One-man developer, Redblack Spade, has served up an interesting Metroidvania with Catmaze. While the game does conform to the design elements that make a Metroidvania a Metroidvania, there are more than enough personal touches – both in the story and mechanics – that help Catmaze stand out in a saturated indie genre.
Unexpectedly strong narrative elements…
Young sorceress Alesta is sent to fend for herself far too early in life when her mother’s illness takes her to Nav, the realm of the dead. Not content to let things lie, Alesta sets off to find the mysterious Cat Bayn who can lead her to Nav to find her mother. Cats are, after all, capable of moving between worlds. However, before that can happen, Alesta will have to confront the perils of her world, including monsters, demons, and side quests galore.
Based on Slavic mythology, Catmaze offers up a world whose setup feels fresh and intriguing, even if its design is traditional. The story is easily one of its highlights, as Redblack Spade has opted for a more personal touch to the narrative, both for Alesta and the world’s inhabitants. Despite the whimsical feel – it is a fairy Metroidvania after all – there’s a significant amount of darkness lurking just below the surface. Whether it’s the couriers of the dead coming to claim Alesta’s mother, or a sister whose absent brother resulted in her witnessing her family being devoured by monsters, Catmaze makes all of its storylines personal and compelling.
There’s a colourful cast of characters to interact with and the game sports plenty of written dialogue and more cut scenes than you usually find in a Metroidvania title. Whether I was helping a Halfling to find a specific flower so that he could take on the demon Chernobog to prove his worth to the villagers, or delivering a flying broom to a sorceress so that she could return home, Catmaze’s constant narrative threads and sub-quests kept me hooked from the beginning.
…but familiar gameplay
When it comes to gameplay, traditional Metroidvania elements are abundant. You have a sprawling map to explore made up of different biomes. Exploration is either locked behind finding new gear to help you access previously inaccessible areas or by beating a boss blocking your path. As a result, there’s a lot of backtracking to be done as you open up new areas with each new ability or as you acquire new side quests. “Cat Shrines” act as save points, while Alesta can fast-travel between warp points with the help of a friendly monster. Catmaze doesn’t do anything differently than what has come before, but each biome is visually interesting, full of intriguing encounters, and well-structured to make it both challenging but fun to navigate.
A nice little touch – and one that makes Catmaze far more accessible – is that everything is recorded in a journal and when you pick up a new side quest, or have to continue the main one, the game plops a little question mark icon in the biome or room you need to be in. Now while I would have appreciated the ability to set my own markers, especially for blocked paths, this goes a long way to reducing the amount of back-and-forth or blind exploration that you usually find in Metroidvanias.
Of course, with monsters and demons in need of slaying, Alesta has several attack types that come in the form of familiars you pick up along the way and do the fighting for you. They’re broken down into two categories – melee and ranged – and it’s rather charming watching a cat swipe out at an enemy using an attack animation you’d expect for a traditional sword. Alesta herself can pick up a double jump (with a wonderful spinning animation on the second jump) and bracelets that can be enhanced to increase her various stats, such as strength and defence. The most useful accessory is an amulet that can be powered up with orbs dropped by defeated enemies which increases her overall attack strength. But, if you get hit, the amulet’s damage buff decreases.
If you do take a hit, health is in plentiful supply as enemies consistently drop health, mana orbs, and money. You can use the money to enhance your equipment or to buy health potions, though I never once felt the need to do so.
A Metroidvania for beginners
Catmaze also happens to be the perfect gateway Metroidvania if you want to introduce new or younger players to the genre. The game errs on the easy side, so veteran players won’t have any issue breezing through it, while new and younger players won’t be frustrated enough to give up on it. I never struggled through the game at all and boss encounters were always manageable, but they were entertaining enough with different mechanics to keep me on my toes. Personally, I was quite happy with the level of difficulty as I ended up enjoying and appreciating the game even more – Catmaze really felt like it was designed to respect me and my time as a gamer.
Now that said, don’t think that this means the overall mechanics and how it plays aren’t up to snuff. Catmaze is incredibly well designed and structured, with solid mechanics that indicate that the developer perfectly understands the genre and how it should play.
Great narrative, solid mechanics, serviceable presentation
Visually, Catmaze is attractive enough for an indie pixel-art title. There are enough details in the sprite work to give both our heroine, the supporting cast, and even enemies some personality. However, compared to the stunning pixel work we’ve been seeing lately in indie games, Catmaze does fall a little short with the character portraits easily the weakest visual aspect. Audio, which was handled by one of the developer’s friends, is great though. There are some nice background tunes and the sound effects are meaty enough even if, like the visuals, they reveal the game’s budget status.
Now while Catmaze may not immediately impress with its visuals or level of challenge, you would be making a grave mistake to dismiss it upfront. For my money, Redblack Spade has developed a fantastic Metroidvania using mythology that rarely gets enough use, in a game that is designed for everyone to enjoy and finish. With multiple endings and rock-solid gameplay, this is an excellent, fun Metroidvania that fans of the genre should play.
A review code for Catmaze was provided to gameblur by the publisher.
Catmaze (Nintendo Switch) ReviewCatmaze (Nintendo Switch) Review
Story8/10 Very Good
- Excellent and personal narrative
- Map markers to point you in the right direction
- Solid if familiar gameplay mechanics
- Can be finished by everyone
- Visuals are on the rough side