Lahftel
Lahftel
Lahftel, some guy with lots of lukewarm takes on video games. Mostly responsible for the FFXIV section and some verity content. Big Nerd. Top guy, smart guy, educated speaker.

Stray Review – 9 Out of 10 Cats, a Meowsive Achievement

Stray Review
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Stray is a video game, where you play a cat. If you have any questions about why the internet loves it, you clearly must be new here. But here at ESTNN's, our very own Lahftel gives you his very important thoughts, musings on life, and other fun stuff in our Stray Review.


Just Feline Things

Yes, we are more than delighted to confirm that through the entirety of Stray you do indeed play a small, red cat. I know, that fact alone makes it a 10/10 in most people's eyes already so why write further? Actually, I won't so that's the review folks! Please share it on social media so my editor is nice to me! Kay bye!

Also here have a picture of the cat.

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Oh. Do you want to hear more about the cat game? Well fine. Let's start with the premise then. You play as Stray, I assume that's the name of the cat you're playing. But you could also name it after your very own cat that is watching you play, confused about what is going on. Anyways, after a short exploratory session with a few fellow cats, you get split from your furred friends and fall deep into some kind of underground city.

What once served as an underground city that humans used to hide in, now reminds us of the walled city of Kowloon in Hong Kong. You know, tight streets, neon signs and shady figures. It's a very gloomy world, inhabited by the leftovers of human civilization and disgusting, yet cute bugs. And robots. Those robots make up most of your interactions in Stray. Sometimes you need to get them to do something for you, sometimes you do something for them. One pawn washes the other. This is probably one of Stray's biggest strengths, the exploration combined with getting to know those robots and learning about their troubles.

Exploration is also fairly straightforward. Don't think that this is some kind of jump-and-run adventure though. Reachable perches, roofs and trashcans have a button prompt hovering above them. Trying to simulate the elegance cats always have when doing those precision jumps. That also means you can't just zoom off a rooftop for an untimely demise. All in all, pretty good. I must admit, however, the novelty of being a small cat in a cramped city starts to wear off towards the end. But Stray does definitely deserve praise for keeping most of its gameplay scenarios fairly unique.

While Stray is only around 5-7 hours long, I can't say that I ever got bored or frustrated with it. Every section has a unique feeling to it and nothing outstays its welcome. But don't expect to get much mileage out of the gameplay, at least I couldn't find any insane movement tech for maximum cat speed. And I don't think Stray wants to be that kind of game anyways. The fantasy of being a small critter in a gloomy city works way better than it has any right to. And in-between the short bursts of more exciting stretches, Stray wants you to explore and just hang out.

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Deus Stray: Catkind Divided

I am now done summing up Stray like a good boy reviewer. Now allow me to gush about my favorite part of the post-apocalyptic cat simulator, the little hub levels. There are three in total, varying in size that you reach one after another when progressing. And they are probably one of my favorite things to play this year. In my stunning, industry-changing Elden Ring review, I gushed over FromSoftware's ability to tell stories through gameplay and level design. Stray does a similar thing here, just on a much smaller scale.

Probably the closest comparison I can think of is Sega's Yakuza games. Instead of giving you a sprawling open world, you get a small block of cramped streets and charming inhabitants. Full of little nooks and crannies to explore. And being stuck in the body of a cat, you get a completely new perspective on things. Which also creates interesting problems to solve. You actually have to roleplay as a cat sometimes.

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That particular thing clicked with me when I found a door in the slums that I could scratch on. Of course, being the gamer that I am, I did scratch everything in hope of some reward. After scratching the door, a robot opened it. And after a while, he closed the door again. Took a little more than I'm willing to admit to puzzle that one out. But you scratch on the door till some unsuspecting robot opens it, looking for customers that aren't there.. and then you just scoot past his legs to get inside. It was a small moment, I admit but this is the kind of problem-solving you get up to in Stray.

The simple task of opening doors suddenly requires you to be a little more creative. Be it distracting unsuspecting robots by being cute and adorable to create a window of opportunity. Or some kind of devious plot, of carelessly knocking over paint buckets and piles of books to let things spiral out of control. Come to think of it, I would 100% support BlueTwelve Studio to make something like Stray again, but in the vein of a small open-world puzzle box with more dynamic elements.

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Because exploring the little hubs and figuring out how elements across the level are connected to another is probably Stray's biggest strength. And these little riddles are very logical and local so they never spiral into frustration either. And if you ever get stuck, you can always talk to the adorable robots walking about or consult your little drone assistant for directions.

All of that had a very hypnotic effect on me, simply walking around in an atmosphere heavy street, puzzling out how to find the combination of a safe was very cozy. And it made me actively dread the few action-heavy segments of the game. Scooting past the disgusting bugs in short escape sequences. But I guess me not liking these sections just showed how much I was invested in controlling that cat. It really did not sit with me, whenever there was potential danger for my new furred friend. I would rather spend a lot more time strolling through neon-soaked streets and causing trouble.

So yes, this reminded me of Deus Ex: Mankind Divided and its charming sections in futuristic Prague. By that, I mean mostly the small puzzle box aspect, so I guess we can pencil in Stray as some kind of immersive sim? Just instead of shooting and uncovering the tragedy of the human condition, your main goal is to find a cozy spot to nap.

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The First Cat-Type Game

I should probably now praise the game's art direction right? Yes, I will do that. But BlueTwelve Studio? You guys are on my list now. How dare you commit the crime of making a game about a cat and not including a photo mode? I appreciate that you create those stunning vistas that beg to be screenshotted. But I had to no joke, bind screenshot to my controller (I was playing the Steam version by the by) and am now sitting on about 90 pictures of my digital cat. Some of you should go to jail for not allowing me to tilt the camera down just a little more for framing. the first-person zoom is however appreciated.

So if you don't plan to include such a mode in due time, I will have to resort to using my limited knowledge of the Unreal Engine to tinker around. On that note, I would also apricate if you added some more idle poses for that particular feature. Thank you very much. I will now return to being in love with your game.

Stray is a game that begs to be screenshotted almost all the time. It is very beautiful in that mess, “trash punk” kind of way that I find hard to describe really. Especially the hub zones. And while I would love to show you all the pretty pictures I took, I want you to go and explore some of those streets yourself. Take a nap next to a robot playing music, play around with balls on a pool table and create a mess in someone's library. On that note, another crime BlueTwelve has committed is not allowing me to make myself comfortable on someone's keyboard. Clearly, they haven't done all the necessary research here.

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Conclusions

Stray is indeed a video game in which you play a cute cat that can meow on command with charming yet simple controls. Which is fine for the type of game it wants to be. You explore a unique world influenced by messy neon-soaked backstreets that are really fun just to hang out in. A video game with a cat protagonist really is a formula that worked better than I expected. I ended up loving its world and unique perspective so much, that I was a little upset that it was over so fast.

But I will also admit that by the end, it feels like the game had already done everything without stretching itself thin. And it was only the second to last section that tried my patience just a little because it played differently from the rest of the game.

Besides that, the music is amazing, all the robots you meet are adorable and it was really fun to see their reaction when I interacted with them. Every corner feels unique and shows that a game doesn't need to be a sprawling open world when you just have good art direction and amazing level design. I was never really lost and I instantly had a solution the moment I was faced with a problem.

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And I think ultimately, while not being a profound meditation on the human condition, Stray has a lot of things to say with a protagonist that only interacts with their world through limited means. There is a lot of artistic value to be found here, be it the disarmingly simple yet engaging characters you meet or just rummaging around in a world that has been forgotten but is still very much alive. Someone will probably write a long essay on it, but we are here to answer the most important question of them all, is video game good? Yes. But who is it for?

Well, if you are into the idea of video game, but cat, you'll definitely want to buy it. If you want a game that's oddly relaxing and almost hypnotic in nature with mostly soothing exploration elements you'll probably find your fill here as well. My teeny tiny complaint here is that I really did not like the bugs. And that's a complaint I saw echoed in other reviews so I'm happy that I'm not the only one who was grossed out by this.

So that being said, I think Stray will become one of those hit indie games and I admire the effort by Sony and other big publishers to also throw some money at these types of games. And I'm really looking forward to what BlueTwelve Studio's will come up next. Maybe an adventure game where you play a little bird? Stray might kick in the door for little more critter-based adventures that don't have to be action games.

Stray is an excellent, very focused neat title that knows how to pace itself all the way to the finishing stretch. With its amazing visuals and relaxing soundtrack, I don't think there is anyone who can't love it. Unless you are really adverse to cats in general.

Final Score: 9/10

Lots of great indie games backed by big money lately. Annapurna Interactive is really on a roll recently. If you want to see more from the publisher, check out our Neon White Review. And if you are a fan of their work, I highly suggest you also check out Outer Wilds if you want more cozy exploration. Stray was released on June 19 for both PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5 and Steam, go pick it up. You won't be disappointed.

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