By Marty Mulrooney
The Cat Lady is the latest horror adventure game from Remigiusz Michalski, Harvester Games and Screen 7. Michalski, who created the little-known yet critically acclaimed point-and-click adventure game Downfall, returns here with an adult adventure game that deals with serial killers, depression and ultimately, hope. The player takes control of lonely 40-year old on the verge of suicide Susan Ashworth, aka The Cat Lady, as she battles her inner demons and a series of serial killers revealed to her by the mysterious Queen of Maggots….
The Cat Lady doesn’t make much sense at first – brace yourself for a mild spoiler. As the game begins and the player takes control, Susan Ashworth wanders through environments that feel almost real, but not quite. It is soon revealed that Susan recently tried to kill herself. But is this place heaven, hell, or somewhere in between? The Queen of Maggots offers no clear-cut answers, but she does have a proposal: kill five cold-blooded psychopaths referred to as ‘The Parasites’. To aid Susan, she curses her with immortality, ensuring that no matter how much she suffers, she can never truly die. The troubled story of The Cat Lady has begun.
It’s a dark, brave premise. You have to give yourself over to it – any lightness or humour to be found is mostly subdued beneath overwhelming despair and Susan’s return to the land of the living doesn’t exactly paint the real world as a particularly warm or inviting place. The art style and decaying environments continually reflect Susan’s troubled state of mind, from the clinical banality of a suspicious hospital ward to a perpetually shadowed apartment where the only company to be found is from the piano-appreciative neighbourhood stray cats. Susan is cloaked in depression and her sadness seeps from The Cat Lady’s very pores – it’s extremely uncomfortable, but totally necessary and utterly gripping.
The Parasites themselves are terrifying. Serial killers who delight in death, they hide in plain view. The police aren’t going to help – in a rare moment of dark comedy later in the game, Susan struggles to convince a police officer on the phone that she has been kidnapped by two cannibals. The policeman pulls her medical records and simply recommends that she contact her doctor immediately. Even the player cannot be 100% sure that Susan isn’t merely going insane, and that’s the beauty of the entire game.
Susan could be losing the plot, but Michalski never does – he transforms Susan throughout the course of the game from a victim into an unlikely, gas mask wearing, shotgun-wielding hero. You will cheer as the hunted becomes the hunter. Susan is literally invincible, but the threat of danger and death never abates. Making an adventure game scary is no small feat, but The Cat Lady is one of the most unsettling and frightening adventure games ever made.
In part, the initially cumbersome arrow-key interface, along with the almost mannequin-esque animation, is to blame. The player controls Susan by moving her left and right with the arrow keys across the screen – the mouse isn’t used here at all. The view is zoomed in a lot closer than in most traditional adventure games too, and the result is an increased closeness to the insanity continually unfolding before your very eyes.
Pressing the ‘Up’ arrow near a hotspot offers several options such as ‘examine’ and ‘pick up’ that can then be selected with a press of the ‘Return’ key. Pressing the ‘Down’ arrow allows the player to access Susan’s inventory. It takes a while to get used to, but controlling Susan this way feeds directly into the fear-factor of the game.
The graphics are incredibly detailed, mostly black-and-white with gory, psychedelic splashes of colour. The stilted animation lends The Cat Lady a jerky, unsettling impression. You’re never quite sure what is going to happen next. The game refuses to fall into a routine – you never know when you might end up with bleach poured over your face, or bound naked with duct tape in a bathtub.
The soundtrack by Remigiusz’s brother, Michal Michalski, is equally as impactful. Atmospheric background music punctuated by eerie wails and creaking door hinges mixes with cleverly placed pumping rock to create a soundscape that always matches the dark vision unfolding on-screen. The voice acting can be a bit of a mixed bag (as can the recording quality) but it delivers where it counts – in particular, Lynsey Frost as Susan Ashworth is incredible as a fragile woman who becomes an immovable force of nature to be reckoned with. Brittany Williams also gives a highly memorable performance as Mitzi, Susan’s terminally ill friend and lodger. Their relationship is the driving force of the entire game – it will make you laugh, it could make you cry, and it will almost certainly deliver a healthy dose of heartache.
The Cat Lady is an incredibly well crafted adventure game with satisfying puzzles and a bizarre, engaging storyline. However, it quickly moves beyond these commendable traits to become something altogether more memorable – this is a game that is rotten to its very core and at the same time utterly compelling and beautiful. Depression isn’t a particularly pleasant topic and for many, it’s best left in the dark. Remigiusz Michalski is an auteur adventure game designer – he plunges the player into darkness time and time again, but has the skill to always allow a faint glimmer of light – and hope – to shine through.
There are some wonderful nods to Downfall and much like Telltale Game’s The Walking Dead, the illusion of choice is ever-present, despite its limitations. Play this game once, make your choices, and live with them. Slightly unorthodox adventure game controls and the occasional hiccup aside, this is one of last year’s best games, regardless of genre or platform. Its grace notes are many – this is a life-affirming experience thickly coated in death that deserves to be received by as wide an audience as possible. Yet another Remigiusz Michalski near-masterpiece then – and one that will undoubtedly stick with you for a very long time indeed.
9.5 OUT OF 10