‘Stray’ brings beauty, feline realism to the game

‘Stray’ brings beauty, feline realism to the game


There’s a moment early on in the new video game “Stray” when you realize just how quickly you’ve become emotionally bonded with the character you’re playing — an orange tabby cat lost in an abandoned city.

The animal, who doesn’t have a name, frolics with three other felines in the first few minutes that serve as a tutorial. It jumps on pipes and ledges, drinks water from puddles and scratches on tree trunks. The sun is shining, there are butterflies and cat life is very good.

But then, in one of “Stray’s” many video sequences, a misstep causes the cat to tumble, cling to a ledge in a panic, then roll down an embankment to a thud in a ruinous sewer pipe. The cat is knocked unconscious.

And when I first encountered this sequence, I yelled out, “Oh no! My cat!!!” I was pretty upset.

Now, part of the reason for this is that I’m a cat person. We have two and one of them, Milo, is a dead ringer for the tabby in the game. Our cats are effectively our grandchildren. I describe myself as an “aspiring cat lady” in my twitter profileand that’s only slightly a joke.

But it’s also a testament to just how instantly engaging “Stray” can be. Created by a small French game studio called BlueTwelve and published by Annapurna Interactive, it became an immediate hit when it was released earlier this month for Sony’s PlayStation 4 and 5 consoles and for the PC via the Steam gaming platform. It is already the subject of internet memes, and there’s even a Twitter account, @catswatchstraydevoted to cats reacting as their owners play “Stray” on big-screen TVs.

The cat in the game is remarkably realistic, the most accurate digital rendering of a feline I’ve seen. Movement, behavior, sounds and even the attitude of cats are all recreated with impressive authenticity. (You can also modify the cat’s look. Someone has created a mod that lets you play as Garfield, the cartoon cat.) Even if you’re not a cat obsessive, you’ll appreciate what BlueTwelve has done here.

And that helps raise the game above one of its few weaknesses. The setting of a dystopian, abandoned city has been used so often in gaming that it is a tired trope. But playing as a cat and seeing this decaying world from ground level, and then from rooftops as the animal leaps to upper levels, gives the setting a whole new perspective.

On top of that, the designers of “Stray” have rendered the world beautifully. As cats are wont to do, you should spend time looking around, exploring nooks and crannies. Getting familiar with your environment is a visual feast in the game, and it may also save one of your many lives.

Because as placidly as “Stray” begins, it quickly becomes a challenge. The ultimate goal is to find your way out of the underground city and back to the surface, but you are not alone. While there are no humans in the game, there are other entities—some harmful, some obstructive, some fatal. It’s an adventure game, with plenty of action sequences mixed in with puzzles.

Early on you will encounter the Zurks. They look like small hot water bottles with a single glowing eye. Other reviewers have liked them to the Head Crabs in the classic “Half-Life” first-person shooter. They want to eat you — and just about anything else that’s around — and they are tenacious and deadly in groups. When you first encounter a horde of Zurks, you’re forced to run a gauntlet of them to get away. It will take several tries — running a zigzag pattern works best.

Which brings me to the controls in the game. I played this on the PC — specifically, a Dell G3 3590 gaming laptop — and when “Stray” first boots up on that platform, a splash screen advises that it’s best played with a game pad. That’s the type of controller found on video game consoles.

“Stray” was a PlayStation exclusive, but a PC version was added. This console emphasis shows. Take the instructions in the splash screen to heart — if you’re playing on a PC and you have a game pad, use it. If you don’t, get one. (I snagged a Logitech F310 USB controller for about $15 on Amazon that worked well.) Yes, you can play using a mouse and keyboard, but you’ll survive longer with a controller.

You may start out alone in the dead city, but you soon encounter robots. There are humanoid ones whose goal, like your own, is to get to the surface and escape. There’s a flying drone named B-12 (a play on the development studio’s name) that will outfit you with an electronic backpack and help translate what the humanoid robots are saying. B-12 is your best friend and can even help fend off pesky Zurks, but unlocking it is just one of the many puzzles you’ll need to solve.

And there are also the Sentinels, which are also drones but designed to detect, chase and shoot intruders. They’re not as ferocious as the Zurks, but you’ll need to use similar tactics to evade them.

Through all of this, it helps being a cat. You can jump amazingly high, knock objects off tables and ledges, scratch up a perfectly good carpet and climb into boxes and buckets. You can also just take a nap in some places if you like, which cats do a lot of. I liked to put my tabby to sleep in a designated area, then just go away for a while. Being a cat is exhausting!

Despite its 3D beauty, you don’t need the most powerful PC to play “Stray.” Its minimum specs call for 8 gigabytes of RAM; an Intel Core i5 2550K or AMD FX 8350 processor; an Nvidia GeForce GTS 650 Ti or AMD Radeon R7 360 graphics card; 2 GB of video ram; and 10 GB of storage. You’ll need to be running the 64-bit version of Windows 10, or Windows 11. It sells for a reasonable $30 on both the PC and PlayStation platforms, though PlayStation Plus Extra subscribers get it free.

I credit “Stray” with reawakening my love of PC gaming. As readers of my columns from the late 1990s and early 2000s may recall, I was an avid fan of id Software’s “Doom” and “Quake” first-person shooters. While “Stray” is usually less frenetic and bloody, it’s still the most fun I’ve had on a PC in a long time.

dsilverman@outlook.com

twitter.com/dsilverman

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