The overwhelming success of Stray back in July showed that the gaming world is hungry for more feline-centric adventures. Turkish studio Cultic Games’ latest release is one to further whet the appetite by bringing a more mature cat adventure to the realm of pixels. Part point-and-click adventure, part interactive fiction, Cats and the Other Lives is a 2D pixel art experience that tells the story of a fractured family through the eyes of a stalwart family companion. And good news for Steam Deck owners: this title is fully compatible and can be played on the go!
When eccentric patriarch Bernard Mason dies, the estranged Mason family are brought back to their childhood home once more. As beloved pet cat Aspen, players uncover painful truths, suppressed memories and desiccated aspirations the family harbours through her daily antics. Are the rumours of cults and sacrifices true? What really happened all those years ago? Only one feline family member has seen it all.
A Day in the Nine Lives
As mentioned earlier, Cats and the Other Lives is very much one for older players with a mature content warning; a happy, cute kitty story, it is not! But a deep, engrossing and emotional one, it certainly is. If you’re also expecting an anthropomorphic talking heroine, think again. Aspen is a domestic house cat, plain and simple. And as such, she is governed by the four things all cats are: food, play, company and sleep.
Players control Aspen with the mouse: a single click to interact with objects and characters around the house, clicking and holding to walk/run in that direction. The latter also governs her momentum which comes into play in certain sections, which I’ll get to in a moment. This simplistic approach may seem rather mundane, but it is this simplicity which—for the most part— works in the game’s favour.
Through Aspen’s capers through the manor, the player gains a sort of fly-on-the-wall insight into the family member’s interactions. A “silent witness”, as Cultic Games puts it. A search for a playmate reveals a child’s deep-seated insecurities and the pressure of failure. Chasing a wanton rodent reveals a piece of family history long thought lost. Coming in for food leads to a harrowing discovery of desperation.
These scenes are magnificently pieced together. As the story progresses, Aspen becomes less of a silent witness and more of a vehicle for change – her antics actively affect the Masons. Couple this with Aspen’s ability to manifest ghostly memories when examining certain rooms or items and you’ll find yourself quickly absorbed in this fractured tale that is as much about what you don’t see as what you do.
Testing Your Reflexes
As well as these snippets of interaction, the player needs to solve the occasional puzzle to further the scene or action. Most are quite straightforward given a little lateral thinking, though a couple can be a little trickier than necessary thanks to the walk/run distance. These also—while mildly entertaining—can feel a little superfluous and have a tendency to become slightly tedious as there is only one correct approach. This brings us back to the momentum mechanic I mentioned earlier and the one aspect of the game I’m most ambivalent about: fast action sequences.
There are a few of these peppered throughout the experience, requiring quick reflexes and pinpoint mouse accuracy in order to execute them perfectly. One misclick and you have to start over. Naturally, these sequences are quite the challenge, even with the mouse; if your momentum is even slightly off, you’ll miss your mark and have to go again. On a Steam Deck, the challenge is tenfold given the stick controls and can easily become genuinely frustrating. A shame as I feel these sequences would flow much better with a controller and button input scheme – even with the mouse, they can test your patience.
Having said that, most lead to emotional crescendos and payoffs which wouldn’t have had as great an impact without them. They certainly feel earned. Hence my ambivalence towards these sections.
I will forever be drawn to striking pixel art and animation, Cats and the Other Lives is no exception. The art is superb, the animation crisp and expressive. It exudes emotion with every movement and lends itself perfectly to a cat’s viewpoint. Human faces are blank canvases and, though the player can understand the dialogue, emotional states are mainly conveyed through body language. Even without facial expressions, it shines through. Normally the absence of facial features in a pixel art game is a little unnerving for me, but not so here. There are also some particular uses of lighting effects which when combined with altered controls, effectively illustrate moments of heightened intensity for Aspen. I won’t spoil any of them, but suffice it to say, I’ll think twice before using a laser pointer on a cat from now on!
Nothing is wanting in the sound design either. Human voices blur into an unintelligible murmur with only certain words clear and pronounced. The ambient music and sounds evoke an air of unease and heightened senses with warped cat-like tones and spatial effects. Like a cat, you’ll be drawn to sudden sounds at the periphery of your hearing; headphones are particularly effective! Startling sforzando accents punctuate moments of fear while touchingly beautiful piano and strings compliment moments of tenderness or sadness. An audible treat!
An Extended Cat Nap
On average, Aspen’s adventures will take around 6 hours or so, stretching beyond 7 if you take your time seeking out memories. Or fail the mini gauntlets as repeatedly and spectacularly as I did. While there are points where an actional choice can be made, there is little to no effect on the story as a whole; this is a singular tale and the player is along for the ride. But with such powerful storytelling, it can easily become a ride you’ll want to jump on again.
On The Whole
A couple of blips aside, Cats and the Other Lives is undoubtedly a rich and enthralling experience filled with pockets of time that will surprise, shock and stir you. Sometimes all at once! Whether you’re a cat lover or not, you’ll soon find yourself absorbed. It beautifully conveys the profound effect of a family pet and just how many moments of joy, pain, elation and despair they may have seen, if they could show us. Thus it rightfully earns the Thumb Culture Gold Award!
Just pop it in a cupboard so Aspen doesn’t knock it over.
Disclaimer: A code was received in order to write this review.