Well, I was not entirely ready for this. The Cat Lady, released last year by Screen 7 and created almost entirely by Remigiusz Michalski, was absolutely no where on my radar until I recently saw a preview of it in action. I suppose this isn't overly surprising. Michalski's and his studio, Harvester Games, have only developed two titles. The first, released in 2009, is called Downfall and is apparently both highly acclaimed and fairly successful. The second is this game, The Cat Lady. Both are created in Adventure Game Studio and are horror adventures, further limiting the client base (unless you have the media strength of The Walking Dead).
Yet, this ended up being one of the most interesting and complete titles I've played in ages. And somehow, that's even more satisfying when it's a complete surprise. It feels like this game has been stirring and simmering over the course of many years, and that probably isn't very far from the truth. This is an unbelievably mature experience, most likely the most mature game I've ever played. Many of the themes are very dark and complex and real, and this is one of the few instances I can imagine where an age/user discretion is actually warranted. And that can also be a bit of a warning for the rest of this article.
The Cat Lady starts as our character (Susan Ashworth) is dying, via intentional overdose. She is then forced to push herself through a surreal dream landscape, populated with reminders of her death, before finding a mysterious woman in a cabin. This woman informs her that she is still needed in the world of the living, to meet terrible individuals and dispose of them. Above all, this is a game about being trapped. Being trapped through past circumstances, being trapped through unrelenting feelings of depression, being trapped within story events. Susan is not allowed to escape, nor allowed to be dead. As she is forced to go on, she must encounter new people and attempt to discover which ones, if any, are friends, and which ones are the absolute scum of the universe.
In a sense, this is a bit like Blackwell as far as its chapters go. Instead of freeing trapped souls, you're more of the trapped soul yourself, required to hunt others. This brings me to my second point, that Cat Lady is largely a revenge story. While it can be extremely graphic, violent actions are only justified in the purposes of revenge and necessity. Violence is brought to Susan, and she generally only responds in kind when it's her final option. I was surprised and pleased as I began noticing this, and it definitely dulls the gratuitous nature. Here we find graphic actions and visuals paired with feelings of utter weakness and realism.
As the story progresses, it brilliantly combines character interactions along with Susan and Susan's past to create a supremely fulfilling experience. We are given huge amounts of voice-acted dialogue, and it's expertly crafted within the overarching themes of the story. Little bits that seem unimportant suddenly return later with extreme relevance. Susan's life and the characters around her begin to make sense and some begin to be redeemed for their actions. The game's length is longer than you'd expect because of the huge amount of dialogue, but it quickly becomes worth it. The dialogue makes the game. We are also given various options throughout the game to appeal to our personal tastes and responses. Many of these don't make direct branches on the story, but it all helps to create the character and foster the already huge amounts of realism present in Susan's character. In addition, the ending sequence does change depending on certain decisions, another feature I was surprised to see.
Technically, I'm rather amazed by the overall product. For an AGS title, the visuals, cutscenes, and presentation are phenomenal. I really had no idea the engine was capable of this. It appeared that like many tricks were used for just a single scene, a particular effect he was going for. This is also a very cinematic product with well-planned camera work and color schemes. Again, I'm just very impressed with how this was created and I imagine it was a product painstakingly crafted over a significant period of time. I can't claim to be an expert on the subject, but this is easily the most impressive AGS title I've played yet. And the characters, art, animation, and backgrounds are seemingly all made by Michalski. Oddly enough, none of the AGS filters from the configuration would work, but the game worked fine in standard window/fullscreen otherwise. We also have an inability to save/load/exit during scripted events, which can become quite lengthy. This is likely also an AGS limitation.
Another point I need to mention is the control scheme. The Cat Lady does not use a mouse at all. The only buttons you need are Up, Down, Left, Right, Enter, and Escape (for load/save/exit). Susan can only travel left and right on a line, so up/down are used for all interaction/item tasks. This takes a few minutes to get used to, but works great and is a fantastic control scheme that's played easily on one hand. Similarly, the soundtrack has a full track list filled with excellent, fitting music choices. Ambient noise and sounds effects are also use expertly to fill out each environment.
In all, I can hardly give this game enough praise without overtly spoiling things. But I am very glad this came to my attention and that I had the chance to play it. I'll have to visit Downfall at some point, along with future titles from Michalski/Harvester. The Cat Lady deftly combines the absolute darkness of reality with a near-perfectly crafted game, similar to what The Binding of Isaac was able to accomplish. Except this makes no attempt to cover up the world in a sheen of cartoon graphics. It is brutally honest, and brutally real, certainly the most real I've seen from a game in a while. And yet it also brings unrelenting messages of hope while facing even the worst situations imaginable. Really the only criticisms you could find in this game are nitpicks (some VA irregularities, which could be fixed for a rerelease) or just personal lack of interest in the genre. I only hope it continues to get more and more successful. It's currently being sold for around $10 at Desura, Good Old Games, and the publisher website, with a Steam Greenlight petition ongoing.