There are lots of dystopian, post-apocalyptic adventure games on the market. In fact, “sci-fi,” “future” and “dystopian” almost seem synonymous in the gaming world. But Stray is a single-player, third-person, futuristic adventure with a twist.
Its hero is a cat.
No, not a mutated survivor of a nuclear blast or a super-intelligent space alien that looks like a cat. It’s just a regular old tabby. It’s a purring, meowing kitty that falls in a hole. And you have to guide him back home.
That’s not to say that this game is a simple feline simulator. The cat’s movements and actions are incredibly realistic, but this is very much an adventure game with a finely detailed world that you must make your way through. Only with lots of kitty charm.
After you slip into your pet-like persona, the story begins with you waking from a carefree nap to interact with several other strays in a sheltered area during a rainstorm. Then you and your furry friends scamper out to explore the pipes and beams of what appears to be an abandoned factory. One ill-timed jump later and your kitty slip-slides down into a deep hole. He lands in a sewer-like tunnel leading out to the neon-lit streets of a subterranean cyberpunk city.
If you were a human, making your way past the locked gates and unscalable walls in this place would be tough going. But a skinny little wisp of a feline has a way of slipping through gaps in fences or small chinks in walls, not to mention the ability to leap up to the tiniest of ledges and windowsills. He maneuvers with the grace of, well, a cat.
The stray is also guided, of course, by the player’s human intellect. And with time he comes upon a small drone named B-12 that fits in a backpack-like harness on the cat hero’s back and aids in his adventures.
This human-built city has inhabitants, we discover, but they’re all humanoid robots. The human populace has mysteriously left or died off. And B-12 helps us communicate with the other robots as we try and find our way back to the “Outside.”
Gameplay wise, players strive to find B-12’s lost “memories” in order to piece together what happened to this world. And they use their cat abilities to traverse alleyways, rooftops, and rooms while solving environmental puzzles, platforming to hidden areas and escaping predators.
While many other sci-fi adventures involve a lot of trigger-pulling gunplay, Stray is much more concerned with exploration, discovery and making it past obstacles. (There are predators in the mix, but we’ll talk more about that in a minute.)
This game is obviously created by cat-loving gamemakers who want players to care about their hero (and animals in general). Young gamers will very likely step away with a greater appreciation for cats, even if they went in with a less-than-enthusiastic opinion.
The cyberpunk city world is also well defined with areas that don’t feel repetitive. And optional quests in-game reward cute badges that the cat hero can wear on his or her harness/backpack while playing.
The puzzles and quests can feel challenging at times, but they’re never overly difficult or frustrating, even for younger players. We learn that the robotic characters have developed an AI self-awareness, and several make self-sacrificial choices.
We encounter some perilous-feeling moments in the game. Our cat hero falls from heights a few times and comes up with an injured rear leg. But the injury isn’t permanent and the limp fades away.
Some blobby rat/hamster-like predators swarm around in the darker areas of the game. These creatures, called Zurks, will attack robots and our cat. And if our hero isn’t agile and quick-thinking enough, the hordes of creatures will attach themselves to his body (mess free, but the screen grows red) until he falls over in blackness. Players then get another try at the area.
At one point in the game, players discover a light-producing weapon that B-12 can wield and shine in a given direction. When hit with the beam, the Zurks explode with a watery splash. Sentry drones will pursue our cat and shoot electric zaps at him if he’s spotted. (Again, no mess.)
We see some robots in a bar and a club, and several are inebriated from mixed drinks. (High-grade oil, maybe?) The stray comes upon some “meditating” robos. We find that a plague was involved in mankind’s downfall. Several solutions to presented conundrums involve breaking windows or dropping items off shelves. In one printed conversation a robot opines that their world is a hell-like place.
Probably the biggest drawback of the game is that it only stretches on for about 5 to 7 hours of play.
Stray is an unquestionably unique-feeling and very fun experience. It’s not a “cute” game, since the adventure carries a very serious tone. But cat lovers won’t be able to keep themselves from sighing out at least an “awwww” or three as the hero scratches out a victory.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.