Cats. They’re so hot right now. With the release of Stray on the PS5, it’s either a really good time or a really bad time to release an adventure based on furry felines. We’ll plump for ‘a really good time’ as Xbox is sadly without Stray, at least for the time being.
But while Stray’s joy comes from giving you a world and letting you have at it, wandering it freely as any cat would, Bright Paw: Definitive Edition has the opposite impulse. This is less an adventure and more a puzzle game, set in claustrophobic corridors rather than expansive cities. You can’t go where you want; you can only go where a set of cards tells you to. It might seem, on the face of it, very anti-cat.
Bright Paw: Definitive Edition reminds us of kids’ coding games, or – if you’re of a particular age and nerdy disposition – board games like Richard Garfield’s RoboRally. You start a level on one end of a grid of squares. At the bottom of the screen, you have a hand of cards, and those cards display a very specific movement pattern. One card might move your cat forward a single square, while the others might be more Tetris-like in look, moving you forward, hanging a right and then pivoting left again. You play cards from your hand, and the cat – Theo – moves according to the shape on it.
If you would bash into a wall, or the shape doesn’t fit the arena, then you cannot play the card. You’re left standing there. To complicate things more, obstacles are scattered about. Conveyor belts nudge you in a direction, one square per turn. Pressure pads lower bridges; enemies follow patrol routes; lasers beam across the arena on one turn, and flick off the next. Which card to play on which turn is paramount, and you’ll need a degree of foresight to determine whether you hold onto that cool ‘four squares forward’ card, or play it now.
Mistakes aren’t costly at all. Death comes often in Bright Paw: Definitive Edition, but there’s a handy rewind button that lets you take your moves back, one by one. A full-reset button lets you walk back a regrettable set of moves. Playing Bright Paw: Definitive Edition is a breeze, as it feels so fully featured. Everything you would want to complete a puzzle is given to you.
As levels progress, this simple template gets upended with some rather fantastical abilities. Theo gains the ability to blink from one square to another, or drop a psionic block onto pressure pads. Bright Paw: Definitive Edition does a good job of stacking abilities on a teetering tower, to see whether you can keep things balanced.
A slightly left-field addition that we’re not convinced works is a ‘where’s wally?’ mechanic. Every level, there are two to three items in the environment that you can spot and drag the cursor over to. Tapping on them gives you a smidgeon of story, so you can build up what’s happened in the laboratories and robot factories that you are exploring. They also happen to be the game’s collectibles, grabbing you the lion’s share of Gamerscore. But they’re also completely separate from the main gameplay, and switching mode from board-gaming to doing a spot of hidden objecting is a tad jarring.
These narrative tidbits are here because Bright Paw: Definitive Edition layers its story on reasonably thickly. You start the game in the apartment where you live and have never strayed from, only to find that your owners – Nathaniel and Lauren – have been brutally murdered. Then you’re diving into some vents to find out that your home isn’t precisely a home: it’s the top layer of a laboratory complex. Weirder still, the voice of Nathaniel, your owner, rattles around your head like an omniscient narrator.
The story develops, level by level, and becomes a blend of murder mystery and corporate espionage thriller, as you attempt to find out who killed your owners, while also uncovering what their company, Bright Paw, have been up to. As a narrative goes, it’s slightly above-par, with some neat plot-pivots, but some over-eager voice acting to bring you back down to the ground.
Quite clearly, the designers have enjoyed their time playing Portal and Portal 2. The sarky, bitter narrator has all the hallmarks of Wheatley, and the smiley-faced robots out for your blood could have been ripped directly from the portal chambers. Graffiti on the walls stops slightly short of writing ‘the cake is a lie’, but you can imagine the writers were tempted. It teeters on being too liberal with its love of Valve’s series (Paw-tal, anyone?), but the overall presentation is nonetheless slick – far slicker than a small development team should be able to muster. For a game with such a simple mechanic at its core (this could have been stripped back to some Thomas Was Alone-style blocks and it would have worked), it’s impressive that so much care and AAA efforts have been put into presenting it.
Bright Paw: Definitive Edition has nine sets of levels to offer, and they never quite bare their fangs. That’s left to the packaged-in DLC levels, the reason that Bright Paw has ‘Definitive Edition’ in the title. The difference is staggering: these levels are convoluted, fiendish little traps that you need to be on the top of your game to beat. Where the campaign is slightly on the easy side – too easy, we would argue, as the cards you can play in any given situation are extremely limited, forcing your hand – these levels temper that criticism.
We grew to love Bright Paw: Definitive Edition. Initially, it all felt a bit too regressive. There was the Portal stuff, but the greater problem was that the puzzles couldn’t get our brains whirring. More often than not, you have five possible cards to play, but only one or two of them would be viable at any time. One card might kill you, while another would walk you into a wall. So, you’re going through the motions, wondering when the challenge might arrive. And this goes on for dozens of levels. We began to wonder whether Bright Paw: Definitive Edition was ideal as a kind of coding tutorial for our youngest kids, rather than something we might play.
But, ever so slowly, things started aligning. It’s not just about the cards in your hand, it’s about the powers you use, the blocks you nudge with your psionic abilities. Bright Paw: Definitive Edition finally gains layers, and there is an argument that it gains them too late. But as the plot accelerated, and the puzzling gears started shifting beyond ‘first’, we found that we couldn’t put it down. Better still, the extra levels brutalised us, showing that we had taken the campaign for granted.
Bright Paw: Definitive Edition is not Stray. It’s a single-player board game where a lack of freedom of movement is the point: where you are at the whims of the cards in your hand. The ponderous gameplay and the very, very gradual difficulty curve might lose it some admirers, but if you show it some patience and love, then this cat is inordinately charming and rewarding.
You can buy Bright Paw: Definitive Edition from the Xbox Store