This review will contain minor spoilers for The Cat Lady. If you are so inclined I recommend that you go play it right now without knowing anything about it, which is how I experienced it.
The Cat Lady is an indie horror adventure game from Harvester Games/Screen 7, who previously developed a game called Downfall, which I haven’t played yet (a situation I intend to remedy swiftly).
Susan Ashworth is a reclusive woman in her mid-40s who opens the game by committing suicide. In a suitably dreamlike journey through purgatory, she encounters a specter in the form of an old woman who calls herself The Queen of Maggots. The Queen explains that she is returning Susan to life to perform a task for her; murder five supposedly quite nasty people that she calls “the parasites”, and in the process she is to learn to cherish her own life again. To aid her in her quest, the Queen of Maggots curses Susan with immortality— she can be beaten, chopped, screwed and mutilated beyond recognition, only to be revived a short time later.
I was on board with the premise right away, but skeptical after being let down by poorly executed indie fare in the past. Thankfully my faith was rewarded with what proved to be one of the most compelling video game stories around. Susan’s journey of redemption is human and relatable—one of the most harrowing sequences in the story is centered around an argument between her and her former spouse—and the paper doll characters stew with personality.
I was pleasantly surprised with the production values on offer, particularly in the audio department. There is a haunting, crisp score, with occasional dips into straight-up industrial rock grind—the scraping, pounding intro song at the climax of chapter one especially left me hooked.
This gem is not without its flaws, however, as much as I loved the overall package. The pin-and-tween animation style is not for everybody (I have a friend who vocally denounced the entire thing based on the visuals), and while it’s true that it’s a hallmark of pompous pseudo-intellectual murk, I feel that here it’s used to pretty suitable effect.
As the game goes on, however, it becomes obvious where corners have been cut for the sake of animation. Sometimes character sprites in scarcely-used positions warp and bob from side to side rather than properly animate. In a later sequence Mitzi (with a z and an i), an accomplice of Susan’s, must pick a series of locks for her, and each time she asks Susan to look away so she can concentrate. What manages to present itself as an amusing character quirk still nonetheless seems to be an excuse not to have to move anyone’s hands. Likewise a lot of sequences black out when anything more complicated than a walk cycle is occurring. For what is a very professional package in the art and writing departments, it’s odd that the makers skimped on the visuals. However, it’s understandable that for an indie project you can’t expect to have everything.
My one complaint regarding the sound is a disparity in quality between characters’ voices. I’m surmising that many of the roles were recorded and sent over the internet rather than in any sort of central studio, and as a result any character who isn’t Susan can have a persistent hiss or lower quality audio. Oftentimes there were minor discrepancies between the spoken lines and the subtitles—not an issue for me but a pet peeve for others. A notable exception is a turn by the demented David Firth as two of the parasites. His sound equipment is top notch as expected, and I’m not ashamed to admit that I shivered when his familiar mush-mouthed Queen’s rolled into my headphones. The whole game is very reminiscent of Fat-Pie’s catalogue and I feel that it would have been criminal not to have him turn at least a cameo here. Extra points.
But enough of pretending to be a proper reviewer; let’s talk about the horror.
When I think of horror gaming these days, especially independent projects, it’s hard not to groan. Slender, Home, Anna, The (excuse me) Fucking Path. If you’re not driving away any casual observer with art-house masturbation and half-cocked nihilism, you’re frontloading the thing with jump-scares, spooky faces, static stings, and misplaced ambiguity. The Cat Lady revels in its influences, but more than that seems to actually understand what about them worked and apply them to a modern package. The game reads like a mash-up of Jacob’s Ladder and a Nine Inch Nails video. Jilted animation, sudden frights, musical stings and spooky faces are all present here, but they come together in a sincere and effective way.
However I must admit there was a point in the plot after which the horror elements more or less dropped off and became background noise. The chapter about the Pest Control man forms the meat of the gore and darkness promised by the game’s advertising, though a chapter about a home invasion plays on one of my personal fears and criss-crosses it with important development of Susan’s character through playable flashbacks. The aesthetic of the game doesn’t brighten after this point, but there is a marked increase of dialogue and bit-characters played for laughs. The babysitter, the old man, the Dog Lady; these (with the possible exception of the old man later on) are one-dimensional bit parts who serve as obstacles in the puzzles, but offer little in the way of character other than yuks. These are acceptable in small doses, but so many and squeezed into such a small space of gameplay (or pages, or scenes in a film) makes it really stand out, especially when the sardonic banter between Susan and Mitzi is at its peak during this chapter.
The last real horror sequences in the game—concerning some mysterious neighbors, and the final confrontation with the Queen of Maggots—are very satisfying. The former for its imagery, subtlety and bleak ambiguity (MI… SER… Y.), and the latter not so much for scare factor but for concluding Susan’s character arc in a dramatically sound fashion. I’m not sure I gel with the final reveal of the Queen of Maggots’ origins, preferring that she remain an ambiguous gatekeeper figure (more on this in a minute).
There is a last-minute addendum to the husband and wife scenario that I felt was squeezing the premise, and it seems like those characters should have played a larger role in the plot (even if it was just to mention six parasites at the start of the game instead of five). For that, the mystery of the apartment across the hall feels a little tacked on, but it’s got a very compelling sequence in it, so it gets a pass.
The writer seems to have a good handle on subtle cues; the repeat of “Thanks for nothing, goodbye” and various nods to old adventure games (“Nice lamp”) are a treat. However I must admit that the plot offers little in the way of twists. The first parasite is very loudly telegraphed, at a point in the story where uncertainty and second-guessing should be at their highest. I had expected one of the innocuous minor characters to turn out to be your first target, but as it turns out all bad people in the Cat Lady’s world have a very slimy way about them. Having all of the most likable characters turn out to be serial killers would have been a gag-inducing ploy, however, so it’s hard to come to a happy medium in that sense. If nothing else, at least the murdering psychopaths are entertaining.
As a final gripe, and more of a personal one, the game’s attitude towards professional services such as law enforcement and especially mental health is decidedly pessimistic and a little juvenile. Susan’s remark that it “feels like we’re in prison” in the mental health ward after her suicide attempt had me groaning. As a person who has been through the rigors of mental health assistance and had my life saved by care workers and counselors, to have them stereotyped as a bunch of jackbooted thugs who are just trying to make Susan’s life difficult and suppress their patients’ individuality (or some shit) is laughable and wrong. Susan has a very real mental health crisis and the hospital is right to detain her.
Likewise, it’s absurd and irresponsible that there isn’t any hint of her following up on counseling or psychiatric evaluation at any point during or after the events of the game, and the more outlandish repercussions of her very real problems are written off as supernatural influence in the final Queen of Maggots sequence. Screen 7 had a chance here to not only ground the character but shed some light on the struggles—and triumphs-- of those with mental illness, but instead chose the Hollywood horror route on this one. The game’s ending reminded me of this issue, giving Susan an optimistic if not perfect conclusion while seemingly ignoring large parts of the continuing struggle a real person with her issues would face.
All said, however, for the occasional times I picked out a stray tear in the wallpaper or felt ruffled with the execution, The Cat Lady compelled me at every turn. I was up until four in the morning my first sitting and completed it the next day. The end of the game left me wishing there was more, a rare feeling these busy days. There was not too much or too little, I was consistently enthralled with the atmosphere and unfolding plot, and god damn it, I got some real, honest to god scares. Frights aren't easy to achieve in a point-and-click adventure, but The Cat Lady does it.
The Cat Lady is an absolute gem in both the adventure and horror genres, and for an absurdly low price. You’d be stupid not to give this studio your business.