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Nelson Schneider's Video Game Reviews (473)

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Tiny Tina's Wonderlands 3.5/5
Ratchet & Clank: Rift A... 4.5/5
Super Mario Bros. Wonder 4.5/5
The Alliance Alive 2/5
Catmaze 4.5/5
Turnip Boy Commits Tax ... 4.5/5
Seasons After Fall 3/5
Rayon Riddles - Rise of... 0.5/5
World to the West 4/5
MechWarrior 5: Mercenar... 4/5
Streets of Kamurocho 2.5/5
Aeon of Sands - The Tra... 2.5/5
Greak: Memories of Azur 3.5/5
Yaga 2.5/5
Riverbond 3/5
Bug Fables: The Everlas... 4.5/5
Front Mission 1st Remake 1.5/5
Middle-earth: Shadow of... 3.5/5
Bladed Fury 3.5/5
Ruzar - The Life Stone 3.5/5
Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin 3.5/5
Mighty Switch Force! Co... 2.5/5
Aegis of Earth: Protono... 3/5
Torchlight III 2.5/5
Cyberpunk 2077 3.5/5

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Catmaze   PC (Steam) 

Slavs, Cats, and Magic – What More Do You Need?    4.5/5 stars

“Catmaze” is the second game from St. Petersburg-based Russian Indie developer, Redblack Spade. While none of the other games by this particular one-man Indie studio have really piqued my Interest, the combination of cute witches, Slavic mythology, and – most importantly – cats, got me interested enough to Wishlist this title when it popped up in my Steam Discovery Queue shortly after its 2018 PC release. Unlike so many unsung Indie studios whose efforts remain obscure and buried under layers of the Steam Algorithm, Redblack Spade has more recently taken the steps necessary to port “Catmaze” to the console digital storefronts in 2022.

After playing through a string of Indie duds from my backlog, my expectations were set appropriately low. However, “Catmaze” surprised me with its levels of depth, polish, and heart. Indeed, this little Indie Metroidvania reminds me quite a bit of the original one-man Metroidvania that took gaming by storm, “Cave Story.”

Presentation
“Catmaze” is built in version 2 of the Construct Engine, an obscure proprietary engine developed and licensed by London-based Scirra Ltd. While the engine is based on HTML5, its primary goal is to enable non-programmers to create 2D videogames via so-called ‘visual programming.’ I had never heard of the Construct Engine prior to playing “Catmaze” and researching this review, so I can’t say I’m familiar with it or any known problems/issues/quirks associated with it. From the singular example of “Catmaze,” though, I can say the engine works ‘fine’ for its intended use.

Visually, “Catmaze” is quite nice, with a large variety of colorful environments, cute and quirky enemies, and unique NPCs inhabiting the world. The game proper is presented entirely in a retro-pixel style, with large, detailed sprites and clear visual indications for everything gameplay related. Outside of gameplay, though, the game is NOT sprite based, but features hand-drawn comic/manga-style assets for characters during dialog scenes. These hand-drawn assets are a bit contentious, as the developer re-drew most of them and replaced the originals in the major update that hit the game when the console versions were released. Some people in the game’s audience immediately pounced on the developer for being too Woke and de-sexifying some of the female characters for console ratings, but the developer responded to these accusations with reassurances that he redid the hand-drawn assets purely to make them higher quality, with minor desexification for underage characters. Regardless, I’m somewhat ambivalent about the hand-drawn art, as I feel it clashes somewhat with the pixelated visuals in the rest of the game.

While Redblack Spade is mostly a one-man ‘team,’ he does outsource audio to a friend of his who goes by the handle Expecte Amour. In general, the audio design in “Catmaze” is spectacular, with Expecte Amour’s soundtrack doing a stellar job at invoking feelings of wonderment and exploration, while simultaneously summoning up memories of SNES classics. The game is unvoiced, but features well-chosen sound effects to punctuate various on-screen happenings, artfully combining visual and auditory feedback.

Technically, there’s nothing wrong with “Catmaze.” The Construct Engine does its job without getting in the way. The game features native Xinput support with no guff or fiddling required, and includes all the QoL features one would expect from a modern Metroidvania, including a useful auto-map, generously-spaced save points, and three individual save slots for additional playthroughs.

Story
“Catmaze” is, according to the developer, a fairy-tale Metroidvania based on Slavic myths and legends. I’m half-Slav (which is a bit like being a half-Orc), yet I sadly know little about the myths from that side of my ancestry, instead favoring the Norse side. However, there are a lot of crossovers and similarities, while “Catmaze” does a good job of illustrating the differences.

Our story begins with a cutscene of the early life of a little girl living alone in a shack in the woods with her mother. This girl’s name is Alesta, and her mother is a sorceress. When Alesta is 16 years old, a spirit shows up at the shack, and after a brief conversation, Alesta’s mother collapses and is whisked away.

It turns out that this spirit is none other than Mara, the Slavic version of the Grim Reaper, who cursed Alesta’s mother with a sickness many years ago, and only allowed her to live as long as she did for the sake of the child. Alesta hatches a plan to travel to Nav, the underworld, to rescue her mother – a cycle seen in numerous mythologies across the globe – consulting with her aunt – also a witch – and a number of less-scary-than-they-look supernatural beings on the best way to accomplish such a feat.

Unsurprisingly, based on the game’s title, cats turn out to be the key, as they know all the paths between the worlds of the natural and supernatural. Thus Alesta must seek out the wisdom of the top cat himself, Cat Bayn (which really should be spelled Bajun, since the way it is makes him sound like a Batman villain), a mysterious trickster who is as likely to eat a human as to help them.

Ultimately, Alesta’s travels will lead her into the titular Catmaze, which contains the portal to Nav (and really isn’t much of a maze compared to the rest of the game world). Yet only the strength of her own soul will determine her success or failure.

“Catmaze” is fairly in-depth for an Indie game of this scale. There are a lot of NPCs to talk to, and numerous side quests to engage with. Likewise, there are multiple endings, with the good ending reserved for the most thorough completionists. However, even a completionist run only takes about 10 hours.

The only real problems I have with “Catmaze” from a narrative perspective are the length – I was hoping the Catmaze itself would follow up on “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night” and introduce an entire other world map to the game – and the fact that the localization from Russian to English has frequent awkward turns of phrase and a number of less-than-accurate translations of mythological placenames and character names. Still, for a mostly one-man effort, “Catmaze’s” story is both a heartfelt tribute to pre-Christian mythology and a solid coming-of-age story, in which a girl’s strength is only as great as her connections to others in her community.

Gameplay
“Catmaze” is a fairly by-the-books Metroidvania. It features 2D sidescrolling platforming action, combined with a large, fully-interconnected world map, riddled with secrets, hidden power-ups, and places to backtrack and revisit upon acquiring new powers.

Alesta’s primary mode of attack isn’t actually based on her own physical prowess, but is instead tied to a variety of collectable familiars she can find to accompany her. Alesta can equip two familiars simultaneously: One for a basic attack and one for a magic attack, with the former having no cost associated with it, while the latter costs mana to use. Many familiars can be upgraded beyond their starting statistics, however, by picking up skill scrolls. Unfortunately, none of these upgrades are all that exciting, with most of them simply being range or speed improvements. Also unfortunately, the starting bat familiar is objectively bad, with an incredibly limited range and the ability to attack only left, right, and down. The raven familiar is an upgrade in every way, featuring the ability to attack in any of the four cardinal directions and the ability to hit twice with one attack. However, the basic familiar I used exclusively once I found it was – unsurprisingly – the cat, who attacks in a full 360 degree arc by default. Sadly, none of the magic familiars feel all that useful, as they burn through mana too quickly (unless you have a certain hidden something or other equipped) and feature generally awkward range and area limitations. Indeed, most of Alesta’s familiars are only useful for navigating platforming obstacles that specifically require them.

In addition to using familiars to attack, Alesta can pick up a large number of other items that affect her three basic stats: Strength, Defense, and Speed. These are all pretty obvious in that Strength makes familiar attacks deal more damage, Defense makes enemies deal less damage to Alesta, and Speed allows Alesta to move more quickly and precisely to avoid both obstacles and enemy attacks. Also, seemingly inspired by a similar mechanic in “Cave Story” – Alesta has a magic level that can be raised by collecting spirit orbs dropped by slain enemies, and lowers each time she takes damage. There are a number of other mechanics that can further bolster Alesta’s prowess, ranging from shrines to pray at that grant Alesta a layer of extra bonus health on top of her regular health meter, and consumable potions that allow Alesta to heal herself, restore her mana, or gain a temporary Strength or Defense boost at a moment’s notice.

Navigating the world is never particularly tedious, thanks to generously-placed save points (which restore all of Alesta’s health, mana, and magic level) and likewise-generously-placed Sirin nests. Sirin is a giant bird-woman (probably from the same ancient mythological roots as the Greek Sirens) who allows Alesta to fast-travel between any of her discovered nests.

Throughout her adventure, Alesta will encounter a large number of hostile creatures, including a number of spirits and minor deities… and she will get into a physical fight with most of them, at some point. Boss battles are generally well designed affairs in the classic mold, with telegraphed attacks and discernable patterns. However, the game’s overall level of difficulty is higher at the beginning, as the player has had far fewer opportunities to bolster Alesta’s abilities. Some boss battles employ completely novel mechanics, while all of them feel generally well-balanced.

Overall
“Catmaze” is the closest thing to a second “Cave Story” we’ve seen come out of the Indie gaming scene for quite some time. It’s a cute, fun, polished Metroidvania with surprising levels of mechanical depth, tight map design, and plenty of side content to sniff out. In fact, I actually think I enjoyed it MORE than “Cave Story” due to the smoother difficulty curve and the more-generously-placed save and travel points. Anyone who enjoys a fun retro romp and/or Slavic mythology should experience this game.

Presentation: 4.5/5
Story: 4.5/5
Gameplay: 4.5/5
Overall (not an average): 4.5/5

 

 


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