Review: Catmaze

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Review copy provided by developer

I’ve never made a platformer, so I don’t actually know how hard it is to get the movement and responsiveness just right. There are platformers that absolutely nail it, like Dead Cells and Hollow Knight, and there are plenty of others that don’t. Catmaze falls closer to the latter category, a game where everything is going to be a bit looser than you might like. It’s the kind of thing that normally puts me off of a game, but here I am writing about it after hours of adventuring. Honestly, that’s because there’s so much to see and discover in Catmaze that even loose controls couldn’t shake me off the trail.

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Young Alesta lives on the edge of civilization with her magically-inclined mother, training to be an accomplished witch herself. The countryside is crawling with evil spirits and angry gods though, and as it tends to happen in these things tragedy strikes Alesta and she decides to strike back. To get back what she’s lost, she has to track down one of the few beings that knows the way to the world beyond, and it just happens to be a cat. There’s a lot of ground to cover between her and her fuzzy objective, though, with plenty of beasts to battle, deities to deal with, and villagers to visit. Alesta will need to solve quite a few mysteries of her mythical lands, and some of them may lead right back to her.

This may look like another cutesy pixel-art adventure, but the tone of Catmaze is often at right angles from its art style. The entire game is steeped heavily in Slavic myth, pitting you against everything from animated mushrooms to mysterious kikimora to Chernobog himself. And if you’re unfamiliar with Slavic myth, it can get about as dark as the grimmest fairy tales do. There’s a lot of tragedy to unpack in this story, and not just Alesta’s. You’ll meet kids lost in the woods looking for medicine for their sick parents, siblings pitted against each other in a contest for divine favor, and even an man cursed to have his very joy sucked from his body. Some fairly dense dialog delivers all this drama to you in a way that I didn’t appreciate at first, but there’s a scene late in the game between three deities that actually pulled at my heartstrings a bit.

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Even if you’re not super invested in the story, there’s a bucketload of gameplay to get invested in. Alesta’s world is pretty massive, with hundreds of rooms to explore, and the way you’ll have to visit NPCs and backtrack to certain doors makes the scope reveal itself in a very gradual way. Your map for this is terribly useful, marking not just doors and save points and fast travel rooms, but also key plot beats and upgrades that you can get once you obtain a new power. It made it so I was never unsure of where to go, despite the massive, meandering map, and it was also that much easier to revisit places I wanted to check out with my new powers. You’ll want to do as much exploring as possible too, because there are some really neat locations and side stories to find if you’re looking hard enough.

Your powers usually come in the form of familiars, which you can equip two at a time. Your melee familiar will be something like a cat or a bat that whips around you to swipe at things, forming you main mode of attack. In contrast your ranged familiar requires mana to use, but launches fireballs or freezing bolts or crawling spiders that can clear or create paths through tricky areas. You’ll have consumables to use and necklaces that provide stat boosts, along with an entire page of key items that will take a little attention to figure out how to use. Generally you won’t find many mobility powers, but the interesting familiars (and the stories some of them come with) more than make up for that.

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This does mean you’re not going to have much more than a double-jump to work with, so folks used to dashing or rolling around might be disappointed. Alesta moves at a fairly brisk clip, but she can and will get knocked around by the foes you face. This is where the looseness of the game I mentioned plays in, because combat is quite the mixed bag. Once you get your familiars upgraded they can do rapid damage, but the hit detection between you and your enemies is spotty enough that you sometimes take contact damage when nothing even appears to touch you. The timing of hits to animations seems a little off as well, so keeping your distance and leaning on your ranged familiars is often a good call. Items explode out of enemies when you beat them but picking them up isn’t instant, and if there are any pits or pools nearby you can expect most of your spoils to vanish into them.

Everything ends up feeling just a little bit off in Catmaze, from the combat to the dialog (and the weirdly sexy portraits) and even the upgrades, since it uses the Cave Story-style of gathering experience to level up your weapons but you lose it when you get hit. There are enough little bits of jank to annoy more sensitive players, but I was able to power through on the strength of everything else. It really is a fascinating, unique story with all the mythological creatures to deal with, and there’s so much to find once you get a good spread of familiars that explorers should be very happy with how much time can be spent looking for secrets. You’ll need to find them all if you want Alesta to have any shot at a happy ending, and that should last you at least 7 or 8 hours of adventuring. With a little more polish Catmaze could honestly be an all-time great, but as it stands it’s still a fine entry in the magical end of the genre.

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