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Written by Kevin Kennedy, @thekevmiester
Ah The Cat Lady, the epitome of the crazy old woman who has lost touch with society and has become the “bogeyman” of the neighbourhood. This time however, The Cat Lady is actually our protagonist in this 2D point and click adventure game that tells the tale of depression, suicide, murder and of course, cats. Three years in the making, The Cat Lady is the first release from indie studio Harvester Games. I knew little else about this game going in, but it turned out to be one of, if not the, best game I’ve played this year.
Things start off grim, as Susan Ashworth, the titular Cat Lady, commits suicide and awakens to find herself in a field of corn. She assumes this to simply be the afterlife, but she has more in store for her than she knows, once she reaches an old, creepy cottage, she is offered the chance to get what she truly longs for, if she will simply carry out a number of “favors”.
During my introductions, I usually describe the plot in a little more detail, but I honestly don’t want to give anything away; I went into this completely fresh and truly feel that is the best way to go in. Suffice it to say that the story is gripping, involving and very intelligent. There is the occasional “blunt, force, trauma” moment but for the most part the writing treats the audience with respect, simply telling it’s intriguing tale without having to apologise for the heavy use of gore and violence (of which there is a lot).
What really drives the story though are the characters; from “the Queen”, to the chatty Welsh nurse, to even Mitzi the lodger, who does border on “manic pixy dream girl”, but is still charming and loveable all the same. Holding things together though, is the main character herself, Susan. Not only is it incredibly refreshing to have a game starring a middle aged woman, Susan is also an incredibly sympathetic and likeable character (some may even find her relateable). She could perhaps do with a touch less moaning but she carries the game by herself.
I do have a couple of quibbles though. Most notably of which is that the game begins suggesting that the story will take a particular route and while chapter two (my personal favorite of the 7 chapters) very much maintains the themes suggested in the beginning, the rest of the game sort of does what it wants. Going into detail will require quick SPOILERS so skip to the next paragraph to avoid. The “Parasites” mentioned in the opening chapter are said to approach people with kindness before turning cruel, which certainly worked to begin with but soon fell by the wayside. A shame as I’m still reeling from the shock of what happens in chapter 2. SPOILERS END.
The ending also wasn’t quite as fulfilling as I would have liked and the dialogue can be heavy handed, but apart from that, the story is gripping stuff.
The Cat Lady is very much a 2D adventure game, not to be confused with games like Broken Sword or Monkey Island which still allow you to walk in 3 dimensions, The Cat Lady only has 2 to work with. The controls are functional, but still quite a drawback. Oftentimes, button hits wont register, you’ll be fidgeting about your inventory more than you would like and Susan tends to step out of place during repetitive actions causing you to walk her back into place again, but nothing too major to ruin your enjoyment.
The game doesn’t rely on quick reactions so lacklustre controls can be forgiven, though much more frustrating is the touchiness of the controls during conversations. The slightest nudge of the space bar can cause two or three lines to rush by. Very frustrating for a game where story and character are so important. Though again, these are minor quibbles in a game that mostly controls as well as it needs to.
As for the puzzles themselves, they mostly sit on the fence of being just taxing enough to make you think, but no so hard that it’s unfair. Most puzzles are sectioned off with maybe only two or three overlapping problems to deal with, so it’s hard to feel overburdened, though there is somewhat of a progression in the game which finishes with an entire building being the arena for puzzles. There were maybe two instances that I felt the game could make things a touch clearer (I had to get in touch with the developer to solve one puzzle despite knowing what I actually had to do) but other than that you’ll get the familiar feeling of satisfaction upon completing a puzzle quite often.
The biggest trouble I ran into, however, is not so easy to overlook. The performance of The Cat Lady is a very strange matter. For the majority of the game, Susan would shake across the screen as if she had Parkinson’s disease and would walk at ridiculously slow speeds. Looking at Let’s Plays on Youtube made me feel I was alone though, as nobody else seemed to have the same issues.
I sometimes found that messing about with my power cable or simply restarting the game would fix things, but the game proved to be so unreliable in this fact that despite all the positive things I have to say about this game, it was almost unplayable for me. As time went by, I felt like I was getting into a better groove, though a rough spot was never too far away. It’s not as if my Laptop can’t handle it (I can play Far Cry 3 on high end graphics quite easily) though it may still be a personal issue. Regardless it affected my enjoyment so much though that I couldn’t finish this review without rambling about it for a paragraph.
As for the rest of the presentation, the game has a dark, hand drawn look to everything, very befitting to the tone the game is striving for. I still preferred the more colorful moments but it still isn’t dull and grey just for the sake of it, it works. The character animations feel like they’re cutting corners a little too much (kettles will disappear in Susan’s possession) and you’ll have to watch the same canned animations over and over, but these are just nit-picks at this point.
With the occasional exception, the voice acting is great, giving life to the rather static animations. There seems to be a plethora of regional British voices being used, from the Scottish single mother to the chatty Welsh nurse. Being from Britain myself (Scotland to be precise) I found this very welcoming. The sound equipment used though, is perhaps another story.
There is sometimes an audible “hiss” heard behind dialogue, which while not too distracting, is quite jarring. The game also features music from Warner, who also provides a voice of one of he characters, and consist of moody sounding tunes which don’t particulary stand out but set the scene fine. A few standouts (the music in the cottage near the end of chapter 1 was a personal favorite) and it may win a few fans, but I doubt I’ll return for many listens outside of the game.
I don’t remember being this excited about a game in a while, ironic given the nature of the game. The Cat Lady is a refreshing, intelligent and intriguing game and one of the best I have played this year (despite coming out last December). A part of me wants to score this game higher, though the performance issues I faced affected my gameplay so much that I feel my enjoyment was also affected. Never-the-less, the story, characters and voice-acting tell a tale that I recommend whole heartedly.
The Final Word: Technical issues aside, an excellently told story that will stick with you long after completion. Brilliant stuff!