Lewis Carroll would have been proud of Catie in MeowmeowLand. Unabashedly a reinterpretation of Alice in Wonderland but with an emphasis on cats, it somehow manages to be more absurd, more ludicrous than the text it so clearly loves.
The story (or, more appropriately, the sequence of events) follows Catie, who falls down a hole while chasing a white cat who is clearly late for something. The hole takes her to a veritable wonderland of surrealist locations and equally surreal characters, and she has to somehow coerce them into bringing her home. There’s a hint of Wizard of Oz, too, as the only one who can send her back is a mole, hidden in a tower with his contraptions.
The first major character of Catie in MeowmeowLand should give an indication of what you’re in for. Catie meets a large, white cat, huffing from a water pipe while lying on her pet dog and being fanned by snakes. She’s an amalgamation of Alice’s caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat, and it shows how fast and loose Catie in MeowmeowLand scrapbooks the original novel. One of the last sequences in the game is one of the first in the book: you are drinking various potions to become small enough to crawl through a tiny door.
The art in Catie in MeowmeowLand is almost uniformly great, somehow finding room for Terry Gilliam, Studio Ghibli and Salvador Dali in its influences. ARTillery, the game’s developers, have walked a line between cutesiness – with an emphasis on the bright and pastel – and the absurd, and it works superbly well. The soundtrack, too, is a bopper, and we stayed on the final credit sequence for longer than we should have, simply because it was a groove.
The presentation is a fancy wrapper for a traditional point-and-click adventure with a very atypical approach to puzzles. You don’t have direct control over Catie in the game. Instead, you are tapping A on elements of the game world (handily, the cursor changes to a fist-like icon when something is interactable) to see how they will react. Tap a hole in the ground and an eye might pop out. Tap the eye and a creature might sidle out completely, dropping an item on the floor for you to use. There is no inventory here, however: you are picking up and using items in the scene where they are found. It makes Catie in MeowmeowLand more of a point-and-poke than a point-and-click. How can you bring life to the scene? Tap away and things will change and shift, giving you more options.
Playing into this is the atypical approach to puzzling: Catie in MeowmeowLand creates environments that barely have a thread of logic between them. While it will often present a puzzle that is simple, and could even have come from a LucasArts adventure – our favourite was a beach scene where you had to find stars to create a cat constellation – it is just as likely to throw in a puzzle that has no resemblance to reality. We were stuck for the longest time on a puzzle where we had to transform ourselves into a rock creature so that we could lick a key, which would make the key small enough to fit a lock. Why were we a rock creature? Why does a rock creature’s spittle make thing’s smaller? We honestly couldn’t tell you.
And here’s the rub. The absurdity of Catie in Meowmeowland might make it feel so wackily different, but it can also cause you to pick up your telly and start making steps towards the window to toss it out. It’s fine when you are poking around and the world reacts to your poke with senseless, Gilliam-esque absurdity. Items drop into view and you suddenly have something new to play with. But hit a roadblock, and it’s a royal pain in the arse. You can be staring at a sequence of blobs, wild flowers and gemstones with a wide-eyed look on your face, wondering what the hell the game wants from you.
It doesn’t help that the usability is on the shonkier side. Catie in Meowmeowland has limited clickzones, for example. We tried to use something on something else, but must have missed by a pixel or two, so we mentally logged it as incorrect when it was the opposite. A duck offers hints in the opening levels, but then swans off in the latter levels when we might have needed him. And, most of all, when using an item on another item, if the combination fails, the item will snap back to where you got it from. Now, if you’re randomly using items on other items in the hope of getting anywhere, that constant snapping back really grinds the gears.
The rules seem to bend and buckle too. Sometimes, you have to use an item on another item to get it to work. Other times, you have to hand it to Catie for her to do it, and the distinction is never clear. Some puzzles need you to press the same thing multiple times. Other puzzles need you to press something that you couldn’t press before. It breaks all of our graphic adventure golden rules.
We also found ourselves in a couple of buggy situations where only a restart would do. We managed to hold two items at once in a lift sequence, and the game fell over. It’s not so frequent that it affects the score, but it’s yet another rough edge in a rough-edged tea party.
Let’s chuck another fault on the pile: Catie in Meowmeowland isn’t great at knowing when to stop. Some sequences go on far too long – the elevator sequence being one of them – as absurdities layer onto absurdities, and you just want to be making progress. We’d go so far to say that the game as a whole is probably a third too long, but that might be down to a growing allergy to the illogic.
But let’s reel it back, because there is so much to recommend about Catie in Meowmeowland. It’s an affectionate riff on Alice in Wonderland, with enough artistry and imagination to outclass the Tim Burton-take on the material. When things work, it can feel like a surreal domino rally, where one action has many bizarre reactions, and the joy is watching them develop.
But, too often, things stutter to a stop, as the surrealism overrides the logic. It can be hard to see what the graphic adventure puzzling wants from you, let alone how to solve it, and you can find yourself hollering ‘start making sense!’ at the screen.
With a guide, Catie in MeowmeowLand might hit a sweet spot: some satisfying poking around with a safety net for the overly weird stuff. But if you want to embark on this without that net, then prepare yourself for some moments of aimless point-and-clicking.
You can buy Catie in Meowmeowland from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S