It’s often hard to tell if a game starring an animal will be more than shallow bait for memes. Untitled Goose Game had charm, but was often frustrating and got increasingly more tedious as it dragged on. Skatebird was a decent pun that should have stayed just a pun. So it was unclear if BlueTwelve Studio’s cat-led platformer Stray would suffer the same fate and be more fun to joke about than to play. But instead of leaning on one joke for five hours, Stray is an engaging experience that thrives on its unconventional main character and wonderfully realized dystopian city.
Being a cat opens up new gameplay opportunities not seen with games starring bipedal (or even other quadrupedal) protagonists. Stray’s environments are built to take advantage of a cat’s natural dexterity. Jumps are automated with the push of a button, but that doesn’t make them any less rewarding since it’s not about pixel-perfect platforming and is more of a means to explore space in a way a cat would. Flopping around and missing ledges wouldn’t be the most immersive way to explore as a cat and cutting that room for failure out means it can focus on just getting around. While wildly different in most instances, it’s almost like swinging around as Spider-Man in the most recent Spider-Man games where it immediately fulfills the power fantasy of being the character by eliminating the potential for introductory stumbles.
Moving around as a little cat in a big world is unique and its densely packed environments are often quite vertical. BlueTwelve uses verticality to make its levels feel bigger, but also fittingly uses that to make players curious about what could be up that high. Much like a real cat who just wants to jump on top of the ledge above the fireplace to see what’s up there, BlueTwelve created tall structures that are usually like small puzzles to ascend, some of which reward inquisitive players with small collectibles that flesh out Stray‘s lore. Curiosity is often said to kill cats, but here it makes for the best bits of its traversal.
But it also doesn’t ignore the other natural or often silly characteristics cats often have. Players can scratch the furniture, curl up and fall asleep, paw at certain doors, meow at the press of a button, lovingly rub on certain characters, and knock items off ledges or tables, something that is made even better by how many movable objects have physics applied to them. Many of these don’t often have gameplay ramifications, but they — along with a few scripted ones that are pretty hilarious — flesh out the unnamed main character and give a better, more well-rounded view of being a cat, which is something this game is uniquely positioned to explore.
Creating a story around these cat-like behaviors is a tough task since cats don’t speak or have complex motivations; two aspects that stories often have to utilize in one way or another. Meowing and scratching couches aren’t exactly big verbs that would organically push its missions forward, either. But BlueTwelve designed Stray in a way where it moves along using its typical array of cat mechanics without breaking its own rules.
It tasks players with sneaking in tight spaces and climbing where no one else can while getting proper assistance from B12, the game’s charming little robot buddy. B12 is able to translate and do the narrative lifting between bits where the cat climbs, runs, or scurries toward the objective or away from the Zurk, its nasty little bad guys that fling themselves at the player. Chases involving these round little creeps are often thrilling since their unpredictable movements inject some needed adrenaline into what is typically a more calming game. B12 and the cat even collaborate in taking them out through a specific gadget, which is a thoughtful symbiosis of their skills and yet another way BlueTwelve has constructed the game around its limitations.
B12 and the main feline do form somewhat of a bond, but, after getting over the central conceit that a cat would want to do anything aside from licking itself and eating, the story, setting, and themes are the more compelling parts of the narrative. The premise is inherently wrapped in secrecy since players are inhabiting the role of an animal that is also clueless as to what caused the world to fall. Piecing together what happened isn’t hard nor are these answers fresh or new, but the familiarity of these reveals doesn’t diminish them because the process of figuring it all out through its collectibles, level design, and dialogue is still rewarding.
And while the bigger answers have been done before, Stray‘s finer details within those larger beats are still strong enough, like the origins of the Zurk, for example. Its slight lack of originality is also balanced out by its steady pacing and the incredibly charming soul at its center. Stray’s most heartwarming moments are found with its well-animated robotic citizens; individuals that literally lack hearts but have figuratively found them after many centuries. The mechanical beings give the game a way to explore companionship, community, and humanity all through the lens of those who naturally lack those traits. Their society of human-ish conventions is enrapturing to inhabit, as it is recognizable and provides an interesting mirror to real-world society that is made even more interesting with its sci-fi-tinged robotic exterior.
Stray also uses robots to dig into topics like policing and the benefits and follies of learned behavior but doesn’t thoroughly inspect many of them. While it is a bit disappointing not to see a lot of these threads tie together and affect the main plot — which sucks some impact out of the ending — investigating all of these ideas just a bit still builds out the world and gives it more depth.
The world itself is also visually appealing thanks to its impeccable art direction and overall design. Neon signs are used incredibly well, cleverly guiding the player while also illuminating the broken, sunless world with some eye-catching artificial light. Environments are also packed with detail and all sorts of items to make them feel truly lived in. Rooms are jammed with books and all kinds of bespoke art or objects. Streets are littered with wires, trash, graffiti, and an uncountable amount of other small bits and bobs.
Excess like this will probably define the seemingly inevitable apocalypse, but recreating that in a video game takes a lot of work. BlueTwelve has taken those extra steps and it has paid dividends, adding more believability with each empty can lying on the street or framed painting hanging in a bar. Its locales are augmented by its incredible soundtrack that provides suitably moody ambient tunes made up of atypical instruments that give it its own original soundscape. The mix of energetic and atmospheric tracks are great enough outside of the game, but work so much better within it since they are part of a larger puzzle.
As much as it goes against its appropriately overstuffed levels, Stray feels like a game that was cut down in all the right places so it could meaningfully focus on more important features like its carefully planned world design. A worse version of this game has longer levels that are more barren or a handful of boring quests in order to hit some arbitrary level of content. But by aptly indulging where it should and not overstaying its welcome, Stray is a richer, meticulously crafted experience that intelligently prioritizes quality over quantity.
Stray is much more than a game about a cat. Its feline protagonist is a big draw since it gives the game an uncommon perspective and set of mechanics, but the robot-run dystopia, elaborate environments, and multiple interesting themes ensure that it can be mined for more than memes or silly tweets. Its lack of originality in some spots keeps it from true greatness, but it makes up for its missed opportunities through the love and care BlueTwelve poured into its many details. Cats are not generally known for their heartwarming personality, but that’s exactly what makes Stray so poignant.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 8 equates to “Great.” While there are a few minor issues, this score means that the art succeeds at its goal and leaves a memorable impact.