Unlike the other week’s Railbound review, this week, I’m exploring a game that has precisely zero chill. The description of Catmaze on Steam is that it’s a fairy metroidvania journey into Slavic myths, and as bonkers as that sounds, I’d argue it’s accurate. If that level of ridiculous appeals to you, let me tell you, Catmaze is a ride and a half. Also, there are cats, so you know I’m on board.
Young witch Alesta journeys into the forest in search of a cure for her ailing mother. However, a mara comes at night and spirits Alesta’s mother away. Furious, Alesta decides to journey to the Land of the Dead, or Nav, in order to bring her back and seek vengeance on the spirit. As it happens, cats are the only creatures able to pass between the realms of the living and the dead, so Alesta must enlist their aid. Anyone else having flashbacks to the Constantine movie with Keanu Reeves? No? Just me? Cool.
Specifically, she works with two cats, Yavi and Navi. The rest of the story plays out in written dialogue, and there’s a fair bit of that. I do recommend you read it because the story is solid, but getting all of the story can be complicated. More on that below.
The game’s name gives you an idea of how central cats are to the story. However, they aren’t the only creatures Alesta calls to her aid. Her initial primary attack is “Familiars” that unleashes various critter familiars on her foes. Now, these familiars come in two general flavors: melee and ranged. This distinction is important because Alesta only has a certain amount of Magic Power (MP), and believe me, you’ll need to conserve that. Melee familiars cost nothing to launch, but the ranged familiars do have a casting cost (and here I reveal my tawdry history with Magic: the Gathering). The mechanic is an interesting one because it forces you as a player to engage at closer range than you might prefer to do. I’m generally a sit back and throw fireballs kind of gamer, but that is a strategy that Catmaze allowed me to employ on a limited basis.
Alesta can also collect additional familiars as she journeys through the realms, but be aware, you’ve got to be quick. I lost a few because I simply wasn’t entirely aware of what was happening as I was otherwise occupied trying not to die. That inattention cost me in the game as I missed out on being able to equip familiars with handy abilities because the familiars aren’t just valuable in terms of their ability to deal damage. They can also do things, which is a fun quirk of the title. For example, the spider can throw switches. There are familiars with freezing abilities and more.
Scattered throughout the Catmaze (ha!), you’ll also find amulets that offer various passive bonuses. However, you’ll need to charge each of these trinkets in order for them to be effective. You accomplish this by slaying your enemies and collecting the corpse dust they leave behind. I mentioned that Alesta is a witch, right? Catmaze is very, very married to that aesthetic.
Catmaze also offers a series of quests that add flavor to the world, and most of the themes revolve around vengeance, as you might imagine, but also regret. Unsurprisingly, you explore these regrets via the quests which offer the Slavic mythology part of the game. For example, there’s a quest that involves children who go to seek a golden fish, which leads them to misfortune. There’s a Russian folktale (Russian Fairytale: The Golden Fish (therussianstore.com) about that golden fish, which ends with a fisherman going home to a wife whose selfishness cost her everything she wanted. The quests aren’t all doom and gloom, fortunately. You do get the opportunity to help some of the people you encounter. Otherwise, Catmaze wouldn’t have the charm it does.
Redblack Spade, the original developers, know what they’re doing when it comes to metroidvania games, and they very much understand the nostalgia that the games have for audiences of a certain age. The pixelated art style caters to this exact nostalgia, and it is lovely. That said, I found some of the realms difficult to parse, visually speaking, because there was so much going on all across my Switch’s screen. This may be an issue unique to me, but it did render capturing some of the more useful familiars more difficult.
The opening act proved more challenging than it should have, mostly due to how opaque the title is with respect to where to go and how to get there. In later stages, it becomes easier, but I frequently got lost. While that was great for gathering corpse dust, it wasn’t great for survivability. Catmaze has a weirdly steep learning curve for such a cute little title, and I spent a lot of my initial play time dead. The checkpoints also tend to be spaced out annoyingly far, yielding a truly demotivating amount of retreading before I reached my point of demise.
As expected, levels do become increasingly harder as you go along, and you get to vanquish quite a few entertaining bosses. Just be aware that these bosses have ridiculously large health pools, so for many of them, it’s a battle of attrition rather than something more. You also have to memorize their movements and quickly, because Catmaze isn’t a title that offers a large margin for error.
There are two endings you can unlock, based on how much of the game you manage to clear. One is certainly happier than the other, and if you’re looking for the good ending, you’ll need to clear everything. That can be a little difficult, considering the game’s navigation issues, because you can easily miss necessary side quests. That said, you can go back and complete those quests, but identifying where you got lost is also a bit of a chore. You do have a journal of sorts that keeps track of objectives, but there’s absolutely nothing in the journal that indicates if you’ve completed something or not. You have to rely on the dialogue you get to tell you if you ‘ve missed something. If you come across utterly random dialogue for which you have no context, odds are you need to go back and do some hunting.
While I can see that some players might find Catmaze an easy introduction to the metroidvania genre, I’m not sure it is, given the difficulties listed above. If you’re looking to inspire in a friend a love of metroidvania-style games with Catmaze, be sure that you pick someone with a world of patience. Otherwise, you may not be so successful.
With the boss health pools and the opacity of objectives, I don’t recommend leaving the title for a long time. If you do, you’ll only be lost by the time you come back to it. Still, Catmaze is a charmer with a surprising depth of story and some truly entertaining boss mechanics.
Catmaze retails on the Nintendo store for $9.99.
Stray Thoughts From Behind the Keyboard
- Catmaze is actually an older game that originally came out on PC, but Ratalaika ported it over to the Switch. It’s a good port, and the game, despite my own vision problems, really lends itself to play on the Switch.
- So, Mara. Here’s an explanation of what she is, though there’s some adult themes in the article: Russian Fairytale: The Golden Fish (therussianstore.com)
- You can read more about Nav here: Nav (Slavic folklore) – Wikipedia
- The cats’ names likely come from here: Prav-Yav-Nav – Wikipedia
- And that’s your crash course to the big themes in Slavic folklore that show up in Catmaze.