When we first meet Susan Ashworth, she has just swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. She’s tired, traumatized, she feels like life has never done her any favours, and she’s had enough. Susan looks forward to oblivion, but it doesn’t come. Instead she finds herself in a surreal world which quickly turns from serene to horrifying. She can’t die. She’s been chosen to overcome five monsters, human parasites, that feed off violence and suffering. Rejoining the living is the last thing Susan wants, but she doesn’t have a choice.
Mechanically, The Cat Lady is a point and click adventure game, except it’s fully controlled by keyboard so there’s not really any pointing or clicking. The keyboard controls were a bit awkward at first, but didn’t take very long to get used to. There is a lot of dialogue and gameplay consists of choosing responses and solving puzzles. The puzzles hit the sweet spot of having some challenge to them, but not being overly difficult. Solutions made sense, which is not always the case in adventure games. Often you just need to pay attention to your surroundings.
Narratively, The Cat Lady will take you on a journey that is disturbing, psychologically horrifying, and thought-provoking. It’s a game which is in turns harrowing and enlightening, infuriating and empowering.
Susan doesn’t start off as the most sympathetic character – people suffering from depression often aren’t to those on the outside. We don’t know why she hates life so much. We see people trying to help her and befriend her, but she’s so far down the rabbit hole that she doesn’t even see them. It’s not until Susan begins to suffer horror at the hands of the parasites, and experience some shared suffering that she begins to wake up. We begin to learn more about her past and why she has problems trusting people. She begins to entertain the prospect of letting other people in.
The Cat Lady excels at one of the most important aspects of games for me, atmosphere. While the graphics are a bit rudimentary and not technically amazing, I found this game visually stunning. The use of colour is genius. The majority of the game is in black and white with occasional pops of colour. Often it’s blood red, which is a common visual style, but The Cat Lady really stands out when it adds other colours into the mix. It changes the atmosphere completely. The dull blacks and whites show how the real world is an ugly, hopeless place for Susan, while colour starts to seep in during the more surreal parts of the game. When the game is the most violent, the most disturbing, the environments are suffused with suffocating greens. Golds and rich yellows are warm and comforting at a surface level, but often cloak the characters with the most sinister intentions.
The sound effects are sharp and often startling, while the music punctuates the game’s important events to great effect. The soundtrack covers all kinds of different styles and moods, from angry NIN-esque industrial, to erratic jazz, to sorrowful classical piano pieces.
This game is very unique. It’s like nothing I’ve played before. It covers some really dark topics with sensitivity, maturity, and style. At one point, Susan talks to a psychiatrist, who asks questions about her relationship with her parents and what her life was like. As I chose the responses, I felt like I was the one being psychoanalyzed, because there were responses that fit my own life pretty well. The ability to choose Susan’s responses about her past made me feel close to her in a way that was more deep and unexpected than most games are able to pull off. Even for people not currently suffering from depression, there’s something to relate to and empathize with here.
Really my only complaint about the game is that on occasion it’s too verbose. There are some extremely long conversations that take place, where the only interaction required from the player is choosing a response every couple of minutes or so. And often you end up choosing all the responses anyway. Though the conversations are interesting and well-written, and the voice acting is good, they’re just too long. Some of the dialogue could have easily be edited down, which would have improved the pace of the game.
The Cat Lady is made up of 7 chapters and has about 9 hours of gameplay. While I found the game exceptional, I do have to give very strong content and trigger warnings. While the visual style isn’t overly realistic the game has a lot of violence (including references to sexual violence), and tackles topics like death, depression, suicide, and abuse in a very direct way.
Rating – 9/10 – The Cat Lady is unlike anything I’ve played before and really broadens the scope of what adventure and horror games can do. It has wonderful atmosphere and tells a story that is both harrowing and empowering. It will take you to a very dark place, but there is light at the end.
I made a few videos of my playthrough of The Cat Lady, here’s the entirety of the first chapter if you want to see it for yourself.