My first dying in Stray was a swift, sharp punch to the intestine. My smooth, limp physique was overwhelmed by a swarm of vicious creatures that scurry round in herds. The display flashed crimson and inspired me to “retry,” however the message was clear: You Died. The primary time this occurred, I clung to the perception that my tiny kitty protagonist was simply unconscious. Absolutely, I believed, this lovable sport wouldn’t truly let me die. Ultimately, my delusion was shattered: I discovered that these creatures, Zurks, advanced from experimental micro organism and eat something and the whole lot, together with metallic. I glanced at my real-life orange boy, Oni, who’d been yelling at me via this complete sequence of occasions, drawn to the sound results and frenzied Zurks. Welcome to “playing Stray with a cat.”
Stray isn’t simply an journey RPG — it’s a psy-op made for individuals who love cats, particularly in the event you grew up watching Homeward Bound. It’s not fairly the similar premise, however the similar pressure of emotional anguish watching candy animals courageous treacherous circumstances. (Thanks to your service as Sassy, Sally Field.) I’m reluctantly aware of the undeniable fact that the fixed presence of Oni, a tender little coward who wouldn’t final 5 minutes outdoors, informs my notion of Stray’s protagonist; I believe that many cat homeowners — bless toxoplasmosis — will type a comparable connection. Most individuals don’t prefer to see animals get damage, so there’s an prompt sense of emotional and psychological funding, compounded by a default intuition to guard the child.
The sport opens with a household of cats residing in lush, inexperienced, sunlit ruins. I’m simply a tiny orange man, and life is good — full of taking part in, sleeping, and exploring. It’s a brief tutorial space the place I mess around with the cats’ lifelike actions and vocalizations. Stray is principally a simple platforming sport with some puzzles sprinkled in; in lieu of fight, there’s a give attention to the catlike means to sneak, evade, and escape. My peaceable existence shatters once I miss a routine bounce off a pipe and discover myself plummeting to my doom. My family members watch helplessly as I vanish into darkness. I land in a heap, crumpled however unbroken, in the garbage-strewn bowels of a forgotten metropolis. There is no grass, and there is no mild. I’m alone, and it’s devastating.
Stray’s premise is easy: Get residence or die attempting. (Generally actually; at different occasions, I get tased.) In the Lifeless Metropolis, I befriend a flying drone referred to as B12, who provides me a cat-sized backpack to assist recharge its battery and retailer key gadgets (because of unspecified know-how, B12 can dematerialize objects like bottles and notes and remake them on demand). It might probably additionally assist me hack into easy door panels and talk with others. We meet a group of robots — “Companions” who as soon as served now-extinct people and proceed to undergo the motions of humanlike life. Amongst them are Outsiders, a small minority that believes in the delusion of a blue sky. Quickly, my small private purpose to flee folds into a greater narrative about survival in a police state, beneath a conspiratorial veil about whether or not “Outside” even exists. Moreover the Zurks, there are cops, perilous sections of cat parkour, ominous natural growths throughout the metropolis, and a unusual new horror in the sewers.
Motion is fairly acquainted in the event you’ve ever watched a cat: acrobatic leaps from perch to perch, the butt-waggling low crawl, and a couple of events for a back-arching yowl and hiss. There are a few cozy spots to sleep, together with a good heat robotic stomach, and I deeply get pleasure from rubbing up in opposition to strangers’ legs and watching their little face-screens blip out a coronary heart in response. I can push objects off of cabinets, scratch on doorways to be let in, carry gadgets in my mouth, and journey over unsuspecting robots. The inherent catness of my habits is a fixed delight, and feeds again into my unwavering devotion to my little man’s security, like an unmoored eye of Sauron looking ahead to hazard round each nook.
There are a number of operating gauntlets the place I’ve to flee waves of Zurks, which is upsetting for me as a human, however prime film time for Oni, who is unrepentantly vocal about his small pixelated doppelganger and the chittering creatures surrounding it. I’m taking part in on PC with a Nintendo Change Professional controller, which robs me of the PlayStation rumble perform for purrs and meows, however on the different hand, in all probability saves me from having to continuously dislodge Oni from my palms.
In Stray, very similar to actual cat pondering, there’s nowhere to go however up. Town is structured as a vertical dystopia — a widespread sci-fi idea in popular culture from J.G. Ballard to Gurren Lagann. The bottom tiers are poor and disenfranchised, whereas these residing greater up exist in a bougie haze of consumerism. Whoever’s in management lives at the prime. Later, I discover a Metro map that delineates the Decrease City, Higher City (“Midtown”), and the uppermost Exit. The cyberpunk influences are apparent, with neon signs, slender alleys, and extremely dense, haphazard structure à la the Kowloon Walled City. From the tong lau-style tenements to the ubiquitous flyposting with native eight-digit telephone numbers, there’s an simple sense of Hong Kongness right here, which isn’t shocking, provided that Stray’s working title was “HK project.” (BlueTwelve’s web site nonetheless makes use of the area hk-devblog.com
I coast via Stray believing in each this Hong Kong id and authorship, studying into each bit of taste textual content about small, everyday forms of resistance in opposition to state oppression, and the importance of art in “desperate situations.” These aren’t distinctive to Hong Kong — resistance artwork particularly has been a core half of political expression for hundreds of years. Town’s wrestle to keep up autonomy inside the limits of its special administrative region status beneath the Chinese language authorities has inspired people all over the world with its “be water” protest tactics to repel police tear fuel and transfer as one. For a number of years, Hong Kong police brutality was a widespread motif in worldwide information, till lastly, scholar protesters and resistance figureheads have been publicly persecuted, vilified, and imprisoned. Upon reaching Midtown in Stray, all of these threads come collectively once I see civilian robots being hassled by “peacekeeper” cops. My knee-jerk expectation is some form of dramatic showdown with the pigs, however Stray isn’t that kind of sport — it’s about staying small, unseen, and alive.
Till the credit rolled, I assumed Stray was made by a Hong Kong developer. (I desire to know as little as attainable about a sport earlier than I play it.) So I used to be shocked to study that BlueTwelve Studio is French, run by an enigmatic duo from Montpellier. Apparently, this early Hong Kong-centric branding created a widespread sufficient false impression that the studio made an FAQ-style post to clarify its origins and inspiration.
The builders stated that they wished their very own distinctive taste of dystopia, however that’s arduous to completely do when Western cyberpunk depends on such a fastened set of uniquely East Asian visuals. This isn’t to say that Stray fails at creating an evocative, acquainted world — BlueTwelve’s tribute to Hong Kong is properly executed and full of element. Nevertheless it does make me surprise when the video games business will bestow the similar form of Annapurna-level consideration on initiatives made by precise Hongkongers that invoke the Hong Kong id in deeper, extra private methods (like the currently-in-development Name of the Will).
Fortunately, Stray’s uniqueness doesn’t hinge on its cyberpunk setting. I’ve written at length about this before, however cyberpunk has largely been exhausted as a automobile for critique, and in lots of instances, it’s used principally to convey an immediately recognizable concept of trendy dystopia. Frankly, BlueTwelve may have set this in a Victorian steampunk slum and it nonetheless would’ve had the similar impact: fixed care and concern for our little orange pal. The sport’s most expressive settings are hidden behind the metropolis’s drab grey partitions — charming, rundown residential interiors with CRT displays, moveable radios, and shades of Seventies oranges and greens. This lends a much-needed sense of temporal depth to the sport’s unspecified future setting. My favourite scene is a Nam June Paik-style jumble of outdated TVs tuned to a twinkling starlit sky — a chaotic altar to know-how with a curious sense of spirituality.
Lastly, we come to mortality and endings — a wretched inevitability that each one pet homeowners dread. There’s a bittersweet inversion of this notion at the finish, with an inevitable goodbye (no, it’s not what you assume) that compels me to attempt and hug Oni, who squirms away from my grotesque show of maudlin human emotion. Stray ends on a imprecise however hopeful be aware, which felt instantly unacceptable to me, a petty one that hates ambiguity relating to cute animals. It takes me a second to step again, after the credit, to collect my ideas and mentally vacate the position of “cat protector.” I notice I’ve drunk deep from the properly of kitty Kool-Help, and I’d do it once more.
Stray doesn’t do something new. However via strategic manipulation of our love for cats, it does give me a profoundly sentimental window into my relationship with Oni — my first cat, with whom I’m admittedly obsessed. I began projecting him onto the protagonist from the get-go, and his fixed presence as I performed made for a unusual meta expertise of Stray’s emotional design. It’s a markedly totally different journey from cultivating look after a character in a typical role-playing sport, whose quirks and lovable traits have to be discovered over time, via dialogue and gameplay and storytelling. Each small element in Stray was a reminder of my finite time with each my on- and off-screen companions; as soon as the sport was over, I reached out to Oni, full of gooey emotions, and as anticipated, he yelled at me and ran off. BlueTwelve knew precisely what it was doing, spending a lot time and care modeling actual cat actions and habits, however having a actual cat at hand was a becoming jolt again to actuality. Stray is actually (and maybe fittingly) the work of sly cat individuals. And for that reason alone, it’s a triumph.
Stray shall be launched on July 19 on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Home windows PC. The sport was reviewed on PC utilizing a pre-release obtain code supplied by Annapurna Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These don’t affect editorial content material, although Vox Media might earn commissions for merchandise bought by way of affiliate hyperlinks. You’ll find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.