The board gamer in me was initially excited that Catana would be a spin-off of the classic Catan. But alas, this is a subtle pun on ‘katana’, just with cats. It’s a casual little puzzler with some lightweight Cats-meets-Shogun theming, and there’s no trading for wool or grain in sight.
There’s a single concept here that takes some getting your head round, but once you have it, everything becomes dead simple. We’d have prefered a whiteboard to take you through how this works, but we’re limited to text. Let’s see how far we get.
Every game of Catana is on a square grid. These games are one-player, so you only have to concern yourself with where you are. You play a cat-samurai, who sits on one of these squares, with plenty of enemies on other squares. You can move ten squares per turn, forming a path along the grid. But you can’t walk over enemies, as they block you. This took some getting used to, as we were holding a flipping katana (catana). Surely we could chop everyone up?
Well yes, you can, but not in the way that you probably think. You destroy enemies, and remove them from the grid, by passing next to them. Here’s the complicated bit: you can’t just chop up every enemy that you sidle up to. They need to be in a chain of three of the same colour, much like your average Match-3 game. BUT your character, the little samurai, acts as any colour of enemy. You are a wild card. So, your character can be one of the three colours required to create the match-3. You can act as a bridge between two separate enemies, or add yourself to a chain of two. Make sense? We hope so.
What this means is that you’re gliding through a grid of enemies, ‘tagging’ various chains of two or more coloured enemies, and then pressing the A button to pull off the move. Then your cat zips through its ordained path, chopping up enemies with glee. It’s quite satisfying to watch the enemies pop like balloons.
There are complications of course, which get added over the course of the game’s hundred or so levels. Every turn, a few of the enemies will get angry, wobbling away with a red, strained look on their faces. This is a hint that rocking up next to them is probably a bad idea. They will knock off one of your lives (the different difficulties determine how many you get, with Normal handing you five) and refuse to chain if you accidentally step near one.
Enemies also get armoured, requiring two hits before they’re removed from the board. Eventually, they get double-armoured. A revolving door of more complicated beasties force you to change up your approach. Robots electrocute spaces around them every two turns and also move, while others leave a trail of fire out of their backsides. And then there are bosses, waiting for you at the end of each of the twelve worlds, adding drawbacks like dynamite, harpoons and a veil of darkness.
The enemies regrow with each turn (a stunted, tiny version indicates where it will appear, and you can step on them to stop that from happening), and there are no turn limits to be found. You could take a couple of days to do a level and no one would complain.
It feels like it should work, but actually playing Catana is a curious experience. The rules make sense, and it should work well in theory. But something happens in the bake to leave the end result devoid of challenge and any real strategy. It’s a puzzle game where – unless you’re extremely lackluster and playing on the highest difficulty – you will breeze through, and barely fire up a brain cell as you do.
There are too many safety nets, for one. Having multiple lives means you can make a series of errors and not be punished. That can be tweaked with difficulty settings, but on Hard it’s still too easy. Multiple power-ups unlock as you progress, and they can be utilised once per level. But they’re massively overpowered, giving you three, maybe four, opportunities to get out of a game-ending dead-end. Since finding yourself in a dead-end is really the only way to lose, and finding yourself in one is both rare and the product of dozens of turns, having four Get Out of Jail Free cards is too much.
And while we would love to say that we’re Mensa champions with an innate skill for Catana, the balancing feels off. With every ten moves within a single turn, we would wipe out more enemies than the game could replenish, making some arenas feel a little lonely. Often, the best strategy is to take the longest path, and that doesn’t leave you with a wealth of options. There’s no incentive to complete levels in a small number of turns, either, as there are no collectibles, star rankings or punishments for taking your merry old time.
But mainly it all gets a bit tired. Levels are far too long, often asking for 150, even 200 enemies to be popped in a level. That makes a level run for five or ten minutes, which is longer than we needed against a relatively easy-to-defeat punching bag. Catana then layers on over a hundred levels, repeating itself too often and returning to old areas – and old enemies – when we just wanted to get things over with. It’s rare to say it, but this budget game just has too much content. It could have done with some editing.
It’s not an unpleasant experience – that would be taking things too far. Catana may lack challenge and overstocks itself with levels, but the process of plugging away at a puzzle grid, matching colours, is mindlessly satisfying. In short bursts, we’d even agree that it was fun. But it’s too polite and generous to truly test you.
If you want a mental or physical workout, Catana is more like a fidget spinner: it might keep you occupied, but you’re not going to feel any better, or more tested, for playing it.
You can buy Catana from the Xbox Store