The Cat Lady review
22 December, 2013

The Cat Lady is one of those rare games that shows that adventure games can tell a good story without regularly coming to a screeching halt for obscure puzzles with wacko logic. A shining gem among the pile of rubble; sure, it's a shining gem with imperfections, but nothing's perfect.

The game starts with the protagonist, Susan Ashworth, having just committed suicide, and after a brief internal monologue, you die. During a sequence that may be either a dying dream or a visit to the after life, you meet an old woman who tells you that she is sending you back to kill five people she calls “the parasites,” and that she is making you immortal. Then you wake up in a hospital, wondering whether that even happened. After your encounter with the first of the five parasites, it is made quite clear that you are immortal.

The Cat Lady is one of the very, very, very few games that I can call mature with a straight face. The story is set in the present day, in our world, and the characters are like real people. Susan is not just a relatable protagonist set in a wacko world, she is a real, ordinary person in a mundane world, with ordinary people around her. She is battling depression like a real person, she lives in a dingy part of London with neighbours who have problems of their own — again, problems like real people — she talks about life like a real person, all actions have realistic consequences (supernatural element aside), and violence is not glorified.

So what of the gameplay? The Cat Lady is very much an adventure game, although not point-and-click: you use the arrow keys and return instead of the mouse, which is awkward at first, but it eliminates pixel hunting, a scourge of adventure games ever since they dropped command lines. If you like your adventure games heavy on the puzzles, you will find disappointment here, but if you also like your games to have a good story, than the easy puzzles shouldn't bother you, because they just get in the way. This game has puzzles, but without adventure-game bizarro-logic. As I said earlier, Susan is like a real person, and like real people, she doesn't make lock picks out of string, a paper clip, chewing gun, duct tape, and bat shit from the nearby spooky mansion that she first has to get the lazy town priest to exorcise by bribing him with a rare tea that the corner shop doesn't stock, and the speciality tea shop is closed, so she has to infiltrate that first, all the while refusing to use the brick she's carrying on the door window to unlock it from the other side, claiming, “That doesn't work,” when you, the player, know it does! Susan will just smash the door window with a brick, and reach through to unlock the door. This doesn't mean the puzzles are obvious and mere busywork, just sane.

The game has only a few minor problems, which don't greatly interfere with the overall enjoyment, but can't be completely ignored. The first thing I noticed was screen tearing when scrolling, and I do not have a wimpy graphics card. This is likely a problem with the engine, so I'm willing to let the developers — the game developers — off on this because of it being a low-budget production. I encountered one dialog sequence where the subtitles made sense, but the voice bites were the previous two repeated again. This is pretty minor, but would be really confusing for anyone playing with the subtitles turned off. These were addressed in the version 1.3 update. Also, while the acting is superb, it often sounds as if it was recorded with a cheap PC microphone, and sometimes it even sounds as if it's coming in over Skype.

It has the classic adventure-game problems with game dialog trees: prompting you to make a choice when only one is left; a few points in conversations that only give you one choice and are effectively “press return to continue conversation;” dialog choices that must all be selected by the end of the conversation, which only lets you control the order of the conversation parts; and most of the mutually-exclusive dialogue-choices do nothing to affect the outcome of the exchange, but do provide some variation for repeat playthroughs, like in Monkey Island. It also has a couple quick-time events, but not of the flow-wrecking “press X to not die” kind, and instead of the pointless “hold X to continue” type, and I suppose they somewhat serve to keep the player involved in action sequences, and since it's not an action game, they add interactivity rather than taking it away.

I think the only gameplay element I could say was bad was the “anxiety” and “contentedness” metres in one scene that were never used again. When Susan gets home from the hospital after her suicide attempt, two bars appear on the screen, one for her anxiety and one for her contentedness, or whatever they call them, and you are told that if the anxiety bar fills, she will have a mental breakdown, and if the contentedness one fills, she can relax and get some rest, but whatever you do, the outcome is the same. I think they were trying to use these as a narrative device to make a point about Susan's mental health, but the same thing could have been achieved with simply the tense and relaxing event music that's already there, and removing the bars altogether. With that said, however, this hardly has any negative effect on the whole experience.

These problems are negligible, like tiny ink blots on the pages of a book: mildly annoying if you happen to notice them, but really easy to ignore, and even easier when you discover that the author also bound the book and created the font. The acting credits for The Cat Lady are longer than the rest put together. Remigiusz Michalski did everything but the music and making the tea (by which I mean there's someone else credited with “interface programming,” and another person did the casting). Even though the quality of the media is fairly low, the content still shines through. Cyan showed us with Myst, and later again with Riven, that you can make a great show with small pictures and a limited colour palette, and The Cat Lady is a more recent example of that, just with different limitations.

I really don't know who not to recommend this game to. I came away from it feeling like I do when I've finished a Harlan Ellison story. It's the kind of horror that doesn't simply keep you on edge with scares, but that gets into your head and leaves you emotionally exhausted by the end. It manages to be melancholic without being melodramatic, gruesome without being over-the-top, and disturbing without being gratuitous. Even if you don't like horror, you may still like this. If anything I've said here, or anything in the trailers, piqued your interest, then try it. It doesn't cost much, it doesn't take long to play through, and it's the kind of thing that doesn't come along often.