While the indie scene occasionally produces some previously unheralded gems, it is more often the unfortunate case that not-so-great games are made by people with a vigorous enthusiasm for making games. This would appear to be so with Catmouth Island: Episode 1, the first adventure game from Colonthree Enterprises. It comes from a loving place: the creators demonstrate a peculiar imagination that they are fond to share, and they pay homage to adventure gaming's past through joyful parodies of the genre's tropes and attempts at emulating the tone of classics like Monkey Island. But while I imagine the team had a blast making it, for the player it just isn't a coherent and well-designed experience, at least so far.
This game is the first of an episodic series set on the tropical Catmouth Island, home to an assortment of weird human characters who supposedly have a mysterious feline past. You play as Mya, a comparatively normal 19-year-old girl who has a penchant for puzzle-solving. She wants to gain entrance to The Infinitely Tall House – which is exactly that, and given no further in-game explanation – but, of course, many an obstacle stands in her way.
The game spices things up a little through its stylish low-poly 3D graphics, deliberately reminiscent of old Nintendo 64 games. Following with this console-esque aesthetic, the game even uses an overhead viewpoint throughout. But the graphics in Catmouth Island are somewhat less crude than their inspiration, having been enhanced by modern technology while still retaining that retro feel. The clunkiness of the animations and the flatness of the colour palette can perhaps be excused as part of this ‘90s design style. The music also fits the graphical style, adopting a kind of cheerful, bright sound that you would associate with sunny islands like this one. It's not remarkable material, but it rests suitably in the background and gives each location just a little bit more character.
This positive initial impression doesn't last for long, though, as you’re soon assaulted with the game's inexplicable weirdness. It is okay for a game to be weird and surreal, but if it is relentlessly so, without a good storyline or well-crafted world design to make sense of it all, you're left just asking: why? Why am I dragging cadavers out of dumpsters to use as biofuel? Why is the Infinitely Tall House so important? Why am I interacting with talking crates and flowers, not to mention the twerk-loving islanders? (Yes, this game has twerking.) The amalgamation of everything odd means that there is no clear tone and no obvious intended audience – one moment you'll be conversing with nerdy kids about arcade games, the next you'll be stumbling across a dismembered corpse, and then you'll be listening to a lewd, immature and dramatically unfunny song about sex. And without an intelligible plot to serve as motivation, it just feels like you're performing a handful of side quests that inexplicably converge into a confounding ending that explains absolutely nothing.
There is still some appeal to this, I admit. The weirdness is certainly attention-grabbing and makes you want to discover more about the world. Sadly, you're hardly given the chance to explore what would seem to be the game's main themes: the islanders' feline antecedents (Catmouth Island's inhabitants, somewhat feline-like in their facial features, habits and salt water-drinking abilities, are suggested to have descendants that made them so) and the importance of The Infinitely Tall House, despite being the primary subject of this episode. Presumably they'll be addressed in future episodes, but that doesn't change the fact that this episode is lacking the narrative and world-building that it occasionally hints at. The humour, although very hit and miss, possesses some (mostly) gentle, LucasArts-esque ideas, like the fact that the one day you need to get hold of a boat is “Don't Lend Your Boat Day”, and the noted absurdity by the game's characters of being able to purloin a three-ton water pump. I personally found the humour a bit tired, but I can see the potential appeal.
Nowhere is the humour and weirdness more prevalent than in the diverse and notably large set of characters. But these characters, although perhaps memorable for their premises – a man with a metal hook as a head or a talking flower who plays rock, paper, scissors – are quite frankly boring to interact with. They're designed to be quirky and unique, but are ultimately just repositories of bland, lifeless dialogue, as is the player character, Mya. Expect classic lines like “What a dead fish! It looks so dead.” and “No buts! Or else we'd all live in huts!” What's worse, conversations can go on for aeons. There is no voice acting, which is by no means an issue in itself, but I suspect if there had been, the dialogue would have been dramatically trimmed for the better, and it might have given the dialogue some character that is otherwise absent.
In fact, overabundance is a problem with many other aspects of the game too, and can make the gameplay feel lacking in direction. For the most part, you're just left to explore the admirably large – but mainly non-interactive – world. This does make for a moderate sense of freedom, but even after wandering across most of the island and engaging with many of the puzzles, you can still feel unguided, often stumbling into puzzle solutions and progressing the story really only by accident.Continued on the next page...