It’s a question that has burned since the dawn of time (probably). Are cats or dogs better? Well, fortunately I’m a fan of both so won’t stoop to such tribal discussions (I’m looking at you console wars people). When Stray first sauntered onto the scene, a game which allows you to play as one of the furry felines, I was instantly smitten. So now, like so many others, I’m delighted that it has found its way to the Xbox.
As you may well have gathered, you play as a stray cat who becomes separated from its family and embarks on an epic adventure to escape a deep, long-forgotten city. Presented from the third person viewpoint, Stray lifts the lid on a mysterious, dangerous place hidden from the outside world.
Now, of course one of the best things about Stray is being able to play as a cat. It seems like a simple idea, but one that actually hasn’t been done an awful lot in the past, especially in this way. What the game does well is that it manages to capture how cats like to climb up high and reach seemingly impossible areas. You’ll be scaling pipes, navigating hanging girders and hopping across rooftops.
Moving between platforms is done simply by tapping the A button, and you can’t walk off the edge by accident which is a nice safety net. Your little kitty is nimble too, being able to sprint away from enemies when needed. At certain points, you can curl up for a little sleep, show affection to the inhabitants of the underground city and meow whenever you like. It’s clear that Stray has been designed in such a way that cat lovers can really appreciate. It’s incredibly adorable.
True to form, you can also scratch numerous rugs, sofas and walls. Sometimes this is just because you can, but sometimes it will reveal something hidden. It’s always fun to do, and is another example of the attention to deal in Stray which makes it feel like the most authentic cat simulator going.
Platforming forms the main chunk of the gameplay, and that is absolutely how it should be. This also includes pretty straightforward puzzles from time to time, mainly in the form of fetch and find tasks. Otherwise, the mutated horrors known as Zurks will pursue you, and your only option is to leg it. These segments are seamlessly blended into the adventure, popping up fairly frequently.
Before too long, you’ll come across a plucky little drone called B12 who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the adventurous cat. Together, they form an alliance with an aim of escaping back to the world above. During your journey, B12 will unearth new memories which help chronicle what has happened to the decaying cybercity, helping to shed light on recent events.
There are a couple of larger hub areas which are full of residents to chat to, who all seem bemused as to what a cat is, but still understand that it’s very cute. You’ll be thrown a few quests which will encourage you to explore the environment, and there are also extra items to hunt down.
For example, in one part of the city there’s a musician who you can give sheet music to that you find, and he will play a jaunty tune. There are also little badges to be discovered that will be attached to the harness your cat is wearing. It is a small detail which adds to the overall character of the game.
This is what I love most about Stray. Above all else it’s telling a story, and the little side quests are not there to unlock a new ability, or a flashy new gun, but instead to allow you to experience something else in the world. That’s your reward. Some could argue it’s simple and maybe a little too easy, but it’s such a beautifully crafted game that it doesn’t really matter and they would be completely missing the point. From the cat’s perspective, the world feels huge and at times threatening, but then it can be equally beautiful and heartwarming in equal measure.
There are so many details to be admired in Stray. Whether it’s the combination of nature and machines co-existing which is reflected in the design of the environments, the sound of the cat’s little pads tapping on the floor as it runs along or the brilliant storytelling, it’s bursting with character. However, the image of the little kitty sitting in a water bucket as it slides down a pulley is one of the most endearing sights I’ve ever seen in a game.
Stray looks brilliant too. The world is bursting with life (ironically) and the developers BlueTwelve Studio have created a place that piques the curiosity of the player. I instantly connected with the game and became invested in not only finding out as much as possible about the world, but experiencing as much of what it had to offer as possible. This meant I ended up finishing it in just two sittings. Like many good things, I ended up bingeing Stray, slightly regretting it afterwards.
The only real criticism I can see being levelled against Stray is its length. I’m the type of player who likes to explore every nook and cranny of a game, but I still beat it in just shy of six hours. Despite a few hidden bits and bobs to find, there’s not much else to go back and do. However, I loved every second and could easily go and play it again, but I did want more. The good news is that Stray is not being sold as a full price release, instead coming in at around £24.99 which feels about right.
All in all, Stray surprised me, mostly as I assumed it would just play on the cat gimmick. But behind that masterstroke is an intriguing and emotionally charged story that works so well and totally absorbs you into the world. I can’t think of anything quite like it and for that reason, it’s a must play.
Stray is a masterclass in escapism gaming. Taking a rather unusual perspective doesn’t stop this being a joyous experience from start to finish, irrespective of whether you are a cat person or not.