Stray is the real deal. The game is beautifully atmospheric and slipping into its world feels effortless.
The adventure begins amid beautiful urban decay, with the titular feline and his family of three other moggies waking from a nap on the ledge of a concrete reservoir in the process of being reclaimed by Mother Nature. Tangles of branches and leaves push through the crumbling man-made structure everywhere, creating canopies, waterfalls and pools, and our hero and his buddies navigate their idyllic home in perfectly cat-like manner, leaping up, dropping down and pausing to lap water from reservoirs of running water.
The game gets you started with a few classics from the feline repertoire. You can walk, run, leap, hop up and, perhaps most importantly, meow by pressing the Alt key. A general interactive key allows you to sidle up to your feline friends for some head bunting and allogrooming, and the furry family members purr at each other in appreciation.
But things don’t remain idyllic, of course, because this is an adventure.
Our cat, an adorable ginger tabby, is separated from his tribe when he follows them across a chasm via a rusty pipe and the metal gives way.
It’s an enormous credit to the animators that they’re able to convincingly convey the panic and fear on kitty’s face as he tries to stop his fall, clawing at the edge futilely until he takes a nasty tumble onto hard concrete a few hundred feet below. Conveying authentic emotion on the faces of human characters is challenging, but doing it with a non-anthropomorphized animal is another thing entirely.
When you land, you can hear the distressed cries of your fur friends far above but can no longer see them, and your cat is injured: He limps along on three legs through a dimly lit sewer before passing out from his injuries.
An indeterminate time later he awakes, sniffs out a cat-size path of egress from the sewer and finds himself in the neon-tinted Walled City of Kowloon in an alternate future. (The real Kowloon Walled City, infamous for its urban density and its status as a hub for Hong Kong’s triad gangs, was demolished in 1994. It’s now a park.)
There’s so much that could go wrong with a game like this. It features a radical shift in perspective, putting players closer to the ground than they’re accustomed to and in the paws of an animal who isn’t particularly well-represented among game protagonists. Animating a feline is an enormous challenge, and cats have their own version of the uncanny valley: The slightest mistake in the rhythm of a moggie’s gait, for example, can throw the whole thing off, rendering the character unnatural. (See the wacky gallops of Assassin’s Creed’s horses, for example, or pretty much any third-person game in which a human character can run. More than two decades into making modern third-person games, developers still have trouble animating human running sequences that don’t look broken or comical.)
The care that went into animating kitty is evident, as is the work that went into controlling him feel effortless and instinctive. There’s no adjustment period here. From the first moment moving like a cat feels like second nature.
We’ll have more on the gameplay and story as we spend more time in Stray’s world. So far, the game gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from Buddy the Cat and me, his humble human servant.
In the meantime, as Stray sets sales records for an indie game and continues to generate incredible buzz on social media, publisher Annapurna Interactive is using the opportunity to help real life kitties, including a game code giveaway with the Nebraska Humane Society that netted more than $7,000 in donations.
Stray is blowing up online as well, with users publishing more than half a million tweets about the game within a day of its release, per CBS Marketwatch.