Platform: PlayStation 4
Review Date: 12/29/22
In the not-too-distant future, the surface of the planet became uninhabitable, forcing humans to move into large underground cities. The nature of what brought this about is unknown, but it could have easily been pollution, climate change, disease, natural disasters, or war. Hundreds or thousands of years later, a small house cat finds itself inside one of these cities after taking a bad fall. The people have all died and been replaced by androids that eerily mimic human behavior, and our feline protagonist befriends a small drone named B-12 who has the ability to communicate with cats. Together, they must figure out a way to escape the city, since the cat's existence proves that the outside is once again habitable. Unfortunately, the androids mimic human behavior just a little too well, and have built a class-based police state society ruled by strict security sentinels who insist on keeping the city locked. Another threat comes from flesh-eating bacteria that have evolved in the sewers, which are constantly encroaching on the androids' space and find the cat especially appetizing.
First of all, the game is absolutely gorgeous, and the world of Walled City 99 is stunningly rendered and amazingly detailed. The early areas are eerily devoid of all life and quiet as a tomb. Given the amount of time that's passed since the people disappeared, the ruins are remarkably well preserved. It's as if everyone just vanished without a trace one day, and didn't even leave any corpses behind. As you travel deeper into the slums and encounter plants and androids, things become much more lively and colorful, and once you reach upper levels, the city becomes a bustling cyberpunk metropolis with a dark and dangerous underbelly. The ambient music and sound effects are mediocre and unremarkable, but they still add to the mechanical mood of the setting.
Playing as a cat is utterly delightful and the freedom of movement is both exhilarating and frustrating. Jumping on things and knocking stuff over is wonderful, but it's not always clear what parts of the environment you can interact with. Unfortunately, during the tense action scenes where you have to escape the Zurks, you lose the ability to climb and are forced to just outrun them. These moments are the least enjoyable parts of the game, and running, dodging, shaking, aiming, and firing at the same time is asking for a lot of dexterity and coordination that I don't have. While these segments are difficult, they're infrequent and can eventually be defeated with enough practice and perseverance. It's just unfortunate that they drag the rest of the story down, and the reload time whenever you fail is uncomfortably long. The sparse checkpoint system is less than ideal and doesn't take incremental progress into account, so you have to make sure you hit major story moments before quitting.
It's a fairly short game that can be completed in about 12 hours, and at a first glance it's pretty simple and straight forward. But if you dig beneath the surface and try to connect all of the lore, it becomes increasingly dark and creepy. The more you interact with the androids, the more apparent it becomes that they're not just mimicking human behavior, and that they're mechanical hosts for humans who uploaded their consciousness into them as the remnants of the human race died from a plague. The androids are simply behaving the same way that their former human selves did when they were flesh and blood, which dooms them to be locked in the city forever. They developed their own language, customs, and society over time and have essentially forgotten everything from their human lives, even though they mindlessly continue to reflect uncanny human traits. The nature of the Zurks also becomes more horrific the more you study them, and there is something even more insidious living in the sewers that defies explanation. In a scene reminiscent of "Aliens," you see an android being held captive as a parasitic host, while the entity presumably probes it for knowledge about the city's network. You expect it to say "Please, kill me..." at any moment. You can tumble down this rabbit hole forever, but eventually things stop making sense and the world building collapses under extreme scrutiny. So it's best to just go with the clues that are explicitly doled out and leave it at that.
Overall, I enjoyed "Stray" a lot. Exploring the walled city is a consistently thrilling experience, and I was constantly overjoyed by all of the "aww..." moments provided by the cat. The mechanics are simple and it doesn't overstay its welcome, and I ended the game wanting more. B-12's narrative arc is less emotionally impactful than I expected, but effective nonetheless. The game ends on a slightly unsatisfying note with little closure for our hero, accompanied by a seemingly sinister flickering of light from a computer panel that's open to needlessly rampant speculation. "Stray" feels like an incomplete masterpiece and a one-shot art game intended to be a technology showcase for the PS5, although it ultimately missed its original release date as a launch title by over a year. That said, I suspect we won't see the continued adventures of our furry friend, but I'd be thrilled if it happens. Just think about what might have happened at the other walled cities...