2022-Stray review: improving adventure games by turning you into a cat

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Stray has a whole lot of issues in frequent with different journey video games. You must remedy puzzles, navigate a dense city surroundings, and make the most of stealth to keep away from highly effective enemies. There are characters to befriend and issues to gather. However there’s one key distinction between Stray and its contemporaries: you play as a cat. That will sound like a small twist or perhaps a gimmick, however in actuality, the shift in perspective makes Stray really feel refreshingly new. You’re nonetheless in an enormous, advanced world, however now, you’re seeing it from floor degree. It modifications every little thing from the exploration to the puzzles. And, coupled with a bittersweet story that oscillates between pleasure, heartbreak, and even sometimes horror, it makes for top-of-the-line video games of the 12 months to date.

In Stray, you play as a anonymous cat that finds itself separated from its feline associates on the outset of the sport and plunged right into a subterranean world populated by robots as an alternative of individuals. Initially, the objective is easy: get again to the floor. Shortly although, the search turns into one thing extra. Ultimately you’re joined by a cute drone named B12, and the mysteries of the world begin to pile up. In your technique to the floor, you rise via the layers of robotic society — actually — studying extra about not simply their lives and historical past but additionally simply what the heck occurred to people. On prime of which are the zurks, a mysterious swarm of bug-like monsters that eat seemingly something. That features the robots, which is what retains the machines restricted to varied underground slums, in addition to cute little cats.

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The story additionally gives a pleasant twist on the basic silent protagonist. In contrast to, say, Hyperlink from The Legend of Zelda, right here it is smart that your hero by no means talks as a result of, properly, it’s a cat. You’re sometimes in a position to talk through translation out of your drone buddy, however as a rule, Stray is a sport the place your actions do the speaking. You’ll be able to pander to the robots by doing favors massive and small — these can vary from serving to a robo-grandma knit a comfy poncho out {of electrical} cords or reuniting a father and son by traversing harmful, zurk-filled sewers. Stray’s story is comparatively brief — I completed the sport in round seven hours — nevertheless it covers loads in that runtime, with themes starting from wealth inequality to environmental catastrophe, to not point out the all-too-important destiny of the cat itself.

When it comes to the way it performs, Stray straddles just a few genres, relying on the second. A lot of your time early on is spent determining methods to get round a really vertical metropolis as a tiny cat. The controls are a little bit totally different from a typical third-person journey: when you can transfer round freely, the leap button is contextual, so you’ll be able to solely leap while you see an X seem on a ledge. It took me a little bit of getting used to — and it will probably sluggish issues down when your life’s on the road throughout an motion sequence — nevertheless it additionally makes a whole lot of sense. In Stray, transferring round is usually a gentle strategy of planning as you plot your course up or down a constructing or via a treacherous path. It’s loads like watching a home cat methodically climb furnishings and counter tops to get to the highest of a fridge.

Getting round entails not simply planning the right route but additionally fixing some typically straightforward to infer environmental puzzles. These might be as easy as pulling down a plank of wooden to create a bridge, however, typically, they’re extra concerned, with a number of steps that would require something from repairing machines to scaring robots with a well-placed meow. (There’s a button on the controller devoted solely to meowing.) This isn’t a straight motion sport the place you will have a lot of skills at your disposal. Outdoors of a short part of the sport, you don’t have a weapon, so all you’ll be able to actually do is run, leap, meow, and carry out different context-sensitive actions like scratching a door or batting one thing off of a shelf. The expertise is extra about exploring this densely packed world on the lookout for clues and determining one of the simplest ways to proceed given your restricted kitty expertise. And whereas a few of these actions exist in different video games, the sheer reality that you simply’re a cat, with restricted choices and a ground-level viewpoint, makes them really feel very totally different in apply.

That mentioned, there are just a few motion sequences, which, brief as they are often, add a crucial dose of rigidity to the expertise. Early on, you’ll be coping with swarms of the zurks, which suggests both working away or utilizing a really restricted weapon to destroy them. These moments might be terrifying — they’re harking back to the lethal swarms of rats in 2019’s A Plague Story: Innocence — however they can be irritating. Just a few instances, I discovered myself dying repeatedly till I used to be in a position to memorize the patterns of the bugs and plot a protected escape. It felt extra tedious than grueling, although these moments had been uncommon, and the sport has a really beneficiant checkpoint system so that you’re by no means compelled to replay giant sections. Afterward, the motion shifts to stealth, as you need to utterly keep away from robots to infiltrate numerous locations. (This, after all, entails hiding in cardboard containers.)

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You progress backwards and forwards between these moments of motion and journey, and maybe essentially the most spectacular factor about Stray is the way it’s all paced. It by no means felt like I used to be compelled to spend an excessive amount of time on anyone factor. As quickly as a portion of the sport began to really feel boring — whether or not it was working from the zurks or hopping throughout rooftops — I used to be in a position to transfer on to one thing else. The identical goes for the story. It begins out as a easy quest again residence, however as you progress up via the assorted ranges of the robotic world and study extra about this not-implausible future, the stakes — each private and existential — grow to be a lot larger. The ending is gorgeous and tragic.

The expertise can also be stuffed with quiet moments in order for you it to be. Stray offers you loads of time to only be a cat. You’ll be able to scratch up carpets and couches, make a complete mess of an in-progress board sport, or lie down on a snoozing bot for so long as you want. These actions are sometimes crucial to unravel puzzles, however as a rule, they’re simply enjoyable to fiddle with and assist get you in that cat mindset. The primary time the cat places on its harness is likely one of the funniest moments I’ve skilled in a sport.

Stray allows you to linger, nevertheless it additionally doesn’t overstay its welcome. I performed via the complete factor in two sittings as a result of I couldn’t put it down: I simply had to know what occurred subsequent. Once you combine that rigorously plotted narrative with gameplay that permits you to meow on command, you will have an expertise that scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had.

Stray launches July nineteenth on the PS4, PS5, and Steam.

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