Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide has a strange old pedigree. It comes from Philipp ‘muddasheep’ Lehner, best known for creating HalfQuake and other FPS mods. Those mods have bordered on being art installations, exploring philosophy and the meaning of life. They’re weighty, existentialist pieces of work.
But his latest, Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide, is a cooperative family game where you play a cat and a bat. It’s about as existential as an episode of Hey Duggee, and it’s clearly made for a completely different audience. The only connecting tissue between it and HalfQuake is its black-and-white world. Needless to say, it will probably sidewind and confuse a few muddasheep fans.
Catty and Batty are friends who live in a forest, and their afternoon snooze is interrupted by some wisp-like spirits wandering around. These spirits want to get home to a spirit cavern roughly thirty levels away, and they couldn’t tie their own shoelaces together, so it’s down to you to get them there.
To that end, you have that timeless accessory of all cats: the cardboard box. Placing cardboard boxes on a top-down grid will allow you to guide the spirits in a particular direction – in this case, towards a kind of rainbow-cavern-thing which signifies the exit.
The Xbox Store marketing text invokes Lemmings, and there’s some truth to that. It’s a game of Lemmings if the only lemming-type you had was the ‘blocker’, the one with two arms stretched out. Spirits stream out of an entrance square, and randomly move this-way-and-that unless you hem them in with well-placed boxes. Your first move is almost always to box in the three directions around the entrance that you don’t want them to spill out of, giving you a directed starting point.
We need to admit something: we had no idea what we were doing at first, and we’re not completely convinced it was our fault. Our problem – and we’re determined to defend this – is that the boxes all have an ‘up’ arrow on them. We took that to mean that there would be some kind of directional ‘up’ movement to the spirits when they hit them. Nuh-uh: this was just muddasheep’s way of saying that these are boxes, and boxes always have ‘This Way Up’ written on them. Pfft.
Most of the time, things are simple and obvious. Drop boxes down, create a path and then press the X button to set the spirits loose. If your masterplan is correct, they will merrily wander to the escape and onto the next level.
Each level stirs something new into Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide, and there’s an unusual approach to how they’re handled. You might encounter a fox, some star-rain, leaves on the ground or conveyor-belt-like squares. But instead of taking the age-old approach of tutorialising them, dropping them in for a couple of levels, and then – perhaps – recycling them at the end in more complex levels, they’re used once, maybe twice, and then tossed away.
It’s our favourite part of Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide. We’re not sure if it’s confidence on the part of muddasheep, as he knows that he can come up with something fresh for every level, or it’s a lack of confidence, as bad mechanics don’t stick around for particularly long, but it made for an attention-grabbing experience. As Forrest will tell you, Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide is like a box of chocolates, and you never know what you’re going to get.
Lest we forget, Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide is cooperative. In one-player you can press RB to access the second character, which is Batty as default. In about twenty-five of the thirty levels you won’t need that character-switch, and you can do it all with Catty, should you want. They both have the same abilities – dropping boxes – so it’s down to your personal preference.
In two-player, one of you plays Catty and the other plays Batty. As mentioned, there’s only a handful of levels that wall you off from the other player, requiring you to pass the spirits from one walled area to the other. The rest are free-for-alls where you can dump cardboard boxes willy-nilly like you’re a pair of Hermes drivers.
Does this restriction-free approach to co-op work? No, not really. Tetris wouldn’t work if two players were fighting over blocks, setting up their own combos only to see another player ruin it, and the same is true here. You just end up getting in each other’s way, knowing that you could have done the job quicker, since there’s nothing that your partner can do that you can’t.
Patient parents who want to use co-op to guide and nudge will be fine with this, but anyone looking to cooperate as peers will be plenty frustrated. You can delete your partner’s boxes, so there’s a fun evening of griefing there, though, should you want it.
Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide doesn’t feel like a co-op game. It’s a solo game with a few co-op levels, and that undermines its reason for existing. Because without an enjoyable multiplayer experience, Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide is a limp old puzzle game.
That’s because there are about a bazillion solutions to each puzzle. Sure, there are better approaches to each puzzle, but there’s no star system or leaderboards to motivate you to chase fewer boxes, or a quicker completion time. So, rather than hunting for the ideal or intended solution, you’re often just following the easiest route to the exit. A few spirits go off the reservation? Box them in and slowly shuffle them over to the exit. Too often, you don’t need a clever solution, because you can just brute-force a result.
You can see why muddasheep has done it: knowing that you can always get back from a losing situation, and knowing that there are multiple solutions, is a fantastic premise for a young player. You will never truly fail. You don’t have to guess the right solution. It makes Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide super accessible and friendly. But it just doesn’t lend itself to a satisfying and rewarding game. So, so often, Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide will present you with a maze, but you can effectively walk around the outside of it.
In many ways, Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide is a brave puzzle game. Rather than offer a single, correct solution, you can take your pick from thousands. Rather than stack on mechanics, it opts for a revolving door approach: new ideas come in and then leave in the space of a level. And it’s a cooperative title which doesn’t force you to work together. It’s just you and another player working towards the same single-player goal.
But while it’s brave, it’s not how players work. Give someone a thousand solutions, and they will pick the easiest one. Offer no reason to work together, and players won’t bother. Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide is too often a toy and not a game, and the toy is just too ugly and chaotic to fully recommend.
You can buy Catty & Batty: The Spirit Guide from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S