‘Stray’ hands-off preview: a brilliant glimpse at summer’s most exciting game

'Stray' is shaping up to be a fantastic feline caper that knows exactly how irritating cats can be

In Stray, developer BlueTwelve Studio says you can be “as annoying as you want to be”. As an adventure game that follows a spirited cat on a journey to get home, BlueTwelve’s statement is unlikely to shock any cat owners: we love our felines, but beneath layers of adorable fur lies a streak of playful, antagonistic bastardry.

That’s demonstrated during a hands-off preview for Stray, and it’s one of the reasons why BlueTwelve’s upcoming game looks so enticing. As the preview opens up in a dingy neon-lit alley, it doesn’t take long before the cat (Stray‘s nameless protagonist) is slinking gracefully through a tangled web of moody cyberpunk streets. The cat is animated superbly, and it’s hard to believe it wasn’t motion captured – instead, BlueTwelve says its animators just watched far too many cat videos. The result is a cat that looks fluid and responsive to control, and watching it leap around town is a delight.

Somehow, Stray‘s impressive animation isn’t the real reason it makes the main character feeling like a living, purring cat. While it looks fantastic – and slightly hypnotic – to see the game’s protagonist pad through Stray‘s mysterious cyberpunk setting, it goes a step further by allowing you to properly embody a cat’s penchant for chaos. Rooftop ledges, window sills and tables are often dotted with precariously-placed objects that are only there to tempt players into mischief – with the press of a button, Stray‘s cat can innocently extend their paw toward something to give it a nudge. “No item can remain on a table at any sort of height” says a BlueTwelve developer, with the weary sigh of a cat owner who knows that far too well.

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Stray. Credit: BlueTwelve Studios.
Stray. Credit: BlueTwelve Studios.

Throughout the preview, there’s plenty of opportunity to knock things off ledges, along with a thousand other amusing cat tropes. Pawing at a door will result in some of the city’s robot inhabitants opening their homes up, while another amusing instance sees the cat jump onto a table where two robots are playing dominos – nonchalantly knocking over the game-in-progress and causing both players to throw their hands up in exasperation. There’s even a dedicated ‘meow’ button, which can be used to meow loudly over character dialogue and crucial cutscenes. These irresistible acts of disruption rarely serve any purpose, but it adds heaps of character to Stray‘s protagonist and introduces a plenty of physical interactivity that makes exploring the world a joy.

Honestly, Stray‘s world doesn’t need much help in making it compelling. Throughout the preview BlueTwelve shows off several locations from the game, all different slices of the same city. One moment Stray‘s cat is wandering through a junkyard town built around a water reservoir, the next it may be exploring a brightly lit sprawl right in the city’s centre. Built in Unreal Engine 4, Stray looks fantastic and its city feels just as lifelike as the game’s starring cat. BlueTwelve says contrast is a major theme in the game, and it shows in the preview: harsh neon lights clash with dingy shadows, while twinkling strings of lightbulbs bring beauty to a town that rises from a heaving junkyard.

Stray. Credit: BlueTwelve Studios.
Stray. Credit: BlueTwelve Studios.

Beyond looking gorgeous, each neighbourhood’s differences are more than skin deep – they all showcase Stray‘s multi-faceted activities. A frantic action sequence shows Stray‘s cat being chased by swarms of strange creatures that look like sentient potatoes, while a little later it explores more of an open-world setting with an investigative angle, with the cat questioning local residents in an effort to locate a robot in a picture. While not seen in the preview, there are also parts of the game that require stealth, and there are abilities and upgrades to find for your feline. BlueTwelve says it will take between seven and eight hours for the average player to complete (“really curious” players will be able to stretch that to nine or ten hours), and while that may be shorter than some fans would like, those hours appear to be creatively filled.

For the most part, these hours contain a fairly linear story, but there are some side quests and collectables to branch out with. Finding these collectables – called Memories – seems like a worthwhile venture for anyone looking to make the most of their time with Stray, as they offer little nuggets of worldbuilding that explore more of the world’s backstory.

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Stray. Credit: BlueTwelve Studios.
Stray. Credit: BlueTwelve Studios.

Speaking of which, Stray‘s story and setting is one of its most intriguing elements. While the preview was light on details to avoid spoilers, the basic premise is that you play as a cat who has accidentally stumbled into a surreal city inhabited by robots. Far from cold hunks of metal, these robots are warm and personable. Some will stop to chat, others are too busy playing pool (or trying to play dominos), and one particularly affectionate robot will project a heart emoji on its screen-face as you curl up for a nap on its chest.

For Stray, the only real question is in how fun it will be to play once the novelty of playing a cat wears off. Though there seems to be a lot of platforming, you can’t actually jump yourself – instead, gaps and jumpable distances will offer up a button that you can press to have the game neatly jump for you. While it avoids clunking up the game’s fluid movement with player error, it does present an interesting design choice: can hours of platforming remain engaging when every jump is automatically purrfect?

To be honest, Stray has so much promise that this doesn’t feel like a major concern. An easy-going clamber feels like a good pace for this particular cat’s journey, and the elements of adventure, investigation and exploration seem promising enough to do plenty of heavy lifting for the game’s short runtime. When this launches next month, it’s possible that everybody may indeed want to be a cat.

Stray launches on July 19 for PS4, PS5, and PC. The preview build was demonstrated on PC. 

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