As a long-seasoned internet denizen, you already know people like cats. So you won’t be surprised to learn that Stray, a game that lets you traipse through the streets of a mysterious, dystopic cybercity as a cat, was immediately popular upon launch this week.
The game’s premise is simple—and a little heartbreaking. You’re a marmalade kitty living with your family in what looks to be the edges of a city reclaimed by nature, and one day during your wanderings, you’re unexpectedly separated from them. Down you plunge into the underground of a grimy, decayed city.
Finding your way home requires navigating a series of gritty, robot-populated cityscapes reminiscent of Tokyo and Hong Kong. You pick up a sentient drone friend along the way, one who has its own personal mystery to solve, and together you hunt for the way out.
The world is gorgeous, with lavish environmental details. There’s a tangible sense of exploring a riff on Neo Tokyo: Neon signs flicker and glow, drink vending machines populate most corners, graffiti murals and handbills paper worn, dirty walls, and trash lines the streets. It’s perfectly cluttered and visually busy in that hallmark way of metropolitan Asian cities.
Which, as a cat, means you have so many places you could explore. In theory, anyway. BlueTwelve Studios seems to have underestimated the fun of being a cat, especially in this setting.
Oh, you can run, jump, and meow—those are regular parts of traversing the landscape. This adventure game’s mechanics aren’t as polished as in a good platformer, but they’re reasonable to work with. But how much you can investigate is limited. Instead, you’ll spend time following a pretty linear progression. (In fact, the game can lock you out of areas unexpectedly as you wander. Doesn’t matter you didn’t accurately predict that you had triggered the next area; onward you go.)
I like to think that cat lover or no, the idea of being an agile young cat that can go nearly anywhere is novel and interesting. What a way to enjoy the world that BlueTwelve Studios obviously crafted with so much care and attention! But instead, you spend a portion of time running pell-mell away from creatures intent on harming you. Maybe you’ll like the suspenseful, low-grade horror vibe of it—I didn’t. Every time I got anxious about my cat possibly dying, I thought, “Why not have made it a harder puzzle to leave this part of the city and spur exploration? I just want to enjoy this setting and being this kitty. Instead…nightmare fuel.”
Standard cat behavior is thrown in like easter eggs too, rather than woven deep into the world. You can’t freely scratch furniture or knock items off ledges and shelves, only in select, predetermined areas. Moreover, robots don’t notice when you scratch the heck of their couches, walls, or rugs; push items off a ledge; or send crates and boxes flying while dashing through them. Yowling or mewing around robots only gets mild reactions, too. For a bunch of beings that seem to have low familiarity with cats, you’d expect at least a little more reactivity.
Also, there’s no control over grooming, but I’m willing to own that I expected maybe a little too much Cat Simulator 2022 when I put down my money for Stray. At the very least, it would’ve been cool to customize my cat’s appearance just a little, even if it was choosing one of two different coat colors.
This emotional reaction tells me we need more games with cat protagonists. Preferably ones focused on platforming and exploration. Maybe upcoming game Blanc will fill that void, but the problem is, it doesn’t involve any kitties.
But I’m not walking away from the game completely disappointed. Like a tourist, I stopped often to take snapshots of scenes, and usually from several angles at that. (This one goes on social media, that one is my new wallpaper…) Whenever our orange kitty settles in for a little catnap, the camera slowly pans out to give breathtaking views of its surroundings. As one of my friends said as I streamed my gameplay for him, “This is what I’m here for.”
Playing on PC can offer an even bigger treat, since it’s more common to have an ultrawide monitor. Stray readily accommodates that aspect ratio, and after former colleague Leif Johnson sent me some of his screencaps from his gameplay on his Samsung Odyssey G9, it made me want to get my own ultrawide at long last. The extra real estate makes for stunning shots.