has cleanly translated housecat mannerisms into a video game. You’re able to hit a button to meow at will; you can press RT and LT to knead your paws against a carpet (with haptic feedback for PlayStation 5 players); and you can, annoyingly, knock over most objects. These systems are silly and not always useful for puzzle-solving, but every single one adds to the fantasy of being a cat. When they move in harmony with each other, they’re mesmerizing to behold and make it impossible not to meld right into the stray cat mindset.
Your alley adventures take place in a mix of linear and open-world settings, mostly consisting of jumping through apartment buildings and running through metallic nooks and crannies only a cat could squeeze through. Shortly into the game, you get a backpack (a catpack?) and meet pint-sized drone companion B-12, who helps you better understand, interact, and communicate with the unfamiliar world and its humanoid inhabitants.
Exploration is definitely one of the high points of Stray — especially when it comes to B-12’s memory mechanics, which allow you to collect shreds of history about any odd thing. For example, during the presentation, there was a beautiful pot of red flowers flourishing in a pitch-black room. B-12 explains that robots have had to manufacture plants, engineering them with the specific purpose to survive in their underground borough without sunlight. These little tidbits of information are scattered throughout Stray, building out the battered city in subtle but emotionally resonant ways, even if those details aren’t intrinsic to the main quest.
Despite this being a post-human society, androids continue to emulate the worst of humanity; there is still a clear wealth disparity that causes robots to fight for scraps in a sea of trash, while others stay dripped out in exclusive streetwear. It’s all twisted! And it’s up to you, a little orange cat, to figure out why this is even happening — and maybe even propose a solution.
For the most part, Stray seems to be a down-tempo expedition carried by a method of storytelling executed through understated surroundings, evocative level art, and quietly detailed animations. But it also has its intense moments, like when you endeavor out to the city outskirts.
It’s almost evening, and the last of the sun’s rays shimmer off of an emerald pool of malignant waste. Ominous chirps echo into the atmosphere in front of you. The orange fuzzball isn’t scared, though, as he emits a confident “murp” before he leaps across the scattered debris, tactfully outrunning his predators: slimy, machine-devouring blobs of parasites. These chase sequences introduce an unexpected level of stress to Stray that shakes up the stakes and balances out the leisurely strolls.
In my short time with Stray, it was clear that its developers have crafted the ideal world and mechanics to host the ultimate running-around-as-a-little-guy simulator. I can’t wait to get my paws on the final product. The mechanical, cat-friendly world of Stray is hitting PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Steam on July 19, 2022.