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Stray Review

July 23, 2022

Ever since playing Shenmue II I’ve been fascinated by the Kowloon Walled City. Up until its demolition in 1993, the city was the most densely-populated place on Earth. At just 6.4 acres (approximately 0.0259km²), by time it was demolished it was reportedly home to 50,000 people.

It was an ungovernable block of packed buildings, filled with apartments that blocked light to the city’s countless alleyways. With that many people, and the political situation on the border between British Hong Kong and the PRC, the place was lawless. There was no such thing as health and safety, public services were practically non-existent, and most people lived without basic utilities. You can read more about the city on Wikipedia.

To live there was probably awful, but its aesthetic became romanticised in the years after its demolition and plenty of people – myself included – have been inspired by its urban anarchy and the mystique of a tiny city that no longer exists.

Evidently BlueTwelve Studio, the developed behind Stray, feel the same – the inspiration behind the game’s setting, Walled City 99, is obvious.

That alone would have me hooked, but then they combined that with my favourite animal: cats. This made buying the game on day one irresistible.

4K Gaming PC

Since it was the game’s aesthetic that drew me, let’s start with that. BlueTwelve delivered. From the Kowloon-like alleyways to the charming Companions (the game’s bipedal robot characters), and the cat itself, the game looked a lot like trailer bait. Thankfully, the visuals promised in trailers survived perfectly to the released game.

In fact, the art direction and graphical fidelity were so impressive, I thought when I was playing it on my PC I was getting beautiful raytraced reflections of the city’s vibrant neon lights in puddles and windows, until I loaded the game on my Steam Deck (which, at the time of writing, has no RTX support in SteamOS) and saw the exact same effects.

Very impressive.

Even more impressive is the performance. At 4K on my current system’s specifications, I never dipped below 100 fps, and I frequently hit my TV’s maximum refresh rate (120hz) – this was with all the settings set to the highest and 100% resolution scale. Meanwhile, on the Steam Deck I had a rock solid 40fps with medium to high settings and resolution scale at 80%.

Before moving on from performance, the other noteworthy visual is the animation, especially the protagonist. The cat’s mannerisms, from its trots to its leaps, and all the napping and grooming in-between, looked super authentic.

The quality animations do the gameplay justice, complementing its tight controls. Every step I made felt deliberate, every jump to a higher or lower platform intended. It’s rare to play a game where I can say there were no points that the controls did me a disservice, which is impeccable.

The city itself, from the Slums to the Midtown, were great to explore from the cat’s perspective. Every small alleyway felt grander to navigate, while every window climbed through, and railing clambered across, felt like a new and novel way of traversing what could’ve easily been a by-the-numbers game world. Climbing up the side of a building has never been more satisfying in a game with an urban setting, and that’s all thanks to the cat parkour.

Steam Deck

The other satisfying part of Stray is the gameplay loop. There’s a nice balance of exploration with the aforementioned cat parkour and puzzle solving in the safe areas. The puzzles, while not too difficult, err a bit on the easy side, but not offensively so. I didn’t feel my time was wasted solving them, and they made for a nice change of pace at just the right moments.

Stray has some action segments too. Running away from the Zurks – or cleverly climbing around the environment to lure them away from where you need to go – was exciting and fun until it wasn’t, and just like that BlueTwelve switched it up and gave you the means to fight back.

Likewise with the Sentinels, the Metal Gear Solid-like stealth sequences complete with vision cones and cardboard boxes only stay for as long as they’re welcome before we’re treated to some more chases for the game’s climax.

Coming on to the writing… it was fine. Okay, that’s not fair. It was everything it needed to be. It’s not high art, or the best writing a game has ever had, but it didn’t need to be. The beaten down and dejected Companions in both the Slums and the Midlands have enough emotional depth to be convincing peop—er, I mean, robots, while the sidekick characters for each segment carry the plot along with their motivations well enough.

The bond between the cat and B-12 could’ve been stronger, which would’ve given the ending some much-needed emotional payoff, and I feel the game fell short in that regard. But writing realistic animals with human motivations and feelings is hard, and BlueTwelve made an admirable attempt at avoiding at making the feline video game edition of Lassie.

4K Gaming PC

As for the worldbuilding, the metaphor of the setting is a bit on the nose with the three tiers of the city representing Western European social class structures, but it’s a common dystopia trope for a reason – it works. And like all good science fiction, the game is holding a mirror up to modern society to make a point, and it’s a point well made.

As a barely 8-hour game, Stay has less hours of playtime than a cat has lives. But a lot of good things are crammed into it like Kowloon Walled City had people. It’s charming, its sincere, it has masterfully tight controls, looks incredible and is compellingly paced, both narratively and from a gameplay perspective.

There wasn’t a minute I disliked about Stray, and in an era where an overlong game’s length is worn almost as a badge of honour, not having to put up with repetitive gameplay loops, procedurally generated “roguelike” garbage levels and padded “content” lets this small cat game tower above bigger budget titles in literally every way that matters. It is, unlike the inspiration for its setting, a considered and finely constructed work that retains all the charm and mystique of its influences. I can’t recommend it enough.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Time played: Approximately 8 hours

Played on a 256GB Steam Deck (from the SSD) and a 4K capable gaming PC.

Gaming PC Specs
AMD Ryzen 5800X
Nvidia RTX 3080 FE
Corsair Vengeance 32GB DDR4 3200mhz RAM
Game was played from a PCIe Gen 4 NVMe SSD

I took 112 screenshots across my PC and Steam Deck while playing this game. I have uploaded them to the Gallery - you are free to download them and use them for your own purposes. Select the button below to check them out.


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