Oh, Miss Arshworth, you’re such an interesting person. You say your hobbies include playing the piano, killing parasites, looking after your cats, and returning from the dead? Well I’m sure we’ll get along perfectly.
I love horror games, despite the fact that I tend to be quite cowardly when I play them. In fact I love horror in general when it’s done well. The problem with horror is that it’s difficult to keep going and very easy to mess up. The Cat Lady is an indie horror adventure game by Harvester Games where the player takes control of Susan Ashworth, a severely depressed woman who is the archetype of the crazy cat lady (TV Tropes link for those five people who don’t know what this means here) in her little flat complex.
After struggling with years of depression, Susan decides to take her own life. In doing so, however, she comes to the attention of the Queen of Maggots who refuses to allow her to die but instead charges her with ridding the world of five Parasites (read: serial killers). Aided at times by the brightly optimistic yet mysterious Mitzi Hunt, Susan tries to deal with her multitude of mental problems while completing her odd quest.
The story does get more complicated as it goes on, with the player interacting more with other characters and leading and branching of paths to one of the game’s multiple endings. I don’t want to spoil much because it is a very compelling story. The game also has quite a unique art style with a great deal of black and white settings juxtaposed against odd colours in nightmarish scenarios. Even the movement and actions of the characters has this otherworldly quality to it that at first I mistook for bad design but ultimately saw the aesthetic appeal.
Despite the excellent art style I did find myself getting jolted out of my immersion by some of the animation effects. This is particularly noticeable with the cats, their movement uses very little animation so when they leap they just remain still object moving across the screen as though on a wire. Though I consider it must have been by design it was just silly enough to spoil some of the atmosphere. Nevertheless for the most part the game looks excellent and very creepy.
Though the game has seen critical acclaim for its voice work I must confess I don’t agree. Harvester Games are not an English developer and nor are a number of the actors but there are some odd inflections and accents that, like the cat animations, tended to kick me out of the moment. The character of Mitzi is probably the biggest offender for this. Her pronunciation has no fixed rules apart from her pronunciation of Ashworth (Arsh-worth). Susan herself, however, does an excellent job of conveying the attitudes of someone suffering from severe depression. It’s also fun hearing David Firth (think Salad Fingers) voicing not one but two characters, this is a man that knows how to sound creepy.
As far as the puzzles go there are a few pretty esoteric ones but you it’s not so fiendishly difficult, or requiring a particular way of thinking, that you’ll be reaching for the walkthrough every five minutes. There are a few puzzles that require some out of the box thinking but the game does a pretty good job of keeping you on track. The game does also give a good sense of drama through many of these, ramping up the tension despite having a main character that simply cannot die.
I mentioned the difficulty with the horror genre at the beginning of this article because that is, unfortunately, the game’s main weakness. The tone of the game jumps around considerably to a very odd effect. The first few chapters are pretty terrifying in many different ways, with great build up to the parasites and some bizarre imagery. But this quickly falls away in the later chapters to the point that one chapter practically becomes a buddy comedy (Let’s pretend to be the babysitter, now let’s scare this man by acting out an urban legend). It goes from this horror/occult story into a mystery that ends up with a message about friendship. It’s an interesting character and story arc but the tone and the aura of tension from the first few chapters disappears.
Similarly there are some gameplay features that are a little bit of an issue. There is one scene where you have to balance Susan’s stress levels vs her relaxation. While this makes for an interesting sequence it never makes an appearance again. It does have an effect on the ending but other than that is fairly pointless. When it first appeared I thought it was going to be a new gameplay feature throughout the rest of the game which would have been quite interesting but alas it disappeared as suddenly as it came.
One last point: Harvester Games did release another game prior to this one entitled Downfall and set in the same universe. The main character of Downfall does appear in this game and in fact has a fairly major role in one chapter. There are some interesting and bizarre sequences that did get me hooked… and then completely failed to develop. It’s fine to include characters from earlier games, certainly if they’re in the same universe, but to someone who never played the other game it just seemed to be another plot thread that got picked up and discarded with no real closure.
Despite these issues I did have fun playing The Cat Lady, the characters were interesting and it’s an experience I won’t forget. It is such a shame it has the issues it does because it feels like it could have been absolutely brilliant. But with the tone going all over the place, the odd gameplay features, and a very very heavy handed nod to Downfall, the game falls a bit far of achieving this goal.
I do have one point that I should stress very clearly about this game: I’ve kept the images I’ve uploaded as safe as possible but there are some very awful sequences during this game. Severe violence, extreme gore, child death, almost rape scenarios, suicide, if these are triggers for you then I would proceed with caution in this game. Because it will not hold your hand through the awful bits. Have fun!