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Stray plays best on PS5, as shader compilation stutters impact another Unreal Engine game on PC

The Digital Foundry tech analysis.

Charming puzzle-platformer Stray is turning heads for all the right reasons at the moment, putting players into the paws of a cute ginger cat exploring a beautifully realised cyber city mysteriously devoid of human life. The game's available on PlayStation 4, PS4 Pro, PS5 and PC, so how does each platform compare? Do the last-gen consoles hold up against the PS5 release, and what's the score with the PC version and its rumoured stutter issues? Let's find out.

The first thing you'll notice about Stray on PS5 is its install size - at 7GB, it's remarkable for being almost half the 13GB install on PS4, likely down to more efficient data compression on the new system. Despite its relatively slight profile on PS5's SSD, Stray packs a grand sense of scale and atmosphere with it, and each location is meticulously layered with ornamental detail. THe world design is what really makes Stray special; a cat-meets-cyberpunk aesthetic that proves striking on any platform you might own. The colour palette at times calls to mind adventure greats like The Last Guardian or Ico, and is uplifted by Unreal Engine 4's effects suite: screen-space reflections on city streets, smoky volumetric lighting and object physics. Combined, it creates a world that feels ruinous, oppressed by the elements - and yet all at once still alive and tangible.

Our tech breakdown shows Stray's visual highlights - and frame-rate oddities - on PS4, PS5 and PC.Watch on YouTube

Let's cover the basics first: you get a native 1920x1080 and 30fps presentation on PS4 (and PS4 Pro, too for that matter), while PS5 is boosted to a native 3840x2160 and 60fps output. Remarkably this jump to 4K and 60fps means PS5's rendering eight times the pixels per second compared to its last-gen equivalent - a drastic upgrade. Dynamic resolution scaling is in effect on PS5 at rare points, however, reducing GPU load when needed, and the lowest resolution spotted is 3360x1890. Curiously, in testing for a similar DRS range on a base PS4 and PS4 Pro, it transpires each tends to stick more stubbornly at their 1080p targets, though DRS may be possible. Beyond resolution and frame-rate, changes between the PS4 and PS5 versions are otherwise subtle. The premium machine uses a higher-grade bokeh depth of field effect and potentially longer draw distances during fast transitions, but shadows, texture mapping and much of the world detail appear very close between all three PlayStation machines.

Looking at the PC version on Steam helps reveal some of the settings used on console. Running at 4K resolution with high settings for shadows, textures, effects and meshes on an RTX 3060 Ti, the PS5 falls extremely close in comparison. That said, PC's high setting for shadows gives it an definitive edge. Tree shadows are clearer on Stray's high preset, pushing higher resolution outlines across the floor during the game's opening tutorial area - whereas PS5 uses the medium setting. Otherwise? PS5 is tightly matched to PC's best output in most regards, including its high texture setting. Again there's a potential for improvements to mesh quality - to draw distances - but these are less clearly distinguished in action.

Stray on PS5 looks very similar to PC's max settings, but shadow quality can look better on PC.

We've already mentioned the frame-rate targets for each platform: 30fps for PS4 and PS4 Pro and 60fps for PS5 - but how well does each platform hold them? Looking at PS4 to start, we get a locked 30fps 99 percent of the time - but sadly, there are noticeable sub-30fps hitches as we move from one area to the next. The leading cause of this is Stray's auto-save mechanic, which triggers between key areas. Sometimes this is just a couple of dropped frames, but ocassionally we see spikes up to 120ms. It's not ideal, but fortunately doesn't affect the platforming action itself - where 30fps is well held. PS4 Pro has a similar issue with the auto-saving hitches; the enhanced machine doesn't solve it outright, but at least minimises their impact in spots.

As for PS5? Well Sony's next-gen console has a few big wins here. Firstly, the auto-save hitches are nearly vanquished, sometimes disappearing entirely and other times manifesting as a single dropped frame. It's harder to spot, and the result is far more fluid, and distraction free. Alongside this, we of course get a much more responsive platforming experience at 60fps. Combined with the 4K presentation and Dualsense support (via the use of adapative triggers on interacting with objects), the PS5 edition comes very highly recommended.

In theory, the PC version ought to deliver an even better experience on a high-end PC. We've established the shadows get an upgrade over PS5 - as well as being able to push 4K and 60fps. Sadly though Stray on PC is not a wholehearted recommendation right now. The problem? Shader compilation stutter, a recent bugbear of Unreal Engine 4 releases, has returned with a vengeance. Footage of the game provided by my colleague Alex Battaglia running on an ultra-high-end RTX 3090 graphics card show infrequent but jarring frame-time spikes when performing new actions or entering new areas. Note that this is a separate issue from the auto-save drops we see most evidently on PS4; here the issue can also occur while walking through an open environment or in the midst of platforming. A fix is needed then, but judging by the trend of this shader compilation issue, it appears to go beyond the remit of a specific developer - and work may be needed by Nvidia, AMD and Epic itself.

Stray PS5 vs PS4.
There's an upgrade in clarity on PS5 compared to PS4, but both games hold up well.

For those looking for the smoothest way to play Stray, PS5 right now offers an excellent option at a fluid 60fps. As it stands, PS5 happens to have the fewest, and least noticeable, hitches of any platform I've tested. Beyond this, the PS4 version has turned out surprisingly well too, with a world that remains intact even on Sony's 2013 hardware. On PS4 Pro, the game runs just fine - honestly - but it could stand to offer some more adventurous enhancements to scale with its more powerful hardware. As for PC, we'll have to watch this space. Outside of the shader compilation stutters, it's a nicely optimised version - but I can't recommend this release in its current state.

I suspect Stray will sneak into plenty of game of the year lists come December. Its charming feline lead and inventive, mysterious world means it's got all the makings of a cult classic. It's a genuine surprise for 2022, and played on a PS5 especially right now, it comes highly recommended.

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