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Stray review: Paws for thought

(PS/PC) **** Age: 12+

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THINK about all the words you could associate with cats: aloof, fussy, independent, fickle. You could workshop the hell out of the pitch for a game about cats and the one you would never hit on is “helpful”.

But here we are with Stray and the unnamed moggie who stars is this bizarrely cyberpunk platformer does what no other feline does in real life: lend a paw to those who ask.

It’s not as if the makers of Stray have little experience with cats. In fact, it’s pretty obvious they’ve spent the seven years of development closely observing their furry friends. The result is a meticulous portrait of the sinuous movement of a cat and all its little foibles.

Stray uses these observations in service of the melancholic setting: a futuristic city in which all the humans are gone and only robots remain. The stray feline of the title accidentally falls from the verdant surface world into the post-disaster under-city below. The story arc naturally focuses on finding your way back to the surface but quickly develops into a co-dependency quest as you buddy up with a little robot who wants to escape too.

So begins the strange sight of the stray doing the most uncat-like favours for others as you explore the sprawling cyberpunk city. Far from being abandoned, the decaying streets play home to a host of androids unsure of their destiny but still going about their business. Many look to you for assistance, which resolves into simple fetch quests. Others point you in the direction of someone or something that may expedite your own journey.

Much of the game involves exploring the vertical platforms of the city, to reach an open window or character living high up in the densely arranged streets. But there’s no actual challenge to the platforming, requiring a button press in response to a prompt rather anything like timing or positioning.

Stray wouldn’t work quite so well were it not for the subtle nuances of the cat’s motion – its athletic leaps, its casual licking of its paws in idle moments, the plaintive meows and of course the contented purring when at rest. Many interactions serve no purpose except to draw you further into the cat’s mindset – the scratching of furniture, the curling up to sleep, the arching of the back to stroke a friendly leg.

Perhaps that helps to disguise the lack of agency in Stray, which is a fairly linear adventure. A few chase sequences raise the pulse and later sections depend on tense stealth but Stray is generally a relaxing stroll through a handsome world.

Something still grates with me about the cat’s uncharacteristic friendliness – we all know moggies view other species disdainfully most of the time. But Stray is almost irresistible in its portrayal of the cat’s odyssey, as if we’ve been brainwashed into becoming its pet. Which, come to think of it, is how the cat-owner relationship works in real life.

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