If you loved video games growing up as a child, you probably had dreams of making your own game at some point. You may have had an epic experience all planned out in your head, but upon explaining it to someone else, you might have realized that, maybe, it’s not the most sound concept after all. The idea behind Cattails, a cat simulation RPG, is something that feels like could have been conceived from the mind of a youth, but in execution delivers a relatively enjoyable time…if you like cats, of course. Cattails releases on Nintendo Switch on November 29, 2018.
While most animal-based games can be labeled as cutesy or lighthearted, the premise of Cattails is far from that. After creating a cat to your own liking, you are told a tale that, unfortunately, mirrors real life all to well, hitting close to home if you respect pets of any kind whatsoever. You, as a kitten and a young child are best friends and do everything together. That is, until the child’s mother gets mad at you and does what any responsible pet owner would do: she drives you out into the woods and leaves you (the cat) to your own devices.
As a fur-dad of three pit bulls, a boston terrier, and of course two cats, this struck me on an emotional level that I wasn’t really prepared for. The entire prologue sequence is over in a flash, but its impact not only leaves a lasting impression, it gives meaningful incentive to seeing the downtrodden, domesticated cat succeed despite the overwhelming initial oppression. Thankfully, it isn’t long before you are greeted by another cat, whom helps you find your bearings in the the strange new area before you. Through him you discover that there are three different cat colonies that inhabit the wilderness, and you are prompted to join one of them before the two of you part ways. You should consider the individual colonies to be hostile with each other despite rare occasions where they will set aside differences in favor of enjoying a social event. Whichever colony you choose to join, keep in mind that it isn’t permanent and you will have the ability to change colonies later on in the game (or can even start your own).
If you’ve spent any time in Stardew Valley, you’ll kind of know what to expect in Cattails. That said, there are drastic differences between the two simulation games, so leaving it as a superficial comparison is probably for the best. When you decide on the aforementioned colony you are given a Den, which is your permanent place of shelter. Eventually, you are able to upgrade and decorate it to an extent, but in the beginning it is very much a large, empty space only used for sleeping and saving the game. Within your chosen colony’s town lies your feline comrades, ranging from shopkeepers, medics, the head honcho, and everything in between. These cats all have unique personalities that will continuously open up as you develop relationships with them, which is done by speaking to them on a consistent basis and showering them with gifts. Later on, you will actually be able to date and marry other cats, if that’s your thing, leading to the potential for cute, furry offspring in the process.
Other social activities include skirmishes and festivals. Skirmishes are all-out brawls that randomly occur across the wilderness that pit you against opposing colonies, whether it be alone or with fellow felines. Depending on your skill setup and the area’s territorial influence, these fights can either be heavily in your favor or a one-sided nightmare from the get-go. The fights themselves comprise of basic cat and mouse tactics, where you’ll likely be performing equal parts swiping and evading. It isn’t the most stimulating combat system, but does get a little interesting when you unlock a couple combat-related skills or those instances when you are outnumbered, forcing you to always be on your toes. Festivals happen on the 10th day of each season and, as mentioned previously, are one of few instances where all colonies drop hostility towards each other in favor of just having fun. A season-specific mini-game is available to festival-goers that rewards currency to use towards various useful, and sometimes exclusive, items.
The Forest Guardian
It isn’t all fun and festivities in the land of Cattails however, as you do have a task of great importance imparted to you early on. The Forest Guardian, an otherworldly being that is responsible for bringing balance to the local forest, is missing. There are six dormant pillars that emit an aura when confronted with your presence, suggesting that you alone can re-activate these pillars in hopes of seeing the return of the Forest Guardian. These individual pillars are activated by gathering various materials found through hunting and foraging, and very much works like the bundle system in Stardew Valley.
The skill system in Cattails is comprised of active and passive skills.. You are limited to equipping four active skills at a time, though you can swap these out from your den at any time. Passive skills are split into four self-explanatory categories that can be upgraded 10 times each: Hunting, Fighting, Foraging, and Swimming. As you might expect, increasing these individual skills improves the various abilities respectively. Skills are purchased and upgraded with EXP, which is obtained through hunting, foraging, fighting, delving into the mine, and even sleeping. In other words, you’ll probably get a little bit of EXP regardless of what you might want to do on any given day. You will need LOTS of it though, so be sure to multitask for the most optimal EXP production route.
Hunting and Foraging
You have to eat, so hunting and foraging will probably be among the first things you do in Cattails. And unfortunately, hunting is probably the worst aspect of the game despite getting a pass for being somewhat “realistic”. To catch prey, you must enter stealth mode and wait for a focus meter to fill up before pouncing on your victim. There are numerous factors that will affect your success rate, including distance from the prey, your focus meter, and your hunting skill level. The act of hunting does improve with experience with the system and investing into the hunting skill, but is an absolute slog in the very beginning. It can be quite tricky to successfully kill prey on a consistent basis when you are first learning an enemy’s “agro range”, as well as when your hunting skill is nonexistent. But even as you grow in experience you’ll probably still have moments of rage when you know you caught that sea bass but didn’t, for some reason.
Foraging, on the other hand, is what you’d expect. Collecting herbs is as easy as walking over it and pressing a button. Best of all, it gives you a pretty sizable chunk of EXP in return, though it takes several days for the individual resource nodes to regenerate. Both hunting and foraging are essential to survival, as both go hand-in-hand to ensure you don’t die from wounds or starve to death. Yes, you must eat a couple times a day if you want to keep yourself completely full. While there are no obvious penalties to being a little hungry, starvation and death are possibilities if the hunger meter is not kept in check.
Graphics and Performance
When it comes to reviewing games I’ve always been more of a performance man rather than a graphics snob. Sadly, I take some issues with both aspects in Cattails. While the game is entirely playable, slowdowns are unavoidable near beaches, and occasionally when a massive fight breaks out on certain maps. Even though these instances are rare, when they do happen you’re left wondering why there is a performance hit at all. I cannot say whether it is a Switch-specific issue or if it persists across the PC edition as well. It is a bit bothersome either way.
Although I appreciate the unique art direction in Cattails, it just isn’t that pleasing to look at. The cat portraits used during conversations look like real photographs of cats that were edited heavily to look like pixel art. Some of these look much better than others, but many of them suffer from a lack of consistent quality, especially around the eyes. The cat sprites themselves and various terrain textures are decent enough, but the individual areas themselves are way too big and not near as varied enough to really be memorable. I understand that the maps need a certain level of openness in order to make the hunting mechanic feasible, but at the same time a smaller, tighter design would have likely outweighed the loss of space. As it stands, meaningful aesthetic variation relies heavily on the changing of seasons rather than any sort of innate, well thought out map design, which is a little bit of a disappointment.
Cattails is surprisingly fun and full of depth despite suffering from some design and mechanical setbacks. Even though I personally would prefer Stardew Valley as a means to scratch the life simulation itch, Cattails offers a similar experience from a drastically different perspective- a cat. Maybe you’re tired of Stardew Valley and are looking for a different take on the formula? Or, maybe you just like cats, that is fine too. Cattails is a great example of overcoming the obstacles that life throws at you, no matter what they may be. At the end of the day though, really, who doesn’t want to see an abandoned cat make a name for itself?