It’s hard to find much tenderness in dystopian media. Harsh government regulations and police forces, natural disasters, large swaths of zombified creatures — nothing about the genre is particularly cuddly. And on the rare occasion a furry friend does make it into a narrative of troubling times, they’re killed off for emotions (see I Am Legend), they’re unnatural or even cloned (shoutout to Blade Runner), or said creatures have now become the dominant species (Planet of the Apes, looking in your direction).
This makes BlueTwelve Studio’s Stray one of a kind for the genre. You play as just a regular old kitty cat who’s exploring a future where humanity has been wiped out. No strings attached this time, you’re just an adorable orange furbaby who’s been separated from her clowder and found herself trapped in a futuristic underground city.
Things do get a bit more complex when she meets a friendly Johnny 5-like flying device named B12. B12 enlists our cat as a chariot to escort him on his mission to open up the sealed city. And just to get the plot moving forward, our regular cat, for whatever reason, seems to understand that this adventure is her only way back to her family.
Stray combines stealth, exploration, and what I like to call the “Humongous Entertainment trade chain” storytelling method. That is to say, you’ll be finding a lot of items that someone needs, and then gifted an item from that character that someone else needs, all while prancing across rooftops and down alleyways exploring a colorfully lit world.
Overall, gameplay is varied and enjoyable, even if not really fleshed out in any high capacity. Controls are approachable and simple, letting our meowing hero glide through gloomy dark slums with slinky ease. It’s nearly impossible to fall off on any platforming sections, as the controls glue the cat to more scripted paths. Even the clumsiest of gamers will navigate the neon-lit crumbling city exploration sequences with absolute ease.
There are occasional platforming and stealth sections where players will have to dodge “head-crab” creatures or jump in cardboard boxes to avoid some robotic laser fire, but even these are hardly challenging.
But despite the simplicity, there are certain animations and movement that felt clumsy and in desperate need of polish. There was also an especially high number of missed jumps or turn stalls while playing through the game’s movement based puzzles. But luckily, when the gameplay focused on exploration, the cat controlled exactly like an acrobatic tabby would in real life.
And it’s in exploring these haunting yet homey environments that Stray shines. Whether climbing up disheveled roof tiles to a a rusty balcony garden or crawling through a beaded curtain into an apartment lined with stacks of old dusty books, each location oozes a vibrant sense of place and history. Being cat-sized also means that all these environments are literally larger than life, which only further pushes the feelings of immersion and wonder. And special kudos to the game’s lighting design, which adds humanity and vibrancy to such a bleak world.
There is some genre cliche in the game’s last major explored area as it engages in some dystopian orientalist tropes. But even if the kanji inspired billboards and surprisingly high number of ramen shops felt played out (if not a bit problematic), the characters, shops, and nightclubs brought enough Western influences to balance it out.
Now while our cat is the one exploring these environments, it’s really B12 who’s driving the narrative. B12 gives the player access to computers, commentary on historical texts and graffiti, and the ability to actually talk with the other robots. As mentioned previously, there’s certainly some suspension of disbelief that a cat would be game to assist on this epic quest, let alone understand the concept of what that even means. It also doesn’t help that on top of that, the game is over quick, leaving a number of unanswered questions and a plot hole or two.
But if you can table your doubts and engage with Stray’s moment to moment story beats, the narrative it weaves is emotional and hopeful. While humanity is long dead and robot civilization struggles, the game celebrates small victories, like a scientist making it back from a dangerous sewer system or some dancing hooligans finding a way to express themselves through music. Even mechanics like the ability to ask for pets from a store owner or sleep on a lounging robot’s belly give you ways to physically bond with the city and its inhabitants.
Stray is greater than the sum of its unpolished parts. While some gameplay and story elements are missing or underdeveloped, you can’t lose sight of the fact that you’re a cat experiencing this world at a passing glance. The moments that stick out in this dystopian future are the individuals trying to make it a better place.
We could know all about how civilization reached this point, and we do get some of those threads answered. But what’s the point in saving the sealed city if we don’t find its inhabitants sweet enough to relate to? Many gamers were likely pulled to Stray just because its hero is in fact an adorable kitty cat. But Stray succeeds because it uses that same cuteness and emotional empathy to make gamers care.