Of the three quirky indie games I’ve played recently on the Nintendo Switch, Cat Quest (developed by Singapore-based Gentlebros) is by far the longest experience. That doesn’t mean it’s the best, of course, but it does mean that this is a game that I can return to over time. It helps that, despite the RPG-norm grinding, it feels airy, light, and casual, rather than consuming, endless, and bloated. I remain engaged, maybe a little addicted, to this oddball title. If I had to guess, I think I’m about two-thirds of the way through the main story, having completed a huge bundle of side quests and explored many dungeons; if the suggested level of one of the isolated island dungeons is any indication, leveling to the needs of the main quest is more of a floor than a ceiling. (As usual, I’m so behind the times that I’m getting to this 2017 game just around the time that its sequel has released.)
In Cat Quest, you are a cat. On a quest. In the most generic of RPG stories, your sister is captured by an evil villain, and you set out to save her and put a stop to his plans. Turns out that you have a special heritage and destiny, too, because this game lives on RPG tropes. You’re a Dragonblood, the most recent in a storied line of dragonslayers (yes, there are a lot of homages to Skyrim, among plenty of other pop culture mainstays). While the game isn’t quite a satire of these tired conventions, it does have a lot of fun lampshading them and laughing at itself.
As I referenced, the game is obsessed with pop culture references. Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t get a lot of amusement out of them. Most of the references amounted to a sort of Family Guy-style allusion or simple parody, where the joke is simply getting the reference. Among other things, The Elder Scrolls, Star Wars, Santa Claus, Arthurian myth, the Tomb Raider games, Game of Thrones, Lovecraftian horror, The Lion King, Robin Hood and medieval myth and legend, and even Santa Claus get references. The best of these references, to me, are ones that go with a lame cat pun.
There are a lot of lame cat puns. Some are kind of fun. Many are painfully bad. When you play a game called Cat Quest, you’d better hope that there will be cat puns.
The game itself is fairly simple to play. Most of the game is spent on the overworld map. Exceptions are fairly small dungeons, which load mini-levels to “explore” down railroaded paths. It plays a little like a pared-down Zelda-alike at first, with you mostly pressing one button to swipe at enemies and another button to roll out of range of their telegraphed attacks (always indicated by a darkening red hit radius). You even have a pseudo-annoying pixie-ish “guardian spirit” sidekick to speak for your silent protagonist. Over time, you collect more and more spells and special abilities, which are toggled by additional buttons. I’ve only collected enough spells to fill out my mapped buttons, but while I haven’t had to be selective with spell choices yet, I have found that simply managing four spells plus the melee attack and dodge makes every tiny battle fairly dynamic and fun. Spells use mana, and mana is recharged by melee attacks. Enemies tend to be weak to a particular spell type or physical attack. Combining attacks while rolling out of enemy barrages is sometimes easy and sometimes hectic, especially when you’re suddenly surrounded by enemies. Virtually every battle is fast-paced yet manageable, with strong visual communication of what is happening at all times. Death doesn’t cost you much, so if you do find a challenge in which you are overwhelmed (and fail to turn tail and run quickly enough), there’s very little setback.
A lot of the quests orient around going from one place to another to kill monsters or collect items. Item collection is mostly triggered by reaching a certain point on the map, which is fairly dumbed-down but also makes fetch quests a lot less painful than usual. Some of the quests have interesting little stories, though they’re all heavily drawing from fantasy tropes and common RPG story beats. There are no conversation trees or branching quest paths here (outside of literal divergences in a physical path to a location). It’s all basically an excuse to go around fighting things while exploring more and more of the overworld. Improving in abilities and equipment is almost an afterthought–you run over XP and coins scattered across the land or dropped by enemies, and you collect equipment upgrades from chests. There’s a handful of different armor and weapon types, and whether using a blacksmith or completing a dungeon, equipment drops are randomized. If you get more equipment of a given type that you’ve already collected, this manifests as increased stats for that particular item. So while you’re progressing and improving, it never feels like work to do so; everything feeds back into the simple fun of the combat.
The oddball humor, fight mechanics, focused and honed simplicity, and even bright and colorful visuals remind me in many ways of Japanese indie game Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, and not in a bad way at all. Both games don’t try to be everything; both offer subversions and reinterpretations of fantasy tropes. I think that Recettear pushed the envelope a little further (the idea of running an item shop, stepping into the role of an NPC for any other game, offered a great deal of novelty), but the cute cat characters, open world, and silly puns of Cat Quest, and the lack of shrieking, “cutesy” anime characters, puts this feline RPG at a higher rank in my book.
Cat Quest is pretty, cute, addictive, and fun. It’s not a deep RPG. It’s not one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. But it’s easy to pick up, inviting, and enjoyable–whether I’m playing for a long session or a short one. Playing on a mobile device (or in the Switch handheld mode, which I’ve enjoyed), it would be a perfect option for a quick pick-up-and-play title to fill a commute or while away a Sunday afternoon.