[TW: suicide, depression, violence]
I’ve played a lot of games. I’ve played games that have made me laugh, cry, rage, or a bizarre cocktail of emotions. I’ve set some games down for a time because they’ve frustrated me. I’ve been grossed out by games. I enjoy playing some games even if I might not know exactly how they work. Some games are light and fluffy distractions.
And then there are games that touch me in a way that is almost life-changing.
The Cat Lady is a horror adventure game from Harvester Games (makers of Downfall) starring Susan Ashworth, a lonely 40 year old woman on the verge of suicide who only has her cats for company. One day, she discovers that she will cross paths with five individuals who will change her life forever, problem is, these five “Parasites” are monsters in human form, and they will stop at nothing to hurt Susan–unless she hurts them first.
The Cat Lady is about much more than encountering serial killers and making sure they stop doing that stuff, it’s about Susan’s struggles with depression. it’s about watching her struggle to live when life just doesn’t seem worth living, it’s about friendship and finding a purpose in life. It’s a really mature game, and not just because of the blood and gore (which it has in abundance) but deals with some pretty heavy themes: suicide, dealing with the loss of loved ones, it’s an emotional roller coaster ride, and The Cat Lady isn’t afraid to punch the player in the gut at times.
Susan is an interesting protagonist. She might not be the most likeable person and she’s not really the heroic type, but it’s hard not to care about her. I found myself restarting the game multiple times to try and prevent her from having a breakdown in one of the chapters (which is very difficult to do without a walkthrough) and I just managed it on one of the tries, and I was happy because I made Susan’s life a bit more comfortable, and depending on the choices you make throughout the game, Susan could come to terms with her depression or….not.
There are also some great secondary characters, like Mitzi, the young woman who shows up at Susan’s door one day offering to be her lodger, Liz, the nurse in the hospital where Susan is admitted after her suicide attempt, and the mysterious Queen of Maggots, a supernatural figure who isn’t really a grim reaper type but kind of acts like it. The Parasites themselves don’t really get a whole lot of characterization (with a couple of exceptions) but still manage to be really, really creepy.
The game is controlled entirely with the keyboard. You use the right and left arrow keys to move and up and down to interact with objects or use items in your inventory. There will be times where you have to combine items, but you don’t do a whole lot of that. There are also short puzzles to solve, but they aren’t particularly challenging (even if they can be kind of surreal and weird). The focus is definitely on the narrative over complicated puzzles.
Graphically, the game has a very distinct visual style. It’s mostly black and white with the occasional splashes of colour, but you’ll also see scenes rendered in full colour. As someone who can’t stand looking at B&W images for very long, I really liked the way the game was set up.
As I said, the game doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore or violence. There’s also a little bit of (non-sexual) nudity (at least in the version from GOG.com, not sure if it’s censored elsewhere) implied stalking, and one near case of sexual assault. Hangings, dismemberment, and even crucifixion are par for the course. This game basically starts with a suicide and only gets worse from there, and the game definitely isn’t afraid of punching you right in the feels repeatedly and mercilessly. I can’t even count the times I exclaimed “Holy. Shit!” while playing this game, because those moments happen a lot. Also, the game is really, really, REALLY fond of Scare Chords, I hate those things, they scare the crap out of me. Much of the time, the game flip flops between realism and really surreal, just plain strange environments (including a moment where Susan is literally tripping on whatever medicine a nurse has given her).
The soundtrack is appropriately moody and melancholy and at times I found it very distracting, but there’s one moment in particular where it segued into a hard rock metal-ish riff that was so badass and appropriate for the situation that I couldn’t help but grin when it came on. The sound effects are appropriately creepy, and the voice acting is generally very good (although there were a couple characters who were a bit grating).
One issue is the issue of saved games. You can’t overwrite your save files and I heard there was only a limit of 50 saves allowed. I’m not sure if this was actually changed (I don’t know how many saves I used) but an adventure game like this shouldn’t have that kind of limit on the number of saves. (I understand wanting to prevent save scumming, but this is ridiculous).
There’s so much I’d like to say about this game but anything more would be spoilerific. The Cat Lady is a great game, it’s horrific, it’s heartbreaking, it occasionally leaves you open-mouthed and staring at your screen, and then it gives you a few brief glimmers of hope. It’s dark, it’s bloody, it’s mature without being juvenile, and it’s most definitely not for everyone (seriously, it deals with some heavy stuff). If you’re a fan of horror and point and click adventure games and you can handle the blood and gore and themes like depression and suicide, pick this one up.