Despite the fact that it stars a cat, there’s no extra fluff in Stray. The game takes place under the dome of an artificial sky, in a futuristic city populated by robots and cut off from the natural world, and mechanically, it’s also perfectly contained. Every detail in Stray serves a purpose, whether it’s an environmental cue nudging players toward a specific path or the ability to meow at will, which is adorable, but can also distract enemies in combat scenes.
Stray is a cyberpunk playground where players are rewarded for trusting their instincts, and it offers a beautiful balance of exploration, puzzle solving and soothing cat activities. And somehow along the way, it manages to tell a heart-wrenching human story without any people at all.
Cat people, you’re going to love Stray, but there are also some scenes that are hard to watch. The game begins with a gang of four cats living their best lives in a lush, overgrown industrial park that’s long been abandoned by people. Players are an orange tabby, leaping across huge pipes and steel beams until one slip changes everything. As its friends look on, the cat falls dozens of storeys down a deep, pitch-black hole, landing in a broken heap on the concrete floor of a sewer. The cat is injured, making players walk around limping and woozy for a while before recovering normal mobility. The injury scene is tough to watch and even harder to play, even for a dog person like myself, but it builds an instant emotional connection with the tabby that carries through the entire game.
The bulk of Stray takes place in the neon-lit neighborhoods trapped under the dome and populated by anthropomorphic robots. Players explore while trying to find a way back to their friends in the sunlight, and eventually the cat is equipped with a cute little drone that helps it communicate with the robots and hack certain terminals. The drone, B-12, is attempting to solve a mystery of its own – while traversing the cities, players collect memories from random shining objects, helping B-12 remember where it came from.
Stray’s world was built for humans and bipedal robots, which makes it particularly intriguing to explore as a cat. From a foot off the ground, things like doors are useless, while items like pipes, railings and air conditioning units provide ideal platforms for scaling buildings and navigating the twisting alleyways under the dome. The environmental puzzles take advantage of this cat-level perspective, inviting players to look at the world with different, light-reflective eyes.
None of the riddles in Stray are overly complicated, though quite a few of them are clever. The most engaging puzzles ask players to travel back and forth among multiple locations, helping or tricking various robots to get what’s needed, with minimal direction from the game itself. These puzzles are solved by exploring the cities and talking with their inhabitants, naturally building out the lore at the same time. And Stray doesn’t stick with any mechanic for too long, presenting new enemies and fresh situations to solve with each environment.
The path forward in Stray is usually obvious, with yellow paint marking jumpable platforms and large neon arrows often pointing the way. These navigation elements aren’t exactly subtle, but they blend into the richness of the city, only standing out when they’re really needed. This makes progressing in Stray feel completely natural – with the environment constantly directing players along the proper path, the next leap is usually the right one, and this keeps the pace up nicely overall.
There are minimal on-screen instructions in Stray, and most of them have to do with performing housecat activities like scratching rugs, knocking over plants and paint cans, and curling up to sleep. These actions are cute as hell, but they also help move the narrative forward at times. For instance, clawing a couch leg is fun and adorable, but the cat can also scratch at certain doors to make the robots open up, unlocking new rooms of secrets. Meowing, meanwhile, can happen at any time, even during cutscenes or while sleeping, and this is pretty much the best mechanic in the game.
The most common on-screen prompt is a small indicator that clings to the edge of any jumpable surface, whether the cat is climbing up or leaping down. This is the most restrictive mechanic in the game, as it dictates where the cat can move and sometimes cuts off pathways that look viable. There are plenty of moments in the game where I feel stuck for a moment, wanting to jump to a specific area but unable to move without that small white dot telling me I can. This dampens the game’s feeling of freedom and adds hiccups to its overall pacing, but it doesn’t destroy the ability to explore the cities completely. I’d say I’m able to complete 80 percent of the jumps I want to. I also see how this mechanic helps cultivate a sense of cat-like confidence in every scene – it’s impossible to fall off the edge of a walkway, no matter how thin or wobbly, because you can’t leave until that dot shows up on a nearby platform. With invisible walls like these, who needs nine lives?
I do, apparently. While players are unable to leap to their doom, it is possible to die in Stray – and I did, more than once. The city under the dome is infested with vicious bacterial blobs that chase the cat relentlessly any time it’s near, creating a handful of dramatic run-and-dodge sequences. If the blobs jump on the cat and stay there for a few seconds, it’s game over and you start at the last checkpoint, which is usually just a minute or so behind. There are also hovering sentinels in the later levels that shoot anything that enters their pool of light, leading to a lot of shadow-slinking and some intense timing puzzles.
Among all of the puzzle-solving, ledge-leaping and blob-dodging, Stray introduces a world of lighthearted dystopia, where robots don’t hate the humans that came before them, and instead attempt to cultivate plants that can survive under the darkness of the dome, just because people would have liked that. The robots themselves have distinct personalities and engaging histories, and as a cat, I was able to soak it all up and carry these stories along my journey.
Compared with most dystopian cyberpunk games, Stray is downright joyful. It’s a perfectly contained adventure game with plenty of fresh ideas, each one pared down to its purest form. Even the meow mechanic.
Stray comes out on July 19th for PlayStation 4, PS5 and PC via Steam.