Could you still sleep tight after our second day’s review of Downfall? Think there’s still some room left for being scared again? Here’s a title which will surely give you more than one nightmare and nasty things to think about.
Rem Michalski’s (Harvester Games) new game The Cat Lady is not only more violent and scary, it’s so good that it single-handedly breathes new life into the adventure game genre and shows that mature storytelling with an artistic presentation is not dead.
A woman who committed suicide is forced by the mysterious Queen of Maggots to kill a group of people before she’s allowed to die.
The dark side of the human mind
The premise of the story is already quite controversial, but the handling of the subject matter is done extremely well. It’s not a straightforward story, as the game jumps between dreams, nightmares, the past and present with premonitions of the future. Impressively it never makes the player feel that it repeats itself, because every person Susan has to kill, tells his or her own stories. Some are tragic and sad, others are sick and perverted: Suicide, depression, fetish, mutilation and more show what lies beneath the surface of ordinary people and how they cope with their lives…or not. Delicate matters which could easily have become watered down or just dropped with some game designers or companies, but Rem Michalski masters it perfectly.
Granted, like his horror adventure Downfall, there are some scenes which can easily be questioned for their graphic depiction of violence, and Susan’s constant dwelling on her miseries can make some people rather antipathetic towards her character, but in a strange way, all this fits together as the nightmarish sequences and brutal killings reflect Susan’s psyche and are also influenced by the player’s decisions.
Many faces of storytelling and gameplay
Adventure games are typically very linear experiences, so it’s refreshing to see that Harvester Games experiments both with storytelling and gameplay. It’s not easy to explain it without giving away some surprises, so it’s maybe best to be more general: Every person Susan meets or has to kill does not only tell a unique story, but also offers a different approach to gameplay. Some chapters require investigative skills, others mundane tasks to make the protagonist feel more at peace with the world at home.
It’s actually more than one game, and the most fascinating thing about it is that it always surprises the player, always keeps him engaged in both story, gameplay and characters. Never for a moment is it possible to predict what happens next. Shocking moments are just as effectively used as very sad ones. Unlike games like Heavy Rain or the recent Reperfection, this horror game doesn’t try to pull at the heart strings of its audience with superficial music or clichéd story and characters. Only with pure storytelling skills does it achieve a mood rarely seen in games: despair, compassion, disgust and more are feelings the player will subconsciously have when playing it. Or does the game actually play him or her?
Linearity in the genre can also be found very often in dialogue trees. No matter how the player answers questions of NPCs, usually it either doesn’t matter if the protagonist is nice or not or it doesn’t really change the outcome of the conversations and the story. More common are those dialogues which require a specific set of answers to progress in the game. The Cat Lady still has these, but there are more instances where Susan’s past and character are formed by the player’s decisions and answers. These are usually of a psychological nature, e.g. in a therapy session with her doctor when she can create her family’s past and later the player can even influence the telling of an urban legend as he or she sees fit.
Even if most of the story segments are linear, the game continually questions the player’s actions and plays with his expectations about how characters should behave and how an adventure game should be played. This is made abundantly clear in the puzzle design as well.
Adventure tropes transformed
Inventory puzzles usually stem from a classic tradition of old-school adventure gaming, but the game also throws solutions at the player which only make sense in a dream-like world. It’s difficult to explain this without spoiling too much, but suffice it to say that the nightmarish sequences offer certain signs which have to be decoded by the player, like a crow flying to a specific direction which has to be followed, or how background details merge together to give another clue. What makes the puzzle design so great is that unlike games as Silent Hill which also offer sick and twisted solutions, it never feels as if one has to do the same thing twice (like looking for a key and doors).
Just like the story, puzzles demand quite a lot from the player as he has to make up his own mind how everything fits together. Unfortunately some are a bit too obscure and it doesn’t help that there’s no hotspot key, so missing items can become a problem. Still unlike Downfall, the inventory is seldom cluttered with too many objects and there are clear goals to achieve, so it doesn’t happen too often that the player runs around without having a clue what to do next.
You see and hear what you don’t get
Extraordinary storytelling also demands a fitting presentation, and here again Harvester Games delivers. Many places and scenes look like bizarre paintings which are also in constant movement. It adds to the dream-or-nightmare-like atmosphere and offers an experience unlike any other. Despite bloody violence and shocking moments, the game never loses its artistic quality.
This is also acconmplished by its masterful implementation of music. Without taking too much away, but the beginning can easily be contender for best beginning in a game (or even movie) ever. The way the drama is built up by the music and how it surprises and shocks the player simultanously, is something rarely seen in games and is another indication for the skill Michalski displays.
Only the quality of voice acting varies: It’s not necessarily some recording problems (like popping sounds when being too close to the microphone), but some actors overreact a bit, and Susan’s performance can seem a bit too melodramatic as well. But then again this being different from the polished voice acting of mainstream games makes The Cat Lady even weirder and stranger than it already is and adds to the atmosphere.
Moving puppet master
Character movements are choppy and facial expressions pixelated, but even this fits the overall presentation as it feels more like a painting which is in flux, but also stops with the protagonist’s jerky walking and performing actions. The only problem is that the controls can stand in the way of moving through the powerful imagery.
Unlike so many point-and-click adventures, the character is controlled directly with the left-and-right keys which again makes it look like a painting where the player moves from left to right or back again. Actions can be performed with the up-key and sometimes this is a bit awkward, especially when choosing the correct item from the inventory. Quickly jumping from one to the next location is not possible and even if the individual chapters don’t have many places to go to, it can become quite a chore to get from one to the other.
With so much praise, are there any faults in the game? Of course there are: conversations or monologues can be quite long, and sometimes it takes a while until it’s possible to save again. The save system itself is also not very user-friendly as only 50 save slots are available. This sounds like a lot, but as the game is quite long and there are so many memorable scenes those are filled rather quickly, and as there’s no option to overwrite or delete already existing files, this can become quite a problem later.
Harvester Games didn’t break new ground with Downfall, but it was an interesting attempt to cross over the thin line of good taste and present a mature story with a psychological background. Now with The Cat Lady, Rem Michalski delivers a true masterpiece of interactive storytelling. I usually shy away from strong words like this as they create a hype few games deserve, but the game truly is that good and completely blew me away.
Is it still a classic adventure title? It doesn’t really matter as the game defies categorization and instead offers a personalized experience for everyone who isn’t easily offended by violence, gore or who can stomach a truly terrifying tale of the human psyche gone wrong. A horror title which won’t let you sleep, leaves questions open for your own interpretation and is simply one of, if not THE best storytelling game of the year or in years to come.
Although I like this trailer better as it gives you an impression of what the music is like ;):