I’ve always wanted to be a cat. I’m putting that out there right now. A kitty cat, with the tail and ears and cute, wee toe beans. I want to lay around like I don’t care, mush biscuits and getting lots of pets. Who doesn’t, with how much the world is in turmoil right now?
I write my review of Stray, as my own kitties lounge about, unaffected by the rising prices, worries about making ends meet, and whether the pandemic will ever end. They don’t care if our weather is out of whack. It’s part of what makes our feline friends so special to us- that sense of relaxed disregard. Some claim they are not as loyal as dogs. But, having owned cats all my life, I can tell you that on some of my hardest days, especially dealing with severe PTSD, my kitties have been my comfort. They have let me cry tears of frustration and helplessness into their fur, staying close by when I need them. I can’t imagine a world without them.
(And I’m not here to argue the merits of cats over dogs. Both are wonderful companions. I just mesh better with kitties.)
The kitty game that claimed our hearts
Many others must agree, because when Stray, the hugely anticipated indie game from developer BlueTwelve Studio and publisher Annapurna Interactive, dropped last week, the gaming community collectively lost its mind in furry awe. Over 63,000 players were recorded on Steam as playing concurrently day one. That’s not counting those on PS4/5, as Stray was released on PlayStation Plus. Just a week later, the reviews amount to over 46,000 on Steam.
The talk, memes, praise, and kitty pictures still flooding social media accounts show that Stray has a special kind of magic that comes around only once in a long while. Already calls for Game of the Year nominations are coming in. And it’s easy to see why with just one playthrough. So, sit back, grab your catnip, cream and rollie ball as we examine the beauty of Stray. Beware minor spoilers ahead.
A beautiful opening
It’s not a secret that most dystopian worlds in pop culture are desolate places, inhospitable to humans. Whether it’s from nuclear war, zombie apocalypse, or an outbreak of disease, we tend to fare badly. All too often our world is overran by something else.
Stray takes place in a world that looks familiar. Beautiful at first glance, it becomes apparent as the story moves along, that something has gone very wrong. A pretty, little marmalade tabby, Lil Toe Beans, as we nicknamed it in our home, has it good, living the kitty life with its family of 4. It’s safe to assume that there are others, but as a tutorial, the game focuses on just these four. Lil Toe Beans, purrs, meows, scratches and murrs around its home, a tucked away ledge with a hint at civilization. Yes, I tried opening the door at first pass.
However, it became very easy to settle into the feel of being a kitty, relaxing as the rain drips around the Outside, the catnip sways and the carefree moments teaches me the basic controls.This included a dedicated meow button, which I spammed repeatedly just to see how my own kitties would respond, never mind the rest of the kitties in the game. I am happy, or perhaps a bit confused, to report that my kitties, Ranger in particular, was unamused by what was meowed, and proceeded to ignore me the rest of the evening. I’m still not completely in his good graces.
On screen, Lil Toe Beans curls up with its family, ready for a catnap. And all seems to be right, calm even. Awakening a bit later (or was it a day?), the tutorial continues with Lil Toe Beans following its family out of the safety of their home, into the bright and gloriously green world.
Leaping, jumping, crossing high narrow spaces are no problem for our agile feline friend. I, being a curious cat, did attempt to push the limits of gravity, just to see how far the developers had adapted the kitty movements. I was very pleasantly surprised to see that Lil Toe Beans held its balance purrfectly. This mechanic proved absolutely vital to survival later on. Unfortunately, as the tutorial drew to an end, our darling furball loses its footing and, as its family watches with cat like morose, falls down into Dead City.
Off on the wrong paw
Injured and scared, Lil Toe Beans limps along the dingy alleyway, only to fall unconscious. I got my first glimpse at the horrors the world has descended into. A cut scene shows what looks like adorable, glowy eyed Tribbles, gathered around a bunch of garbage, chirping. A heavy door slides up and the creatures scatter, leaving Lil Toe Beans to limp inside. Thankfully, once inside, the limp seems to subside with a few licks of its tongue. (Magic kitty licks!)
The writing is quite literally on the walls as I moved along the dark streets, littered with junk, metal scraps and the remains of human “artifacts.” “RIP Humans <3” splashed everywhere paints a bleak picture of where we went. Closer examination of posters and flyers mentions “quarantine” and areas that are off limits. It is also at this point that I noticed robot bodies laying in a dead-like state. The cute fuzzy cooing creatures are nuzzling… no… destroying a robotic corpse. They scatter, but its time for kitty agility to kick in.
Stray is incredibly clever in giving the player hints as to where they should go. Neon signs light up the path, flickering out when Lil Toe Beans passes through that area. A meow at a still working surveillance camera gave me another clue when it nodded with intelligence. Well then… It appears I was not alone.
Zurks- the killer Tribbles from hell
Traveling with pitter patter feet, I happened upon a herd? crowd? gaggle? of Zurks, as the metal eating creatures are called. Thus began the run for my little kitty life. And holy heck! Does the game go from exploring to “Oh my god, they can kill me!” terror. The game once again teaches me the skills I need to survive, namely RUN! Running on four furry legs is probably better that just two, but the Zurks are ruthless in their pursuit of a furry lunch. Dodging and shaking them off become impurrative to Lil Toe Beans survival.
Getting passed the Zurks is no easy task and took me several tries before I was safely inside the interior of Dead City. Once there, I got to meet my first robotic life, although I really thought I was headed for a boss battle. Thankfully, the game gods gave me, and Lil Toe Beans a safe place to rest and learn more about the mystery surrounding the decaying city. It is here I met B-12, a perky, but confused little sprite of a robot. Lil Toe Beans is outfitted with a wee vest that B-12 can sit in and provides another moment of “awwwww.” Trust me, there’s a lot with such a cute feline hero.
Throughout the rest of the game, the story unfolds through finding the memories collected by B-12, who tells me about “The Outsiders,” a group of robots who sought to see what was beyond the Zurk infested streets and closed off ceiling. The mystery of where they went and what they found takes up the second half of the game. We are introduced to some colorful characters, including Doc who looks just like Doc Martin from the Back to the Future franchise and might be just as loopy.
By the end of the game, Lil Toe Bean’s journey has taken us to the sewers below the city and up to the very top in the Control Room. There’s a few questions left without answers, and I truly hope we will see a DLC. However, the story concludes in a very bittersweet, but beautiful finale. Prepare those tissue boxes beforehand. You’ll need them.
See the kitty. Be the kitty.
Of course, part of Stray‘s draw is the integrated kitty behaviors. In other words, I had so much fun just catting around. No joke, while writing this, I have had two kitties sit or walk across my keyboard, chew on my cord and bat at my headphones. Another decided that the thankfully unlit candle, didn’t belong on the shelf. As any kitty slave, (because let’s be real, we are merely here to serve,) can tell you, nothing is safe in the path of kitty paws.
In Stray, I got to do all the kitty things mine do to me. Paint cans were particularly satisfying to push over, and then walk through. Yes, the first bucket of blue paint was glitched, but all of the others allowed me to track paint around, with cute little paw prints. See a ball laying around? Push it down the incline into the trash can and get an achievement. Those books in the library are purrfect for springing from, and of course tumbling into a mess. And the shelves provide a great place to grab a catnap.
Computers and keyboards made for wonderful bits of fun. At one point, walking across a keyboard enters a code to a secret room. Crawl through windows, leap from ledges, ride around in bucket pulleys- there’s a million ways to move around and the city seems built to accommodate kitty kind. There are dingle balls stashes around in various homes, for some reason.
That’s not the only hint that kitties might have been a bigger part of the Outsiders society. Some robots are quite friendly toward Lil Toe Beans, allowing it to nap next to them, on them, or offering a head scratch or two. Others flash grumpy faces, but they’re few and far inbetween. The question remains- once the event of the end happen, will Lil Toe Beans and its family come back to the city?
A purrfect mixture in every way
Diversity isn’t an issue in Stray. From names to styles of dress and music, there are several nods to cultural aspects from all over the world. A few of the more obvious ones relate Chinese traditions and actual historical events. I can’t say for sure they were thinking of the kite fliers inside Shanghai, who gave the city a glimpse at the stars through the smog by flying kites with lights along their tails. The similarities are interesting to note. And there are a large number of golden Lucky Cats, waving pleasantly to the room.
Stray is a unique combination of exploratory open world, platforming and puzzler. There are several areas to get through, with Dead City being the hub of activity. Each one has its own way of making the player think outside the box. A way up to the top of a building may not be clear from one angle, but change my perspective and I could see where I needed to go.
And often times, I find platformers to be difficult, especially with my fibromyalgia. So, I always look at the games I play with accessibility in mind. Stray‘s controls are easy to learn and execute, with a fully mappable system. When the Zurks continued to get me, a remapping of the run button made those sequences much easier. That is not to say that the game is easy. There are portions of the puzzles, especially the elevator area, that are nothing to sneeze at.
Still, there is something magical about how Stray approached these that didn’t make it feel taxing in the least. I would have played straight through in one go if I had the time. My playthrough did clock in at a longer time of 8.5 hours. However, most players have reported times of 4.5 to 6 hours depending on rate of completion. I finished the game with an 87%. As it is, I’m already itching for a second go.
For parents of kids, I’m adding this warning- the atmosphere through some of the game is bleak. Gone are the days of humans- wiped out by mistakes and overconfidence from the powers that were. The Zurks will eat everything in their path, including our feline. So take that into consideration when playing. However, the messages the game conveys are not only deep, but insightfully relevant. I encourage you to sit down with your kids and talk about themes of death, environmental changes and the impact of humans on the world around them.
Brilliantly created with loving hands from a team who included their own kitties in it, Stray is not to be missed. The graphics are stunning, the atmospheric music adds plenty of ambiance. The gameplay, while mostly easy, should not throw off those who want something a bit more challenging. And the story of one little kitty and its robot friend B-12 is engaging, heartbreakingly beautiful and unspeakably relevant. This gem is most certainly Game of the Year material and a purrfect addition to any library.