The Cat Lady (TCL) – if you‘re imagining the crazy woman from The Simpsons, you‘re mostly right. This indie adventure game developed by Harvester Studios (or Remigiusz Michalski) explores the wonderful life of the main character Susan Ashworth.
Well, I may have lied. While definitely being something else, Susan’s outlook on life is far from wondrous as the game starts off with her committing suicide. But of course it does not end 4 minutes into a cutscene and actually brings on a chain of events: a paranormal experience, a meeting with a demonic, somewhat god-like old lady, and a barrel of dark and eerie adventures.
The story of The Cat Lady feels almost like a fairytale – you don’t really question why the wolf is able to talk to Red Riding Hood, it’s out of this world. Yet for some reason it feels natural and makes sense. And this indie gem definitely is out of this world.
The controls of TCL are incredibly basic and use a total of 7 buttons – the arrow keys, enter, spacebar, and escape. The mouse plays no role in the game which makes it difficult to call this a ‘point and click’ adventure, even though in essence that’s what it is.
You use left and right arrow keys to move, up to investigate, down to go through your inventory, enter to select, space to skip dialogue, and escape to run away to the menu screen because this game is way too creepy and not worth the sleepless nights.
This system seems ideal, as it removes the need for pixel hunting, and the items and actions possible are clear so you know exactly what you are working with. Being a 2D game is also surprisingly beneficial – there are little chances of just aimlessly wandering around and getting lost.
The two-directional exploration system even serves well as a story-telling mechanic. Within minutes of the game, this system is used wonderfully to create an almost cinematic experience: you go forth, see a dead end, so you have no choice but go back, yet when you go back and leave the screen, you hear a loud bang coming from where you previously were. So obviously you return, right? Well that is exactly what you’re supposed to do. It’s a smooth transition of both scripted scenes and controlled gameplay that only helps building up the already eerie atmosphere.
Regardless of the many benefits of the control system, it does feels clunky. Going from the arrow keys to the enter key is not a smooth transition; if you listen to yourself playing the game, just going through the inventory, it feels very robotic. While it does its job, it gets annoying when you press a wrong key once and end up doing the opposite of what you intended. It’s simply unintuitive and overall uncomfortable.
The puzzles are surprisingly sensible considering the bizarre situations Susan ends up in. If you do find yourself in need of a walkthrough, once you’ve found the solution you may think ‘god, it’s so simple’ as most of it just requires you to stop and think for a second, not to try and mash the mouse everywhere to find that one vital item.
It is difficult to begin to describe the plot of The Cat Lady. Most fundamentally it is an exploration of depression – its effects, reasons, and defeat. However to consider the game single layered would be doing it an injustice as it’s a wonderful onion exploring loneliness and friendship, love and loss, revenge and survival.
The game does not go in depth as to how Susan’s supernatural experiences work, why things look weird, or how on earth did she end up here? You just take it as it comes and really shouldn’t frustrate yourself with it either, because there are more important things at hand! Like, Susan, why you gotta be like that? Why do you not like this very particular thing? Why are you depressed in the first place?
Eventually, it’s these questions you truly want an answer to, and the delivery of them is incredibly gratifying. Everything finally makes sense and all comes into place. I believe this is one of the reasons why the game is so engaging: it leaves around hints, makes you play a flashback or a distant memory – these elements just raise questions and make you itch for an answer, and once the scratch finally comes, it’s an almost glorious feeling.
I should probably point out that the story is told mostly through dialogue. The Cat Lady is very dialogue heavy and is filled with actual conversation. While I personally had no problem with this and honestly enjoyed it, I can see why some people would find it dragging on for too long and wished to get on with it. Not to say the dialogue is boring – it’s very well written and well acted out. All characters are clear individuals not only through the voice acting but also their vocabulary and exact way of expression, which is generally an example of great writing.
Now let’s face it, this game is ugly. U-g-l-y, it aint got no alibi. It’s ugly. It’s the first thing you notice and it probably gives off a bad impression, almost as if it’s trying to look good but the creator just didn’t have the skill to make it look nice and smooth – the graphics are weird and look like cut-outs that were just stuck in a background with MS Paint, the animations are jittery and basic, and obviously this indie game can’t even afford colours since so much of it is greyscale.
Well that is not the case; the game is intentionally horrible looking. Not only does the art style give it a very eerie feeling even when you’re looking at relatively normal things, but it adds a whole new level towards its surrealism. Really the ugliness of the game suits it perfectly and after playing it several times now, I realise that having it look any other way would only make it worse.
Looking as crude as it does however, it’s also surprisingly detailed. Every person you meet and every area you visit are all unique; the game definitely doesn’t suffer from reused visuals. The backgrounds are also surprisingly alive. If there’s no wind fluttering a curtain, you will likely see some gloomy light changes. Again, they really don’t have to be there, but it’s just so much better that they are.
The soundtrack (composed by micAmic) of The Cat Lady is phenomenal. As is the rest of the game, it’s one of a kind and not something you’d encounter commonly. It’s also very well timed and is successful at boosting whatever mood the game is currently trying to portray.
Voice acting can be a hit or miss even in AAA games, which is why it was quite surprising to learn that in this game it was just top notch. Again, it’s not necessarily regular or usual. Susan tends to sound very monotone and sad most of the time, but considering her character – it makes sense and shouldn’t be any other way. It also means that when there’s even a little change in her tone you notice it immediately and therefore it has an amplified effect. The rest of the characters sound excellent and genuine also, and the sound effects given for some are perfectly chosen and horrifying.
The Cat Lady is definitely a great game, but it’s also not for everyone. If you like great gameplay or generally just to have a fun pastime, you might want to stay away. But if a well written emotional plot, dark atmosphere, and some experimental storytelling mechanics are right up your alley, I definitely recommend to at least try out the demo.
- Intriguing story
- Great voice acting
- Unique and fitting art style
- Clunky controls
- Dialogue heavy
Microsoft Windows with DirectX 9
Support for 800×600 resolution
1.4gb HDD space