Review: Video game Stray is a cyberpunk delight

Jonathan White, South China Morning Post

Posted at Jul 21 2022 01:08 PM

A scene from the video game Stray, in which you play a ginger cat exploring Hong Kong’s former Kowloon Walled City. Seven years in the making, the game is highly engaging. Photo: Annapurna Interactive via South China Morning Post
A scene from the video game Stray, in which you play a ginger cat exploring Hong Kong’s former Kowloon Walled City. Seven years in the making, the game is highly engaging. Photo: Annapurna Interactive via South China Morning Post

The first thing that you should know about video game Stray is that you will need every one of your cat’s nine lives, and the rest. The cat can die.

Taking on the role of a small ginger cat in a dystopian version of Hong Kong’s former Kowloon Walled City is not all that safe, and there are many dangers along the way as you seek to unravel the mystery behind its semi-desertion.

This is not an open world game, it is linear and finite. That is a good choice in a real world where many gamers are getting tired of the former, but that is not to say that you are that confined by the linearity of Stray.

The real run time is essentially as long as you want to play, though the storyline can be navigated in leisurely fashion in five to eight hours.

There is a PlayStation trophy for doing it in less than two hours and the game seems primed for the speed runners of social media.

Stray had gained cult status in the seven years since it was first announced on Twitter as “HK Project” by developers Koola and Viv of Blue Twelve. It has been six years since Annapurna Interactive came on board to publish the game and anticipation has built every passing day as the release date kept being pushed back.

Well, the good news is that Stray was worth the wait. It is highly engaging, stunning to look at and it feels even better.

The haptic feedback of the PlayStation 5 controller comes alive whether you are merely miaowing, snuggling up to the robots who you can communicate with or taking a cat nap.

There is a lot more going on as its story unfolds – and you will undoubtedly be sucked into the storyline – but some of the best fun is to be had by taking time out from the main quest and just goofing around catting it up and finding out you can type on a keyboard, claw at surfaces, play with toys and even play the piano.

Stray’s mechanics mean you cannot just jump anywhere and everywhere – cats after all are known for their grace – and you will need to find and follow a target to leap from surface to surface. It is a simple and effective way to express the discerning nature of cats.

The developers have clearly taken delight in creating their cat, and the animations when it limps (which will have you worried) or learns to wear a harness show their attention to detail.

As for the main quest, the storyline and its conclusion really lean into you playing as a cat. Being a cat means that speed and stealth are often not just the best choices at your disposal but the only options.

Sneaking around has long been a part of games and seemingly more so than ever before – the success of the stealth-forward The Last of Us and its sequel spring to mind – but it makes much more sense when you’re a lithe cat.

The very beginning of the game sees our unnamed cat awake with its fellow feline friends and, as is so common nowadays, we are taught the controls by playing along, exploring the local environment outside the cave where the game begins.

It is most reminiscent of the first Echo The Dolphin way back on the Sega Mega Drive where you can free swim before the game proper begins.

That’s perhaps fitting, because your very freedom is at risk once the story starts in earnest and you will spend hours – maybe even in one sitting – trying to get to the bottom of why. The ending, when it comes, is bittersweet, but there is plenty of replay value beyond trying to complete the mini-quests and trophies.

If there is one criticism of Stray it is that sometimes feels like the narrative is just a little too on the nose in these (hopefully) post-pandemic times, but that is a minor quibble and one not everybody will feel the same about. Plus, it is hard to see how a game this long delayed would not be affected in some way.

That part of the story is all to come, though.

Stray is a lovely little game. You pick things up, you talk to people (OK, robots) with the help of a drone called B12 – a little nod to the development studio – that acts as your interpreter, but there’s jeopardy enough to make the adrenaline surge, while the absence of guns or whatever other weapons you would normally expect to find to hand in such cyberpunk surroundings is a welcome change.

Stray is high up in the already strong pantheon of games inspired by Hong Kong and probably top dog when it comes to cat-based video games.

Stray is available on PC, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. It is included in some versions of PlayStation Plus.

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