There are few things more satisfying than finding a sleeper hit before it’s taken off. I would be a hipster and brag that I liked this game before it was cool, but being hipster is too mainstream. (Let that sink in for a second.) But it is the kind of awesome, little game that I need to tell all the cool people I know about it. And YOU became cool when you started reading my writing. Congratulations! Now let me tell you about the crazy cat lady who lives in flat 4.
Susan Ashworth is a forty-year-old woman on the verge of suicide. As a matter of fact, she's just gone over that verge. She has no family, no real career, and her only friends are the cats that visit her apartment. After swallowing a bottle full of pills she finds herself... somewhere. She meets a mysterious old woman who tells her that she can return to life and find something to live for. However, in exchange, she’ll encounter five “parasites,” people who only hurt others and perhaps don’t deserve to live. It will be up to her to put a stop to them. At the end of it all, she may just find a reason to go on living.
The game is a horror point-and-click adventure. The horror part of that is great. Unique, dark art style and a crushing atmosphere will pull you in and not let go. There's plenty of your typical horror movie nightmare fuel, and some disturbing hallucinations to go with it, but it’s scary in ways you might not expect. While Susan gets into some terrifying situations, her greatest challenge may be overcoming her depression. The writing really taps into the psychosis of the disorder: how it’s impossible to focus on positive things; how you think you’re the only one with these feelings; how others seem out of reach; how you know you shouldn’t feel this way and you’re ashamed that you can’t stop. As somebody who struggled with such feelings before, some of it hit pretty close to home, to the point I honestly feel uncomfortable recommending it to anyone who even thinks they might be suffering depression now.
The game isn’t a complete downer though. While there isn’t anything laugh-out-loud funny, there are a couple scenes and dialogues that can get a chuckle out of you and Susan isn't too down to crack a joke here and there. And even though it’s a horror game at heart, it actually manages to create some incredibly satisfying moments during the climaxes of its chapters. It’s experiencing both those ups and downs that really help you connect with Susan far more than your average protagonist. The writing and acting are top-notch and handle the sensitive subject matter extremely well, without either exploiting it or pulling punches. It also does a really good job down-playing the supernatural elements and keeping the human connection. It’s easy to forget about all the weird stuff, even though it’s key to the plot and see the characters as just normal people. Well, except the crazy ones. Susan’s relationship with a younger woman, Mitzi, is especially moving and often entertaining. The conclusion is also... well, it’s great. Let’s just leave it at that. We’ve had a weird spell of bad endings over the last year, but you won’t get any of that here. There are multiple endings, but they vary only slightly. While the conditions for getting the “best” ending aren’t very obvious, all of them are satisfying, but it is sometimes clear you could have done something better.
It’s the adventure part where some players may have issues. Unlike The Walking Dead, where gameplay and story are wonderfully intertwined, gameplay in the Cat Lady can sometimes end up feeling like a barrier to the story. Just when you’re getting into the atmosphere and characters, you have to get into the Monkey Island mentality and find some contrived solution to puzzles. There’s a part where there’s a bird on your balcony and Susan wants it gone so she can relax and have a smoke out there. Fair enough. How should we do that? Let’s see, we have matches. Birds probably don’t like fire. When I examined that piano back there it said that cats always show up when she plays it. Cats love to chase birds. I have a volleyball in my inventory. We could just peg the damn thing. Hey, and then THAT’S how you feed the cats! Or, crazy idea: let’s just open a window and smoke inside. “No,” The Cat Lady says, “let’s build a damn scarecrow.” Whenever you have to solve a puzzle, characters that are perfectly believable in dialogue just stop behaving realistically. They don’t think something’s up with the fact you keep trying to lure them out of a room, or that the electricity keeps going off and you’re standing right there by the fuse box.
That may be my only major, consistent gripe with the game, and that scarecrow is the most extreme example by a longshot. The only other puzzle that comes close to that is when you need to read a message on a mirror and you might not know the trick for that. (hint: mirrors fog up in humid rooms) Maybe it's trying to be "old school" with the puzzles, but the reason I make the Walking Dead comparison is that the series proved the genre can survive - and, when the story is engaging enough, is sometimes better off - without them. That said, while most of the puzzles can feel "gamey," you’re at least given a good narrative reason for them, like dealing with some murderous psycho. Most importantly, the story is definitely worth jumping any of these hurdles.
There are some other minor issues. The third chapter awkwardly introduces a borderline-rigged gameplay mechanic. The part with the scarecrow puzzle I mentioned? That’s part of a larger sequence where you have a Fahrenheit-style depress-o-meter, and you’re supposed to keep the green bar up to make her happy… yeah… Not only is that an arbitrary quantification of complex human emotion which contradicts the game’s usually expert handling of the subject, but it’s damn near impossible to fill that bar and end the chapter happily unless you’re a mind reader and do it perfectly. I honest-to-God thought the mechanic was a joke and they were making some kind of statement where it was supposed to be impossible fill up the “happy bar,” especially since simply doing what the game tells you to will fill up the “sad bar.” Though there may be some meaning to the idea that you have to “cheat” to win. It doesn’t help that it involves some concepts American audiences might not be familiar with. (Really, Britain? You have coin-operated electricity in your apartments?) It’s not game over or anything, though, but it is required to get the best ending. And thankfully, the meter never shows up again.
The last big gripe I’m going to mention is that there’s a rather lengthy sequence that ties into the developer’s previous game: Downfall. I’m sure it’s all well and good if you played the game, but without that context, it just felt extremely out-of-place and it seemed like there was a giant unresolved plot thread.
I do want to reiterate how good the atmosphere is. It’s quite reminiscent of an earlier Silent Hill game, especially with the music, but with a lot less monsters and much better dialogue. It doesn’t rely on jump scares, but there are just a couple few and far between. The pacing is also very good, alternating between quiet (but tense) ordinary moments, and the more intense encounters. Some of the imagery can be gruesome but it isn’t non-stop torture porn, and that actually gives what violence there is more impact, crudely animated as it is. The art style might be a bit hit-or-miss with people, but it contributes to the moodiness of it all, and it makes good contrast when the game does use color. Not the most creative effect, sure, but well implemented and executed. I do kind of wish the animation was a bit more fluid and that things moved at a quicker pace in-game though. (Seriously, the guy in the next room will kill you in a heartbeat! Hustle!) The choppy animation could be part of the style, but sometimes it just felt like my computer was having trouble between frames and the controls can feel a bit unresponsive.
And now, a more spoiler-laden talk about the plot. I've only spoiled some mundane stuff so far. Now, I'll detail the specifics of Susan’s deal to return to life, there’s a spoiler for chapter 2 (but you’ll see the twist coming for miles,) some more details on chapter 4 you might not want to know going in, and I also give hints to the nature of some of the "parasites." I won’t give away anything major, but if you want to go in as blind as possible, just skip to the end.
If you want a little more discussion on the plot, read on...
(mild) SPOILERS LIE BEYOND THIS POINT*************************
So when Susan comes back, she basically has Madison Paige Disease, where she attracts psychopaths and serial killers on a regular basis, despite not being in any kind of law enforcement. This is fine, considering she’s more or less “fated” to meet these people now. There’s some simplistic creativity to the fourth parasite that I liked, and the “final boss” is especially interesting. Still though, I can’t shake how cheap it can feel when you’re dealing with people who are “just crazy like that.” They don’t have real motivations or psychology behind them, (except maybe the last one,) because they just don’t need it, and the writer knows that. Once they’re writing characters like that, a writer can just do whatever they want. I find it almost impossible to believe that the first parasite is the same person you talk to earlier in the chapter. I know that’s why it’s supposed to be a plot twist, and it is foreshadowed some. I’m just saying that if you’re so crazy that you blindfold yourself and dance in front of your torture victim, you’re probably going to give that away in extended conversation. Chapter 4 is also kind of been-there-done-that for the horror genre, but that’s at least redeemed by the chapter’s extremely satisfying conclusion.
Part of Susan’s “arrangement” is that she becomes effectively immortal until the “parasites” are all dead. This concept is mostly fine in the story, but creates a bit of disconnect with the game. Specifically, in chapter 4 which, for some reason, is the only part where you can die repeatedly as part of the game. The story establishes that whenever you die, you return to some kind of purgatory where you have to perform a ritual to return to life, and this remains true in every other chapter. In this chapter, you only have to die once, and you go through the ritual the first time; all the other times it might happen, you just wake back up somewhere else. You could argue she just did the ritual and the player didn’t see it, but since we see that the ritual actually takes another person’s life in exchange for hers, it should have a bit more weight. Not to mention the killer doesn’t seem particularly fazed when you get back up or take any kind of precaution against it. Like locking the freaking door, cutting your head off and keeping it in a separate room, or cremating you to bring about True Death. (bonus cool points if you got that last one) Anyway, it would have been less messy for the story to just create a puzzle that doesn’t put Susan in that kind of danger. Again, not a big problem, it’s just another example of characters not behaving consistently during the “adventure” segments.
END SPOILERS ****************************** ****************
I know this reads like I’ve been complaining for a while, but they're really all just minor problems that had some good rants behind them I had to get out there. All of the good stuff in the game is the sort of thing I'd rather not spoil at all. With all those nagging criticisms off my chest, I can safely say that The Cat Lady is worth your money. What the story gets right, it absolutely nails, and what it just misses is easy to overlook when you're playing. Though a few shoddy “oh right, I'm playing an adventure game” moments bog it down briefly, you’re sure to lose yourself in the story and atmosphere. It may even turn you into a cat person.
Thanks for reading! And look at that: I didn’t make a single cat pun! That should be an achievement. And the achievement title should be a cat pun.
(Special thanks to some fellow fans on gog.com who helped me get my facts straight without making me play through the whole game again!)