“Susan Ashworth, known in her neighbourhood as the crazy Cat Lady, is a lonely 40-year old on the verge of suicide. She has no family, no friends and no hope for a better future.”
Great. This sounds like it’s going to be fun.
The Cat Lady is a surreal adventure from Harvester Games, creator of 2011’s adventure Downfall. Dragged back from death, Susan is offered a second chance at life, with the only catch being that this time she’ll have to fight for it. The parasites are coming – people more animal than human, and their deranged lusts and thirst for death will leave Susan with no other option than to fight.
First of all, I need to make one thing clear. If your idea of adventure gaming is firmly rooted in the Lucasfilm era of comedy and hi-jinks, then you’re in for an enormous shock. Monkey Island this is not. The Cat Lady involves scenes that would make even Sam and Max reel back in horror.
Presented in a stylistic photo mosaic style, the backgrounds and characters’ blank facial expressions, rather than deducting from the experience, add to an unsettling feeling that things aren’t quite real. The creepy backgrounds coupled with the subtle audio cues combine to constantly instil the feeling that something horrendous is about to happen.
And happen it does. To claim that The Cat Lady involves mature themes would be something of an understatement. It would probably make more sense to put a small warning on the box that says ‘warning: this game contains a brief scene involving a microwave burger that does not involve mature themes, but that’s about it.’ Suicide, depression, loneliness, pretty much every miserable thought or experience that has ever afflicted mankind is represented at some point in this game. And when I say represented, I mean dragged kicking and screaming into the foreground. The Cat Lady doesn’t hold back, even for a second, with absolutely no hesitation in tackling adult themes.
I’m not a fan of gore for gore’s sake, and although The Cat Lady certainly doesn’t hold back on scattering pints of the red stuff, there are remarkable moments of contrast and contradiction throughout. Mere minutes after brutally murdering someone, you find yourself wandering your apartment looking for the necessary ingredients to pour the perfect cup of coffee.
In a break from traditional point and click format, The Cat Lady is entirely keyboard controlled. Hotspots are highlighted automatically as you move within reach, which eliminates the age-old problem of hunting for errant pixels that adventures traditionally suffer from. Additionally, the hotspots also highlight all available actions, instead of forcing you to go through endless bouts of ‘push object,’ ‘pull object’ before discovering what precisely you are allowed to do with it.
As a result, the puzzles are not especially taxing – there’s little that will keep you from progressing for long. The main problem with The Cat Lady’s puzzles is that sometimes you’re not entirely sure what it was you did to progress the game. The land of death is confusing and packed with metaphors for something or other, and when even locations don’t connect with each-other, it can be difficult to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing. It’s probably best not to question why you’re supposed to cut an ethereal duplicate of yourself in half with an industrial saw – just go with the flow and you’ll soon be living again.
There is, however, a problem with the sheer simplicity of the interface. In the early-game, there is very little to interact with, meaning a great deal of your time is spent wandering backwards and forwards idly wondering when the game will start. The extremely linear nature of the adventure persists for perhaps longer than ideal, before later opening out into more interesting territory. But it’s not the problem solving that will keep you playing – Susan Ashworth is no heroine, she is a flawed and damaged human being, with a past so devastating it will bring you to the verge of tears.
Susan’s character, due in part to some spectacular voice acting by Lynsey Frost, is a remarkably mysterious figure. Early on, during a conversation with a psychologist, you are given several responses to his probing questions, and you’re never quite sure if the answers you give are true heart-felt recounts of her past, or soul-less and snide rebuffs to any attempt to probe her psyche. Try as you might, it’s difficult not to sympathize with such a lonely, isolated, but above all else, human individual.
The Cat Lady took me completely by surprise, and I am not holding back when I say it is literally one of the most unique experiences I have ever had from an adventure game. Following in the footsteps of Telltale’s Walking Dead, it exists more as an interactive movie or novel than an game. Existing in a mysterious place somewhere between the living and the dead, Susan Ashworth’s experience is one that will join the likes of Amnesia in being a horror classic that will haunt me for a long time to come.
Verdict: Head Shot
Platforms Available – PC
Platform Reviewed – PC – Review based on code supplied by publisher.
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