If you were to line up all of the Metroidvanias in the world, end-to-end and in quality order, we would guess that Catmaze would be smack in the middle. It could be the yardstick for all future Metroidvanias: is it better than Catmaze, or worse than Catmaze?
It’s not entirely a complaint. There are an awful lot of Metroidvanias that Catmaze can claim to be better than, and it’s a genre that clearly has its fans. If you like Metroidvanias, there is a guarantee that Catmaze will offer at least some degree of enjoyment.
But it’s still the back-handed compliment that we intended it to be. While it’s unrivalled in its competence, it also didn’t really do much for us. It’s fine. It occupied us for a few evenings. These are hardly statements that Ratalaika will be slapping on their posters.
Catmaze starts with the main character, Alesta, becoming acutely aware that her mother is not well. You’re both sorceresses, but you don’t have a spell or potion in the pantry for this kind of illness. So, you’re wandering through forests, caves and the lands of the dead to retrieve a cure that can return your mum to normalcy.
There’s a faint, interesting Slavic-ness to the story and mythologies that are drawn on here. There are occasional mentions of Domovois and other fantastical beings, but we’d have taken some thicker brushstrokes. If it leaned into its Slavic folklore a little more, rather than some generic ghosts, ghouls and mushrooms, then Catmaze would have had more of an unique voice.
This setup underpins some conventional action-platforming. Initially, you can jump and perform a kind of dash-attack, but that gets layered on with double-jumping and even some cat-riding. The world is broken up into a series of rooms, as you would expect from a Castlevania or a Metroid, and those rooms develop into a sprawling map. Some rooms are blocked from you, as you don’t have the requisite ability to get past a wall, dark room or stacked blocks. So, you’re hunting for the direction in which Catmaze wants you to progress.
Which, as it happens, is harder than it really should be. Someone at Redblack Spade, developers of Catmaze, clearly thinks that modern games are too handholdy, and attempts to be as opaque as possible. That might be ambrosia to the ears for some, but it went too far for our tastes. Gain a new ability, and it won’t necessarily tell you what it does. Is there any reason why that has to be held back? Bosses will vaguely hint that you don’t have the right ability, but not which, and maps have the occasional exclamation mark to denote a blocked area, but there’s no distinguishing between them, and they don’t appear consistently anyway.
Which gets knotty when Catmaze is so sprawling. You might have unlocked an ability that has a use on a far-flung corner of the map, but actually getting there is a bit of a trudge. You soon get the ability to travel to cat-fountains that act as save points and life refreshers, but they are few and far between, so you will spend more time hiking, just generally walking places, than you might like. When the game isn’t forthcoming about where things are, it can often mean you have made a trip without actually needing to. We lost count of the times that we traveled somewhere, only to find that we didn’t need to be there yet.
It makes the opening two or three hours of Catmaze a bit intolerable, if we’re being honest. But once the mental map kicks in, and Catmaze stops being so intensely unapproachable, Catmaze becomes entirely fine. Good. Not at all bad.
Bosses sporadically block your way, and they are suitably large and impressive, with rotations of attacks that take some memorising and navigating. They are more bullet spongey than we would personally like, but they do a strong job of punctuating the gameplay. The levels themselves, too, are varied, with plenty of landmarks to help with that mental map. Again, we’d have taken more in the way of secrets and collectibles – Catmaze has an odd habit of tucking vital items in secret walls, but not much else – but the level design has our thumbs up.
And there’s a robust cuteness about the events in Catmaze. Cats potter offscreen, giving you a hint of where to go next. Colourful characters goad you on, giving you lightweight quests, or offering goods for cash. Many of them have their own stories, completely missable and optional. But we’d say they are Catmaze’s finest moments, and the best ending comes from completing them all, so there’s no real excuse for missing them. Unless you are bored. Or just a touch underwhelmed.
We can’t get effusive about Catmaze. More than any other game we’ve played this year, it will eject from our memory as soon as we press ‘send’ on the review.
All of our comments on Catmaze seem to come beamed from the Neutral Zone: it is an entirely competent Metroidvania that will occupy you for a few hours. Catmaze has small caches of challenge, charm and depth for you to mine. But it cannot hope to excite you, engage much of your brain, or stick around in the memory. It is aggressively average.
You can buy Catmaze from the Xbox Store