Stray is the best cat game ever made and a serious GOTY contender
Inverse Score: 9/10
Almost immediately, Stray brought me to tears.
The sight of the unnamed feline protagonist dangling from the top of a cliff Mufasa-style was almost too much to bear. And this immediate punch to the gut set the tone for the emotional journey ahead. As the cat fell, I gasped and held my breath — hoping they’d stick the landing. And of course, they do. They’re a cat, after all. But what happened after that was beyond anything I could have expected — a flurry of surprises were thrown my way, gripping me until the very end.
Stray is about a cat who ends up in a dystopian, cyberpunk city with the goal of escaping and freeing a civilization of trapped robots in the process. It’s presented from a third-person perspective, features light puzzles, lots of exploration, and plenty of platforming that will no doubt keep you entertained, especially if you’re a cat-lover.
Developer BlueTwelve Studio is a master of its craft, both in its handling of Stray’s intuitive gameplay and its clever integration of realistic cat behaviors throughout. The result is a unique adventure, unlike any game you’ve played before.
Frustration free zone
Stray’s gameplay is mostly comprised of platforming and puzzle-solving, as you explore a stunningly gorgeous city inhabited by robots. The catch? Playing as a cat fundamentally changes how objectives are tackled. For instance, the protagonist can jump much higher than a human, traverse narrow beams, and even fit into small spaces, leading to some wonderfully creative level design. Jumping up on boxes and AC units to reach the city’s rooftops always feels rewarding, partly because this game is so dang beautiful.
Stray nails a careful balance of difficulty with approachability. For instance, it’s not possible to miss a jump, as you automatically connect with whichever platform you leap towards. This is a gamechanger, removing any sort of frustrations that often come with platformers. You can tell BlueTwelve Studio wants the player to experience as few frustrations as possible.
During stealth sections, getting spotted isn’t an instant game over. You get multiple chances, and the game often gives you easily accessible ways to hide. There are also several instances in which you must run from little alien-looking creatures, but even if they pile on top of you, they can be removed simply by shaking them off.
If you ever do get stuck, your trusty robot companion, B-12, gives you hints that are actually helpful! No need to worry about useless tips such as “to not take damage, avoid getting hit!” The result of all these thoughtful design decisions is that Stray never feels cheap, and mistakes become constructive opportunities to learn.
On the other hand, Stray never feels too easy either, since the puzzles and exploration are challenging enough to feel rewarding. One of my favorite moments involves swiping a worker’s jacket from a store. To pull it off, you need to have collected a music tape. After placing the tape in a nearby player, loud music begins blasting, causing the store’s attendant to walk away to turn it off, allowing you access to the jacket. Though the game guides you in the right direction, it never outright gives you the answer, instead providing enough environmental clues to make discovering the solutions feel rewarding.
Stray also almost never forces you to backtrack. More often than not, after you retrieve an item you need, a shortcut appears nearby. In many cases, you’ll automatically appear at your next objective, which keeps the game’s brisk pacing intact.
A cat-lover’s dream
Stray is memorable for many reasons, but my favorite is its adoring treatment of cat behaviors. You can pull the triggers on the DualSense to scratch on the carpet, doors, and even electrical wires, just like a cat would. Or, you can snuggle up next to robots to give them some love, made even more adorable by the cat’s purring. (And yes, your controller vibrates during these sections.)
You can also jump into cardboard boxes, which is remarkably useful in addition to being cute. Boxes make great hiding spots from the deadly robot Sentinels. Other times, you can swat at objects to knock them from a surface, creating a distraction to help you proceed.
But by far, my favorite cat feature is being able to meow on command. It sounds so stupid, but having a dedicated meow button brought me so much joy. You better believe I got the trophy for meowing 100 times (probably ten times over). The cat’s movements and sounds made me forget I was playing a video game at times. In Stray, you are a cat — you’re not just playing as one — or at least, that’s how it feels.
It’s a vibe
Gorgeous art direction and sound design harmonize perfectly with Stray’s immersive mechanics. Exploring every inch of this game is a joy, with vibrant colors that pop from the screen, along with wildly interesting character designs. (The enemy Zurks, which resemble alien parasites, are particular standouts.) Despite all the aliens and robots, a degree of realism in the proportions gives Stray a distinct look.
Each area you explore feels lived-in, like it has a rich history to it, from the densely-packed city streets, to the desolate underground train station. Almost every single section of the game is brimming with detail, even during the less vibrant areas. The game does include a handful of collectibles, and I was driven to check every nook and cranny to take in the scenery and talk to the robots — all of whom are fantastically written. Many have surprisingly emotional stories to tell, while others are more quirky.
Further enhancing the game’s atmosphere is its music, with a synth-focused soundtrack, ranging from heart-pounding and fast-paced, to subtle and mellow. While exploring and investigating Stray’s mysteries, the soundtrack lures you forward, subconsciously motivating you to press onward. It’s just one of the many things that add to the immersion, making Stray hard to put down.
There isn’t anything like Stray. Sure, you’ve probably played puzzle-platformers set in dystopian cities before, but Stray’s cuddly protagonist gives this game an edge. It’s quirky, intuitive, expertly paced, and one of the most enjoyable games of 2022.
Stray launches for PS4, PS5, and PC via Steam on July 19, 2022. Inverse reviewed the PS5 version.
INVERSE VIDEO GAME REVIEW ETHOS: Every Inverse video game review answers two questions: Is this game worth your time? Are you getting what you pay for? We have no tolerance for endless fetch quests, clunky mechanics, or bugs that dilute the experience. We care deeply about a game’s design, world-building, character arcs, and storytelling come together. Inverse will never punch down, but we aren’t afraid to punch up. We love magic and science-fiction in equal measure, and as much as we love experiencing rich stories and worlds through games, we won’t ignore the real-world context in which those games are made.