Stray review - VideoGamer.com
Josh Wise by on Jul 21, 2022

Stray review

It seems only right that the credits of Stray are staffed by the likes of Babu, Bat, Lala, Poupi, and Newt. Should a game about a cat not be made with as much consultation as humanly possible? But what are we to make of the directors, who are listed as “Koola & Viv”? Supposedly, they are a pair of former Ubisoft artists, who like to remain as anonymous as possible, omitting their surnames and slinking from public view. However, I think we ought to prepare ourselves for the truth: that the developer, BlueTwelve Studio, may in fact be overseen by cats. Any humans who happened to be involved in the project were merely there for support—of both the moral and physical variety. The real work was not done on laptops but on laps. And the high-ups, it goes without saying, insisted on an open door policy.

Our hero is an orange tabby, who begins the adventure as part of a quartet. They are occupied chiefly by the essentials: batting at any ears that take their fancy, rubbing up alongside each other for good measure, and curling into a snooze atop a splayed cardboard box. You know, the good life. Fate strikes, we are separated from the pack, and we wind up below, in a knotted network of alleys. Cobwebbed with wires and drizzled in sodium glare, the setting catches the eye—not just ours but our friend’s; swivel the camera and watch his orbs blaze as they mirror the cold light. (The place is based on the Kowloon Walled City, an ungoverned enclave in British Hong Kong, which looked like a set from Blade Runner, and was demolished in 1993 to make way for a public park.) Apparently, the designers at BlueTwelve—blasphemous though this may seem—arrived at the setting before the cat was dragged in.

This strikes me as morally right, seen as most places—boxes, bookshelves, houses, towns—are designed without cats expressly in mind but nonetheless come to house them. Those for whom these streets were intended—or, at least, those who live there—are an odd and beeping bunch. They are androids, roughly human-shaped, with computer monitors for heads. Whatever operating system governs their thoughts, their moods stream, in pixelated form, across the glass: smiles, frowns, hearts, musical notes, etc. Their eyes are the Windows to the soul. This, at any rate, is one notion, mooted by one called Momo: “We were programmed to be slaves, but since 2544875556 days we have a soul.” If Momo’s record is accurate, this would set the time frame of Stray almost seven million years into the future.

Not much has changed. Sure, the sun is screened by a colossal steel dome, and of the wider world someone says, “The Outside was a disaster. Completely barren, unlivable and dangerous.” But inside, life—or its digital ghost—goes on. Our ancestors have learnt to imitate our rituals. Not only do we meet a street musician, strumming away on a guitar fashioned from a plastic jerry can, but at one point we see a bowl of sustenance: three verdant strips of freshly chopped motherboard, steeped in a greasy broth. The doomsayer, by the way, is B-12 (named not, I suspect, for the vitamin but for the developer), a floating droid, not much bigger than a tennis ball, who befriends the tabby, nestling cosily into a body-hugging backpack.

Stray

B-12—who, with its mini-mouth and glassy gaze, is the spit of Professor E. Gadd from Luigi’s Mansion—offers its services as inventory manager, hacker, and interpreter. The residents speak with the strangulated moan of a dial-up modem, before B-12 parses the noise and puts it into English. (Should it not be unscrambled into a clean and comforting meow?) You can see why this decision was made, but I couldn’t help relishing the segments wherein B-12 is otherwise engaged, and we are left to drift, droidless, as we please. BlueTwelve’s conceit is ingenious: faced with an us-like entity, but one whose speech, eating habits, and the graceless clank of whose motions seem alien and antiquated, are we not that much closer to the way in which we may be observed by a cat? This cleverness is undercut by B-12, who downloads a backstory and dumps it needlessly onto the narrative. Nowhere is this summed up better than when our star is first fitted with the harness, and drops to a floor-dragging crawl, hampered not by a great weight but by unneeded—not to say unnatural—obligation.

Fortunately, the overriding style remains uncramped. As to what that style is, I’m still not sure. Stray can hardly be called a platformer, because there is no risk of falling. Approach an edge and watch as our input is courteously declined. Nor would we want it any other way, given that we control a creature known for its pressure-proof élan, for its surplus of lives, and for its utter refusal to allow its dignity to be sullied by anything so downright mortal as a wrongly placed foot. Every leapable ledge is signalled by a context-sensitive button-press, and every brink, whether it be an inch-narrow beam or the crest of a high building, may as well be an acreage of leisure space.

What we have, then, is a nook-filled playground to explore, and the distinct sense that the real exploration is, in fact, one of bodies in motion. I was reminded of Spider-Man, in which you were invited to loop and soar above New York, but which proved simply to be a pretty backdrop, allowing you to map the avenues of its hero’s power and poise. Here, helped along by the haptics of the PlayStation 5 controller, there is a touchable sense of heft; as you squeeze the right trigger and break into a languid dash, note the soft thudding of paws on stone. To call this a power fantasy wouldn’t be right. But how else to describe the act of scratching a carpet, just because we can; of toppling a tower of books; or of sauntering through a puddle of spilt paint, even as someone is on all fours trying to sponge it clean, if not the exercising of petty power?

Stray is—baffling though it seems—the first of its kind. When cats turn up in video games, they tend toward the anthropomorphic. Hence Mae Borowski, the heroine of Night in the Woods, who drops out of college, frets about landing on her feet, and finds her way back home to the town of her kittenhood. Meanwhile, Kiki, from Gato Roboto, is happy not to be humanised, but that doesn’t stop her from ensconcing herself within a bipedal robot. Then there is John Blacksad, a private investigator based in the New York of the nineteen-fifties, whose snub-nosed .38 is far less disarming than the snub nose on his face—surrounded, as it is, by an oil-dark pool of perfect fur. That game was Blacksad: Under the Skin, and its title was a tip-off to the failures of an interactive medium in reckoning with the feline; how can we hope to get under the skin of a cat, whose whims have always lain far beyond our fathoming, let alone our control? Just ask Mario, who, for Super Mario 3D World, clad himself in a suit of golden fuzz and clambered his way up walls, but got no closer than any of us to comprehending that which he mimicked.

Stray

This is where Stray succeeds. It offers us delectable opportunities to act out the behaviour that so bewilders us, in very celebration of that bewilderment. It understands that there is no understanding; the lure of the cat lies in that which is perennially withheld. Hence the collection of perfectly observed scenes here, beginning with the opening. A clutter of cats inhabit an alcove in a vast dam wall, the daylight is pale and watery, and greenness abounds. We could almost be in The Last of Us, were it not for two telling details. One, the attention paid to quadrupeds far exceeds that of Naughty Dog, who, despite its name, was almost exclusively interested—barring a late cameo from a curious giraffe—in Homo sapiens. And two, the expression on the faces of our compatriots, as a pipe breaks and we tumble, clawing at the sloped concrete, to our apparent doom. This is not one of despair, nor even of alarm, but of lightly curious inspection. Were Ellie to take a similar spill, you can be sure that Joel would offer more than a cocked head and a polite sniff—in other words, that he would lose his cool.

Nothing could be more unthinkable to our leading lion. When you have a pelt the hue of marmalade and the constant air of one who is late for superior commitments, the only thing at stake is your composure. Stray does throw up various threats to that composure, chiefly the Zurks—a swarm of fleshy scuttlers, which you periodically have to outrun. They are dead ringers for the headcrabs of Half-Life, and, when we meet a robot whose uncombed cables resemble an explosion of Einstein hair, and who keeps a couple of Zurks in a cage, my thoughts went to Dr. Isaac Kleiner, the cheerful scientist who assisted Gordon Freeman in his mission. There is even a creepy sequence that has us darting over rooftops into the safety of a Zurk-splatting ultraviolet spotlight—as if those at BlueTwelve had just got back from a recent visit to Ravenholm.

Whether that is solely homage or an invitation to consider Stray—its setting, and the figure at its heart—in the same light that is cast by Valve, I don’t know. Certainly, the world here has a similarly engulfing pull, shooing reality away at the door. I could have done without quite so many fetch quests—such things surely belong in the lolling realm of the canine. Likewise, when B-12 is given a UV torch, the better to burst any Zurks on the move—thus crowbarring combat into the game—I let out a small sigh. But there is one moment in which we glimpse the potential of a gamified feline: a passage of pure stealth, set in a prison, in which we slip the gaze of searchlights and melt between bars. I can imagine Solid Snake staring enviously at the ultimate Sneaking Suit, before letting out an allergic sneeze. Thank goodness, too, for the brisk ending, all but skinned of sentiment, and reliant on a single look—and not a long one—before our mysterious friend wanders on. It is not for us to follow now. It echoes the parting at the end of the prison scene, where an ally bids us to depart without them: “Go. Now! I’ll keep you in my RAM, little Outsider.” As will I.

Developer: BlueTwelve Studio

Publisher: Annapurna Interactive

Available on: PlayStation 5 [reviewed on], PlayStation 4, PC

Release Date: July 19, 2022

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verdict

This is where Stray succeeds. It offers us delectable opportunities to act out the behaviour that so bewilders us, in very celebration of that bewilderment.
8 Cat City Non-cat stuff

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Reelix
Reelix
17 days ago

That was beautifully written!

Stray

on PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Stray

Release Date:

19 July 2022