Thanks to Redblack Spade for the review code
System: Steam (PC)
Release Date: 05/24/2018
In this metroidvania adventure, you take control of Alesta, a sorceress embarking on a quest to explore the world and investigate just why so many people are falling ill, and what mystical cats are doing all over the place. It’s a pretty simple narrative, but one that unfolds rather nicely with a few twists and turns to keep things semi-interesting.
Catmaze is yet another 2D pixel metroidvania, this one going for a soft look. It really doesn’t do anything that noteworthy, but there are plenty of cute touches nevertheless. The sprites are cute, the animations are basic, but effective, and the character drawings in dialogue are definitely rough, but have actually improved over time! The original launch of this game had them a lot worse looking, but as of late they have mostly been replaced by much better, improved art from the creator; a very noble sign of growth!
The backgrounds are pretty OK as well, and a lot of areas get the job done at implying to you what they’re meant to be. Whether it’s a dark cave, a strange forest, high up in the mountains, a glowing labyrinth, or any of the other locales in the world of Catmaze, this metroidvania has it covered, with decent enemy variety that changes accordingly, with aforementioned cute touches such as a pair of mushrooms that trade their cap between each other, enemies using bouncing mushroom platforms, or reacting to falling in swamp water.
The music on the other hand? It’s very subpar, neither great or bad, mostly going for an ambient feel, though the songs have noticeable loops that can break that immersion after a while of exploring. I didn’t find the sound effects to be all that bothersome thankfully, since I do know a lot of games of this scale go a bit overboard on the stock sound effects, and I didn’t notice all that many here. Attacking has a satisfying punch to it, and so do other actions such as bouncing, casting magic, or coming in contact with enemies.
Catmaze is a pretty standard Metroidvania at the end of the day, and that isn’t a bad thing at all! The goal is just like any others in the genre: progress to the next main point on the map, move the story along, and find new upgrades and items to reach new areas. Alesta has two attack buttons, which call upon two different types of familiars to help her: from the up-close, melee familiars that’ll strike enemies right in front of her, and will be her main source of fighting, to the special ranged familiars, which perform a wider variety of techniques such as a magic fireball, a long-range crawl, or helpful buffs. The ranged familiars require MP to use, so you’ll have to be more conservative with them.
Speaking of MP and combat, you might be surprise to find that unlike a lot of recent metroidvanias, Catmaze doesn’t use an EXP or weapon upgrading system, at least not in the traditional sense. Sure, enemies drop money and HP/MP, but you won’t really gain any permanent experience from beating them, no matter how hard you try. Rather, they’ll drop white orbs that increase your overall strength up to a certain level. This is kinda like how it works in Cave Story, Momodoria and Blaster Master, since getting hit will downgrade this level, and upgrades that you obtain and discover will increase the max. I went a good while through the first area of the game without even knowing about this mechanic, until I reached the first boss and found myself absolutely destroyed until I realized that I could level up fully and have my fire magic deal some serious heat.
Sure, you’ll still find new familiars that can technically be stronger than your older ones, but unlike a lot of games where newer attacks make your old techniques redundant, there’s plenty of merit to stick with your old crew and switch to your other familiars whenever the circumstances require it. My biggest gripe with this used to be that in order to swap familiars and equipment, you’d have to go into the menu and constantly switch, but as of a recent update that’s been fixed to allow you to swap melee/ranged familiars and items with the shoulder buttons, a much, much superior and handy way of adapting on the fly, making the pacing of the exploration a lot more fun!
The game isn’t too terribly shy to throw some curveballs at you either. Sometimes you’ll end up in a cave or area that’ll require a different solution from just smacking foes in the face with a bat familiar, and sometimes you’ll even have short puzzles to solve, and these thankfully don’t overstay their welcome. Again, none of it should really surprise anyone who’s played games in this genre before, (especially Momodoria, since the more I played this, the more vibes I got of that series) but it is great to play through such a fun world as you try to figure out what secrets to find next.
That being said, There are still some gripes I had with Catmaze that still remain. A lot of the platforming, especially with vertical screen transitions can be a huge pain. Several times I’ve jumped upwards to go up a screen, only to brush right up against an enemy that’s next to the edge of a platform and get knocked back down. Sometimes I found certain jumps, especially to some optional upgrades to be outright infuriating to the point I swore I made one on sheer, frame-perfect mushroom hopping luck. When you get further into the game and deal with knockback over swampy water that respawns you, that’s no fun either.
There’s also a difficulty curve to keep in mind, especially since this game is just like the classic vanias in that when you die, you must reload your last save, and finding a new cat statue to save at can be pretty tension-inducing. Luckily, the game does relieve some frustration by letting you get items such as healing potions and teleport gems to warp to the last save point, but still, the clunkiness is there and takes a bit to get used to, though once you do, Catmaze ends up being a fun, serviceable metroidvania that I definitely plan on fully completing.
In conclusion, Catmaze was quite a fun romp from what I played through of it, and it honestly is very admirable to see the game get a handy QOL update years after launch. As one of the titles I really regret not getting around to earlier (with all the stuff in my life in 2019/2020 I’ve mentioned many a time before), I still enjoyed the bits I played before that went down, and having came back to it here in 2021 and spend several hours now that it has some QOL stuff, I just found this metroidvania to be full of charm and worth a playthrough, even though it still has some quirks that could be ironed out.
Yeah, like a lot of metroidvania titles, it does suffer from the reoccuring problem of not having much to call its own or add to the formula, but what it maintains from inspirations it does a very fine job at doing, leading to a cozy, fun exploratory adventure that I found well worth spending time with, and it definitely will be something I’ll try to 100% complete in the future. It won’t blow your socks off, but for the price on offer, you’ll still get a great few hours out of beating the game, with a few more if you want to go for all the achievements and practicing your routes. For a solo-developed project, I feel this one could be quite a gem if it comes to other platforms such as the Nintendo Switch or Series X, and is a worthwhile buy for your Steam Library in the meantime.
I give Catmaze a 7 out of 10.