Developer: Blue Twelve Studio
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive
Release Date: July 19th, 2022
Reviewed on: PlayStation 5
Price: $29.99 USD
Likely considered one of the most anticipated “indie” games for 2022 is Stray, published by Annapurna Interactive–also know for publishing Neon White, 12 Minutes, Donut County, and What Remains of Edith Finch. Stray fell on many gamers’ radars because you play as an adorable orange cat, and it also was the new PlayStation Plus game available on day one for Extra and Premium members. This title is classified as an adventure with puzzle and platforming elements and takes players approximately 6 to 8 hours to complete.
The game opens with a group of cats, and you interact with each and every one of them–establishing a sense of belonging in what appears to be a man-made environment that has been taken over by nature. When you venture out with your family, you fall from an unstable pipe and end up in the Dead City.
It is dark, the alleys are narrow and derelict, and neon signs flicker eerily. As you journey through the early stages, you learn the controls–jumping, scratching, and even meowing! Once you reach the slums, you meet your travel companion who lost their memory and stumble upon fearful AI robots. Eventually you meet a group called the Outsiders, who desire to leave and reach the surface. Your goal in Stray is navigate through this Dead City and find your way back to your family with the help of B-12 and the Outsiders!
The premise alone of playing as a cat was enough to draw me in to play it day one; however, how does the game hold up in quality?
Firstly, the graphics and sound were well done and fell in line with the themes in Stray. Bright neon signs stand out against the dark alleyways, and the character designs were adorable–from your playable cat to the AI robots. The soundtrack had this delightful mix of synth and jazzy tones, which is fitting for this cyberpunk setting. It blends into the background to the point where it almost feels like ambient sound, eliciting a sense of curiosity and, at times, unease.
The gameplay at its core is simple. You can run, meow, and jump. However, with all its simplicity, they unlock a plethora of things you can do in the environment. Meowing can attract enemies and startle NPCs. You can leap from a variety of platforms such as narrow air conditioning window units to reach rooftops in seconds. There is a grand sense of verticality that makes each area much larger than it appears. When you unlock your companion, B-12, you can utilize a flashlight, store items, and eventually defend yourself against the flesh and metal-eating Zurgs.
The gameplay ultimately focuses on exploring, fetching items, and sneaking past danger. There is not much combat to be had, and during those rare sequences, it can be a little overwhelming and short-lived. However, the key to Stray’s success was the developer’s acknowledgment that combat is only ancillary. You, the player, are here to experience the world from a cat’s point of view, while unraveling a mysterious–and quite frankly–unsettling story.
Who was B-12? How did this world in Stray come to be? You begin in the Slums, a disturbingly derelict city filled with garbage. Trash from Midtown rains down on their neighborhood. You interact with robots who mimic human behavior like consuming food, dressing in clothing, and playing music. There are several optional side-quests such as collecting sheets of music and memories to help B-12 remember who they were. For otherwise linear gameplay, there is plenty for you to do.
Stray is a delight and a highlight of games released in 2022 thus far. Although it is a shorter title than most (approximately 6-8 hours depending on how much or little you explore) and linear in gameplay, Stray does not overstay its welcome. In fact, Blue Twelve Studios keeps things simple, giving gamers what they want–to play as a cat. They capture this experience exceptionally well with nuanced interactions with NPCs like jumping on a game of Mahjongg, knocking over pots, and rubbing up against NPCs’ legs. The graphics and sound blend well into the setting and theme, creating a solid experience that I feel everyone should try at least once.
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Featured Image Source: Annapurna Interactive