We've discovered what it feels like to have nine lives, cough hairballs and live on a diet based on milk and mice in the new adventure game Stray.
I will readily admit that I am not much of a cat person. Don't get me wrong, I love cats but they make my eyes itch, my nose run like a hose and sneeze like I'm having a seizure on repeat. Nah, I'm a dog person through and through and when I think of cats my mind quickly goes to the two closest cats I know. Pyssan who loved to jump up on my lap when my friend Mikey and I were watching movies and by aggressive mob methods made me pet her. Every time I stopped she would end her contented purring and put all her claws into me which went right through my jeans and scarred me for life. The other, the Bäbisen is always in every doorway when I visit, hissing like a python and digging her claws into my heels.
I don't know any dogs that do that, they kiss you to death instead and I actually like kisses more than plasters and involuntary blood loss. So admittedly, it was with great scepticism that I received the game prior to this review, if I do say so myself. Just the whole idea of playing as a cat without either boots and cool weapons or the ability to speak made me stare at my controller in discontent. But then I thought that once upon a time there was probably a businessman in Japan who stared incredulously at Shigeru Miyamoto when he pitched the idea of an Italian plumber who would jump on turtles and eat magic mushrooms so maybe the whole idea of playing as a little cat wasn't so crazy, maybe it was genius?
The game itself revolves around a stray cat who actually goes through the whole journey completely nameless so I decided pretty quickly to name him Allan. After all, a name is good when you're screaming at the TV when things aren't going your way, and because Allan is an excellent name. It all starts with you cuddling up with your little flock of like-minded whisker-covered mouse hunters under a viaduct. You play with your friend's tail, take a nap and then wash your bottom for what feels like an eternity. Then it's time to finally go exploring with your four-legged alter ego and his gang of long-tailed cronies.
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The start is a little cautious, you get to know the controls and the pace may feel a little too leisurely but it's actually a cat you're playing as and have you ever seen a cat that stresses? Nah, a kitty takes her time. After a while the inevitable happens, a pipe we're climbing on breaks and the cat I so beautifully named Allan plunges into what looks like a bottomless pit. As we squeak by after the fall, I discover that I am completely alone and that I have been separated from my beloved feline family and not only that, I am underground in a completely new place with no visible way to get out of it. And that is one of the big premises of the game, getting up to the world you came from.
So if you thought you'd just spend your days playing with yarn, you thought wrong. Because it turns out that life as a cat is clearly a lot harder than I thought after all, even if you could technically curl up into a little ball and sleep for hours in the game. And to be perfectly honest, my kitty actually slept for a whole hour just so I could come across a trophy logically called "Productive Day", unnecessary I know but I couldn't help myself. You'll act like a real idiot in the most typical cat way and push people's pots out of windows just because you feel like it, or why not a paint can onto some poor person's head? You'll rip up their real carpets and sharpen your claws wherever you please, be it sofas or front doors. After looking around where you are for a while, you'll notice someone trying to communicate with you through TV screens.
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Someone is in distress and our first mission is to find this person which isn't that difficult as this unknown person seems to have been tipped off by Joyce herself (from Stranger Things) because every time you whine the road lights up with flashing lightbulbs and security cameras going bananas. At the end of this rainbow, you'll eventually find what will become your faithful companion through the game, a small drone named B12 that brings to mind Leia's little red and white droid in Obi-Wan Kenobi. Just as you are in need of help, B12 is also in dire need of a helping hand as he has lost his memory and like the two lost souls you are, you decide to join forces to solve your problems. Finding a way out and finding and unlocking B12's memories all becomes an adventure neither of them will forget in a hurry. The adventure will take us through twelve different locations, from sewer tunnels to neon glittering cities, to the slums and the dead city and that also means the game is divided into just twelve different chapters.
There is no platform jumping with precision for our vicious cat who always lands feet down as Allan can't fall off anything but jumps where the X mark is. The pace of the game swings between leisurely puzzle solving and exploration to stressfully trying to evade the various enemies in the game. The adventure really only has two different enemies and those are the Zurks and the Sentinels. Zurks are sickeningly similar to Headcrabs from Half-Life in appearance and they eat everything in their path. They're fast as hell and rush in unison with one goal in mind, and that's to turn our beloved red-furred Allan into a hulking target worthy of a name on the fast-food menu. At the start of the game, however, there is only one tactic against this enemy and that is to run for your life. You can shake off one or two with the Circle button, but if more latches onto you, you're screwed and you'll have to restart from the last checkpoint.
However, thanks to B12 you can look forward to a weapon to use later in the story and it will make life a lot easier. It's a sort of pulse weapon that kills everyone within a certain limited radius, but has a little downside called overheating which then leaves you unprotected while waiting to recharge. The enemy Sentinels, on the other hand, you don't need any weapons against as they are drones that can only be outsmarted by sneaking past their watchful eyes. And that's the beauty of this game, all the contrasts. One minute you're roaming the rooftops in the neon lights solving little puzzles in good-natured peace, the next you're running with an army of mega-fiends at your heels and then sneaking out of a prison in pure ninja style. But of course the game isn't just filled with enemies, we encounter the inhabitants of the cities and they're a little different to what we're used to. They don't have tails or whiskers but a monitor for a face. In the forgotten old cities live robots that are as forgotten and dusty as the cities they live in. And even here, B12 proves its worth by translating everything they say, because kitty cats don't talk robot.
Or rather, felines don't talk at all. This adventure game takes place in a third-person perspective and for me it took about twelve hours to play through something that I might consider to be on the short side. But then it should be added that I really did traipse around and investigate like a human vacuum cleaner, and did let my cat sleep soundly while I took care of the laundry here at home and cooked dinner IRL. And since I know there's a trophy that can be won if you play through the game in two hours, it can probably be run through if you wanted to.
Stray has a cosy atmosphere and pretty graphics and I actually really enjoyed the few hours the game lasts, and I had a hard time switching it off. It's a light-hearted game with a lot to investigate and for someone like me who loves to turn games inside out, it gives me a lot to explore as I sniff out hidden secrets and memories. I like to be pleasantly surprised and this game really did surprise me in the best possible way. The little French team BlueTwelve Studio who developed this has convinced me now that cats can be something completely different to arrogant and snobby creatures. They can star in a video game too and there's nothing strange about that.
7 / 10
Cosy and atmospheric. Lots to explore. Stable controls. Entertaining.