Cats and nosey sods, let’s be honest. I’ve had plenty through my life and their need for attention gets them in situations they really shouldn’t be in. Cats and the Other Lives is a narrative-driven puzzle game from Cultic Games which looks to replicate the feline experience. I’ll be honest, it works surprisingly well whilst providing a story that definitely tugs the right strings.
The plot revolves around a group of friends and relatives who gather for Bernard Mason’s funeral. He’s a reclusive mining magnate who had a troubled past. The wake takes place at his mansion which gives everyone the chance to linger for a few days. It’s a trying time. Even without the grief, the old man’s estate is not in good shape and there’s a lot of past trauma to dig into. Naturally, there’s a lawyer on scene to discuss business which does heighten the stress of all involved.
The narrative of a dysfunctional family works out nicely. Whilst there are definite moments of strife and struggle, the three-day retreat does allow for plenty of development. By the end of the game, I felt I knew these people, their motivations, fears and where they are at in life. Thankfully, it doesn’t degenerate into waspish remarks and, whilst this family isn’t the closest, there is some warmth on offer.
It gives off the impression of a large group that lead separate lives. What tends to link them is their memories of Bernard and you get several glimpses into their pasts. When tragedy does strike in the story, it’s taken very seriously and given the right amount of weight. The writing largely works and it paints a rich picture of Bernard’s troubled life. Over a three-act structure, there’s time to really flesh out the titular other lives. I can really appreciate that.
I do really like the setting. The large house can feel intimidating but it’s gated gradually and I became very familiar with the floor plan. As a cat, shortcuts like open windows and vents can quicken your exploration. It’s not open by any means but you do get occasions where Aspen can really roam. I felt like there was no room let unturned and, when credits rolled, I had become intimately knowledgeable about the Mason mansion.
Having a cat as a vessel for investigation works well. Abilities are limited. Aspen can run, despite his extra heft. He can climb furniture but he’s not that agile. Movement comes off as largely ordinary but, as a household pet, you have a surprising sense of access. Certain situations might be strange for a person to walk in on but, as Aspen, nobody’s that fussed. It makes him a very good witness to the days’ events. It also helps that the family genuinely like him.
Puzzles feature heavily in Cats and the Other Lives. They’re not especially complex which fits with Aspen’s feline limitations. Even when human intuition strikes, you’re largely trying to move objects, reach high places or simply grab a person’s attention. It’s not a game I ever felt stuck by but there is hint system that doesn’t intrude on the experience much. Even basic progression gets nicely alluded to. Following anyone that’s moving generally takes the story forward.
Honestly, I quite enjoy interacting with the world as Aspen. It feels very grounded with some toys available to paw around with. Even the aspect of following people from room to room feels realistic. I’ve owned plenty of cats to know how needy they can be. Despite the family being spread out, I didn’t feel I missed anything in my first playthrough. There’s dozens of collectible memories to find but these feel more like trinkets. They’re not essential to filling in the bigger picture with conversations providing all the context I needed. I do wish there were more opportunities to use night vision. It seems like an interesting gimmick that is cast aside fairly quickly.
Aspen does appear to have one special quality. He seems to be able to see ghosts. This is a simple way to peek into the past and helps the story build upon itself. Bernard can’t speak so it’s a good way to explore what he was like as a younger man. It paints a more complete picture and, despite his reclusion, he had a life that was anything but stagnant. The psychedelic moments really help give the visions of the past an otherworldly quality.
One aspect of the gameplay I didn’t like was the chase sequences. They aren’t especially long but there are a few situations where Aspen has to chase mice or run from danger. Controlling them should be straight forward but switching lanes became tricky and a little unresponsive. There is one involving a tree which I found minor frustration with.
The pixelated visuals initially put me off but the animation on offer does a good job of conveying mood and personality. The humans are largely faceless but that doesn’t lead to a lack of emotion. There’s plenty of detail to the scenery and it certainly looks like a house that was lived in. The disrepair is obvious but it’s a nice touch to show just how poorly it was maintained over the years. I wish I could say more about the soundtrack but I barely noticed it. It’s just a little understated. Perhaps that fits well with the sombre, reflective mood.
Cats and the Other Lives manages to pull together an interesting narrative with some great character moments. The puzzles never ventured into tricky territory but using Aspen as a vessel for interactivity works out well. As much as I can grow tired of pixel aesthetics, the detail on offer and animation helps convey plenty of mood. It’s a pity the chase sequences can frustrate but I enjoyed uncovering the family secrets over the long weekend.
+ Smartly animated characters.
+ Puzzles seem very grounded and speak to Aspen's limitations.
+ Nicely paced with the three days being enough to explore every person's mindset.
- Some plot threads are conveniently and hastily resolved.
- Would've liked to see more night vision sections.