Adventure Gamers Awards
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.
Exacerbating the problem is how tedious navigation can be. Many puzzles involve a lot of time spent moving across long paths and areas that are largely void of content, often with the additional need to backtrack. It's easy to get lost or miss that all-important puzzle item tucked away somewhere on the sprawling island. There is a map with a teleport function to the five main locations, but this still doesn't address the stupidly long walks along beaches and up pathways to mountains, which become tiresome fast.
Take one puzzle where you have to relay gossip back and forth between two sisters. One sister, working at a restaurant, will give you some free food if you do this task for her. Firstly, it is not clear why you are doing it, the reason only becoming clear after the fact. The puzzles can make a bit more sense if you do them in a certain order, but because the game is so non-linear it is unlikely that will happen. Secondly, you are told that you need to search the entire beach to find the second sister – a tedious task where you have to walk through a long stretch of desolate beach (and it won't be the only time you find yourself doing it).
This “puzzle” also brings up the problem that many of the game's challenges aren't really puzzles. Despite claiming to use a “more logical puzzle system that addresses the shortcomings of previous adventure games”, puzzles seem to have been forfeited entirely in place of elaborate fetch quests. Someone wants you to retrieve some gossip; you arduously go fetch the gossip and bring it back. Someone wants some straws; you wander about aimlessly until you find a bag of straws lying around. It’s absurd when you are supposed to be playing as a puzzle-loving teenager in what is advertised as an “oldskool adventure”, only to find there are no real puzzles. Granted, there are one or two conversation puzzles, but even these mostly end up being an exercise in trial and error.
The other problem with the non-linear gameplay is that it's reasonably easy to start pursuing puzzles that don't actually exist. At one point you'll encounter a man who sells storage space, and after yet another long conversation you find out he's offering it to you for a price. Instinctively I wanted to try to get money or find an alternate way to acquire the space, but in fact there is no way. Maybe the puzzle will appear in the second episode, but even so, it's simply bad game design to mislead the player like that.
Control-wise, the game is a 3D point-and-clicker, allowing you to rotate the camera horizontally around the player as well as adjusting the zoom level. Pulling the zoom level back to its farthest will also conveniently bring up the map. Unfortunately, the top-down camera angle limits what you can see ahead of you. It becomes annoying when you constantly have to click mere metres away from you because that's all the camera will let you see. Allowing you to zoom out further or rotate the camera vertically would have made navigating a bit less frustrating – though the long, empty paths would still doubtless be a pain.
Furthermore, a fair amount of frustration could have been saved had the cursor been designed to change over hotspots. As is, you can never quite be certain if an object is interactive until you click on it, watch the player character sprint across the screen, and wait for some text to pop up – or not. You can hold both mouse keys down, which then highlights any hotspots, but it's a clunky procedure that can't be expected every time you're near potentially relevant objects. Some time-saving features have been implemented, at least, like a checklist that tersely lists the various puzzles you've encountered so that no note-taking is required.
The three or so hours that it takes to finish Catmouth Island: Episode 1 are both weird and frustrating. The developer was obviously not short of ideas – nor shy about implementing every one of them – but the result in this debut episode is an incoherent mess that only holds your attention because of its superficial absurdity and stylish graphics. Beyond that, you'll find very little. The puzzles aren't really puzzles, the characters and plot are poorly written, and the world, although nicely rendered in a rarely-used retro style, is a pain to navigate. Ultimately, it's hard to recommend this game – not only because of its quality but also because it has no perceivable target audience. If you just happen to be into weird, childish games that also have dismembered corpses, immaturely pornographic songs, and lengthy hikes on desolate paths to fetch lord-knows-what, then maybe this is the game for you. Otherwise, it’s best to wait and see where this series goes, in the hope that future episodes won't be quite so underwhelming.