Gaming

Review: Stray – When Portal and Half-Life Meets Cyberpunk

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Stray is an exceptional game. It not only combines the greatness of various other masterpieces, but creates a unique experience that will be remembered for a very long time.

The gaming world has gone crazy with a new game called Stray. For a good reason, too. After-all, it’s a game based on a cat. The protagonist is a cat and it allows the player to play as the cat. So after days of getting tired of the hype, we finally decided to try and do a PC review it. The results were quite good would be an understatement.

Published by Annapurna Interactive, Stray is a game made by a small France based game developers named BlueTwelve Studio. Possibly their first game, it doesn’t look like the game developers are small timers. They seem to be the master of this art.

It’s important to mention that the review will have some spoilers. While we have tried to not reveal any major part of the story, we decided to go with a lengthy review and that means spoilers are inevitable. Still, we promise we will not ruin the story for you.

Cutting to the chase, let’s talk about the game.

Story

The story of the game starts out in a world where our protagonist, the cat, is walking with other cats of its family, over various human created pipelines in a beautifully created natural world with vegetation all around. The fun is cut short when our cat fells down into an underground world, with the other cats in the family not able to do anything to stop it. What follows is the start of our cat’s journey to try to reach back to the top again.

Stray game starting screenshot.
Our cat trying to find a way after falling down. Credit: Annapurna Interactive.

In between, our cat meets a memorable tiny robot drone-like companion called B-12 (presumably named after the developers BlueTwelve) and other humanoid robots who are either eager to get out of the underground world or have hopelessly given up. The story of the game will make you fall in love with each of the main characters, from the companion B-12 to other humanoid robots.

The story raises questions about where the humans have gone. Why is everyone trapped underground. Why are all the calendars stuck on 11th October. It tries to answer these questions as the game progresses.

There are two major villains in the game. First the Zurks, which seems to be directly inspired by the Headcrabs from the Half-Life game series. They come in huge groups and attack and latch onto the cat and the player needs to either run from them or get rid of them quickly. The Zurks are found only in the first half of the game. The second villains in the game are police drones called the Sentinels. These Sentinels, if they detect you as a threat, will shoot and murder you in no time, requiring you to play very stealthily to avoid them.

Coming back to the game itself. The majority of the game sets out in two cities. The first being slums where the player has to talk and help various people to go further. The second part of the game sets out in the city called the Midtown, which allows one to find more help to reach the top further.

In between comes various challenges and villains trying to stop you. This includes a scary middle part of the game called Sewers, which makes the game into a scary nightmare to play. But is still an important part of the story of the game. In middle also comes a beautiful place called the Antvillage, which is a village on a huge tree.

An important point should be made about our companion B-12. The story of B-12 is important to the game itself. It has forgotten its memories and we must explore various places to find help him remember them. Overall, it is trying it’s best to help our cat reach to the top again. The story of B-12 is great and extremely memorable. Our companion B-12 is all set to become one of the greatest companions in the history of gaming.

It must be mentioned that the story has a bitter-sweet conclusion and leaves many questions, left to be answered in a possible sequel, becoming Stray 2. But take nothing away from the game itself. The story does reach a meaningful conclusion and it’s completely worth playing for. Really, the story of the game is keeps you engage and the conclusion will leave most people emotional. We insist everyone to play it to feel it yourself.

Stray’s story, in many ways, also reminds us of Portal 2’s story. Now Portal 2 is considered among the greatest game ever made and being compared to it in any way is no small feat in itself.

Story rating: 4.5/5.

Gameplay

The gameplay of the Stray allows one to control our protagonist, the cat. You jump onto pipes, rooftops, walk to the allies, run through the dangerous areas to reach the places you want, in order to progress in the game. The game is not an open world sandbox, but a linear game with allows one to roam only areas allowed by the developers – this includes the pipes, which are easy to walk on and falling from them is (nearly) impossible. Even then, the cities leave open a vast amount of areas, free to roam and explore.

Stray game Slums screenshot.
Our cat walking on pipes in the Slums. Credit: Annapurna Interactive.

In the midst of all the running and jumping, you talk to the humanoid robots who speak an alien robot-only language, which our trusty robot drone companion translates with ease. You got to find ways to help these robots, who in return help you reach further.

Really, we are quite unsure what genre to put this game into. Sometimes it becomes an action-adventure game. At times, it’s a 3D platformer. Many times, it’s a calm puzzle adventure. Another time it becomes a horror game. What’s great is that it does well in almost all of these.

All these things make the gameplay exceptional. You are unlikely to find any game similar to this one.

We had two major and one small problems with the gameplay. The Zurks and the Sentinels being the first major one.

The Zurks are ruthless creatures. They will come in groups and murder our cat in no time. There’s no easy way to kill them, either. One has to keep mewing in order to rid of the Zurks latched onto the cat. The mewing part is extremely hard to do when one plays the game with a keyboard and the mouse. While the developers recommend playing with a gamepad, it’s optional and keyboard and mouse is largely good to use, except this part.

The good news is that the keys are bind-able and can be changed in any way one wants. Someone recommended the mewing key be changed from the default left-Alt button on the keyboard to the left mouse button and it makes the game far easier to play.

The ruthlessness of Zurks cannot be stated enough. Especially so in the sewer levels, where it basically becomes a horror game. You cannot even shoot them in most part of the game. Thankfully, the game has divided itself into safe and unsafe zones. This is where the game also excels. How it transitions from tense areas to calm ones. It tells you this is a safe zone where there are no Zurks – like cities which are calm and fun and there are unsafe zones which are full of these creatures – where one has to run quickly.

Stray game Zurks screenshot.
Zurks are jerks. Credit: Annapurna Interactive.

The Sentinels are relatively easy to deal with. But they are so quick to shoot, something that makes the game end in no time. If caught in their pre-determined roaming areas and sight, they will quickly shoot the cat in no time. Even if one presses the run button and maneuvers in the location, it hardly leaves any time in the hands to get away from them easily.

It’s nothing new for the bad guys to be hard to play against in a game. However, the problem we have is that the game attracts a lot of casual players thanks to its subject and game makes it really hard to play against these two enemies. What we would have ideally liked is for the game to have difficulty modes, with easy, medium and hard mode as an option. With easy mode allowing Zurks and Sentinels to take more time to detect and latch onto the cat and if possible, be lesser in numbers too (at least the Zurks).

The second major problem we have is again slightly related to the difficulty of the game. There is no manual saving in this game. Only automatic saves are allowed in the game. That too one single slot. Which makes it even harder. As it requires one to try again and again. Which is frustrating for casual players who just want to play as a cat while their cats are watching them play on the screen. Another problem with lack of an ability to manually save is that there are possibilities of the save file being corrupted.

Thankfully, the game, which is spread into 12 different chapters, allows one to start from any chapter they like, but from the very start of those chapters. Selecting these chapters is completely optional and has nothing to do with the auto-saved file – unless one loads those chapters.

Another small quip we have is the camera. Hiding from the Sentinels requires one to hide in boxes. Not a big issue. But the camera angles when the cat is inside the box makes it really harder for us to see where these Sentinels have gone. This camera movement needs an improvement. There is an option in the game settings to disable auto camera, but we didn’t try them.

But taking nothing away from the game. Except the above-mentioned problems, it’s really a great game.

We would like to mention a small feature, just to explain the greatness of this game. When the cat walks on various surfaces like the sofa, its speed slows down a little. It’s possible that the game also vibrates the gamepad controller, but we haven’t checked.

Another memorable part of this game is that it allows the cat to scratch sofas and carpets, mew at will – during the gameplay and cut-screens and even purr near some humanoid robots. It reminds one what this game is all about – the cat. Really, the level of attention paid to the small areas is exceptional.

We found almost no bugs while playing this game. Which too is a great feat.

Some people also complain that the game is too short. We did not think so. We took 8 hours 10 mins to complete it. Maybe people complain because they wanted more, which is not a wrong thing to feel.

Gameplay rating: 4/5

Graphics Design

Stray game Midtown screenshot.
Our cat in the Midtown. Credit: Annapurna Interactive.

This is what we were waiting for. The graphics of Stray is extraordinary. It’s not a surprise as Unreal Engine is used to make this game. But it’s the effort which has gone behind making it.

The cities are designed with attention to the smallest of details. The slums have been designed after a now demolished real life place called Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong. Really. With all the garbage lying around, you wonder how did the developers manage to create such a beauty in such a dirt. It’s really a marvel.

If you were impressed with the Slums, then Midtown city takes it further. It’s a city full of neon lights akin to the Cyberpunk location. What impressive is how realistic some portrayals are. One room in particular of our robot friend is designed mindbogglingly beautiful.

Even the horror inducing sewers were beautifully designed. The graphical design of the sewers makes it simply clear that a good amount of efforts was put into designing the game. One has to play it to understand that the efforts required to make sewers the horror they are.

What’s also impressive is how our hero, the cat was designed. It’s movement, its actions, its licking of paws, its curling up, its purring, all resembled real life cats. This is because the cat of the game was designed on real life cats of the developers.

Stray game real cat.
Murtaugh, one of the real life cats the game Stray is based on. Credit: Sony.

Really, the people who designed this game are artists. We would wonder what level of graphical design they would have made had they were given even higher budget.

The graphics settings offer many options. Fullscreen mode, Resolution, Resolution Scale, V-Sync, Motion Blur (something not found in all games), Sharpness slider, Effects Quality, Shadow Quality, Mesh Quality. In all, simple, yet effective options.

Graphics rating: 5/5

Audio

I don’t know if others have mentioned, but there are no human voice-over lines in this game. Our cat doesn’t understand the robot or human language. Everything is translated by B-12 and written in hovering dialog box which one needs to read. Yes, the robots do make impressive sounds, but they aren’t proper words.

The game however makes something even better than human voice-over lines. It has cat voice-over lines. Twitter user and musician JANKENPOPP reports that the cat voice was recorded by a real life cat named Lala. Which does a more than impressive job. From mewing, to getting hurt a little, to purring, to being annoyed and angry. The game captures the voice of the real cat perfectly.

Lala the Stray game voice actor.
Lala, the voice actor behind the game Stray. Credit: @jankenpopp.

What’s also impressive is the music. While some areas of the game has a radio or a tape-recorder running in the background. What the game excels is the music during the unsafe areas. The music in the sewer parts, for example, has an award for best musical score written all over it. The music is still in our ears, that’s how impressive it has been.

Audio rating: 5/5

Performance

When we review a PC game, it is important to review its performance. As no PC game review is complete without one. We used a decently powerful budget PC with a relatively ancient graphics card to play this game.

The graphics settings of Stray allows limited but good amount of options to navigate. It allows one to play in fullscreen exclusive or other modes. The game also allows one to have an uncapped frame rate or cap it at 60 FPS. We chose the second.

The performance of Stray on 1080p was top-notch. In almost no point of time did we feel that the FPS dropped below 60. It did not glitch during the sewers and did not have any problems during the vast cites either.

What we felt was that the game was graphics card heavy and did not use the CPU above maybe 20%. This graphics card heavy engine, we feel, is a specialty of Unreal Engine. This is completely different from Ubisoft’s Anvil engine, which feels very CPU heavy.

In all, the performance of this game on PC is quite good and overall quite smooth.

Performance rating: 5/5

Conclusion

Stray is a masterpiece. Let there be no doubt about it. It may have been made by a small studio, but people and their cats have big abilities. The story of the game will pull you inside it. The gameplay will make the game feel like the back of your hand (except unsafe parts). The graphics are beautiful and immersive. The audio is memorable. The performance is impressive.

Stray is an exceptional game. It not only combines the greatness of various other masterpieces, but creates a unique experience that will be remembered for a long time. Easily one of the best games ever created. The game will make you remember the cat and B-12 – it’s companion forever, in this meaningful journey and emotional conclusion of the game.

Stray game B-12 screenshot.
Our trusted companion B-12 talking to the cat. Credit: Annapurna Interactive.

Easily a game which is going to run away with many awards, possibly Game Of The Year (GOTY) awards included into it.

PC gamers can buy Stray from Steam. We fully recommend to play it.

Game rating: 4.5/5.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

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OurDigiTech Staff

We love covering news about everything tech. If we are not busy looking after news, we are either playing games or watching our favorite sport.

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