Sunday, June 19, 2016

Visual Novel Review: Hustle Cat

Every now and then, I actually play video games! Even more rarely, I complete them! I usually just don't have the time or the operating system but I've happily noticed that more and more US-produced visual novels do tend to be Mac compatible (since like heck I'm gonna figure out how to dual-boot my computer for just that). So I was already interested when I saw a kickstarter for a cute dating game at a cat cafe and jokingly told my friends I was going to date all the cats. And then the kickstarter revealed that your coworkers ARE the cats and I wondered if I should regret my words.

Hustle Cat (created by Date Nighto)

Avery Gray has just moved to the big city and things aren’t going super smoothly so far. Sure they have a couch (and actual bed) to crash on at their aunt’s apartment while she’s out traveling for the summer but Avery still needs a job to ball the bills and for “living trashbag disguised as a cat” Mochi’s food. While walking around Avery discovers a cat cafe with a help wanted sign and after an odd interview Avery has the job! But soon Avery has even bigger problems as they discover that by signing the employment contract they are now doomed to turn into a cat unless they can find a way to reverse the curse and how they heck are they supposed to do that when none of their coworkers have managed it yet?!

If the use of they in the summary sounded a bit awkward, well, I couldn't avoid it since one of the biggest draws of the game is surprise, YOU get to choose who Avery is! Sure the name has to stay Avery Gray and Avery has a distinct personality but you get to choose Avery's pronouns (which can be changed at any point) and looks (a more feminine look and a more masculine look with three skin tone options) so you can make this game as gay or straight as you want! That's pretty neat and frankly seems like a very obvious idea to have for a visual novel but it doesn't sound like many others have gone nearly this far, even games with "blank slate" leads. Honestly for me that was the story's other main draw, Avery is not a blank slate, has a personality, and felt very real to me. I've seen a lot of people praise Ms. Marvel for having Kamala speak like a millennial but honestly Avery feels much more natural to me by comparison, it's less about the slang and more about how Avery's thought process works. There were so many times I would see a line on screen, think something to myself (usually a bit snarky) and the very next line would be Avery having a similar reaction! Heck, I've seen some of the Dodger and Octopimp Let's Play of the game and it's the same there, they'll comment to each other after certain lines and once again their comments match up pretty well with what one character, usually Avery, says next. So while this will probably be a turn off for some folks, for me it just sounded like really natural dialogue for a group of close knit, 19-20s kids and helped make the story for me. Plus the humor clicked for me, I'm not sure this was supposed to be funny but when I started listing off the ways you take down the villain in each route (there is also a villain to the story!) I started cracking up since they are a bit silly, although I'd disagree with Avery that the one involving dubstep was the silliest.

I've seen a few folks say oh maybe they won't play it since they don't have much time but I think this is actually a good game even if you don't have much time since a lot of routes retread the same ground. Retread isn't quite the right word, since you are making different choices each time, and while the game's fast-forward function for portions you've already seen is great I do think that taking a bit of time in-between routes will probably help you appreciate the game the most. My rough guess is that each route takes about 4 hours if you don't fast-foward through any bits and more like 1.5-2 if you speed through everything but the new stuff (so like, me on the fifth or sixth play-throughs). None of the routes were bad but I had favorites of course, Finley and then to a lesser extent Mason and Hayes. My personal suggested order is Mason->Hayes->Landry->Finely->Reese (and you have to end with Graves since his route won't unlock until the others are completed),  my reasoning why in the spoilerly footnote* but I’m gonna talk about the routes in the order that I played them.

Finley: Honestly she’s still my favorite, she’s the most upbeat of the bunch and just clicked personally with me the best. I think she’s also probably the one people are most likely to get in their first run-through because she is so friendly, if you’re wondering “is she flirting with me or being nice?” the answer is both but more of the flirting honestly. I'm still a little puzzled by her magic, I think I get it but it's more vague than anyone else's, but Finley's magic isn't the main focus of her route. I liked the themes of supporting your friends but you can't just fight their battles for them, it's rude and not what they want. That was something that continued through all of the other routes, every time it's Avery helping other people do something themselves, not doing it for them.

Landry: None of the character routes are the bad endings (although there are two in the game) but this ending almost felt like one (it’s related to how Landry's magic is a bit different from the rest of the cast’s). I ended up liking Landry a bit less in general to start with so someone has to be my least favorite so it’s going to be him. He's probably the closest to being a typical, otome-type character with his ~dark secret~ (it's pretty mild honestly) and his character doesn't open up as much so of course I wasn't going to connect as much. I feel like I've seen few people say he is their favorite so I think that a lot of people had the same feelings as I did.

Reese: While Reese ends up having the coolest magic (and my favorite take-down of the villain in the end) I didn’t like Reese too much either! I think here the problem was that there was too much stuffed into one route, Reese has a few things going on, more than the other characters, and I just didn’t feel like there was enough time to really solve them, or start to solve them in a  satisfactory manner, so it made his route feel a bit rushed. Not terrible but made me wish that there was a little more flexibility to the structure of the story, although I did like how all of the flags for Reese were triggered when Avery teases and goes against him instead of acquiescing. That choice made sense to me right from his character introduction and I was happy to see that my instincts were right.

This was also the point where I realized I had been playing the routes in order that the characters are introduced in the opening video and felt bad for falling for subconscious suggestions like that

Mason: I feel like Mason had the most traditional story in some ways because magic came into play less in her story than the others. It was certainly still there and this also isn’t a bad thing! She’s not quite my type but I still liked her route, especially since Avery is at their dorkiest in this route. Avery’s personality changes a bit in each route (which makes sense since they are attracted to a different person with different traits each time) but I felt like this one just highlighted how very young our 19 year old, sudden apprentice witch really is. And if Landry's route is "the most otome" then this one felt the most shojo with Mason's family situation and resolution, not that I object to this!

Hayes: By the time I got to Hayes’ route I was rushing towards the finish so I’m afraid I skimmed through his a bit more than I would have otherwise. If I had been trying for Hayes on my first try (without a guide) I would have completely messed up, I would have totally misread his signals so this is one of the cases where having multiple routes (ie, multiple play throughs) is a real help. And Hayes’ route was a rather satisfying one, having him open up to you feels really good and his “is shy, but fairly direct once you ask the right questions” self felt really realistic to me, I have known so many people with shades of this personality. Plus Hayes is quite possibly the cutest cat in the game, and has the best CG, so that counts for something!

Graves: So, I really don’t like age-gap romances and there’s a 20 year one here. Hoo boy, this is the one route where I really wish it was possible to connect with the characters but in a platonic sense which it’s sad since, as the secret route, this is in some ways the most important one! Honestly by the time you get to this route you’ll have figured out just about everything involving the backstory, what’s really going on with magic and witches etc, although it’s nice to have it all confirmed in one place. And I did admittedly like that as long as you hit all the checkpoints, you end up with Graves no matter what so heck yeah I can finally flirt with everyone simultaneously to my heart’s content, I was getting really sad having to turn most people down to stay on target on the other routes! On the flipside, I felt like Avery didn't connect with their coworkers as much since they spent so much more time away from them with Graves, it's certainly a trade off there and another reason why I just didn't like this route as much.

In the end I do wish that there was a little more flexibility with the routes. In each route but Graves, only you and whoever you’re flirting with learn magic/deal with their problems and some of the characters have pretty major problems! It left me worrying about how the other characters were dealing with them, Landry and Reese in particular have some problems that really need outside intervention or they’ll get way worse later. I'm used to games having a route where you can "save" everyone but you don't in this game (well, I mean your triumph over the villain is more final in some routes than others, and the villain is more life-threatening honestly, but that's still not what I meant by save). 

Even with that however, I enjoyed the heck out of this game and would totally recommend it to anyone who likes romantic visual novels. I'm totally going to play Date Nighto's other game, We Know the Devil, when I get a chance and hopefully even more VNs as well! And for folks still on the fence, you can download a demo of the game (I believe on steam) and at the very least hear how cute the soundtrack is too. And for any folks out there like me who like having a route guide handy ("ugh I didn't mean to start the same route twice!") here's a little guide to choices from the writer of the game (who also has been answering all sorts of other tidbits on their tumblr) and here's another guide that I thought was laid out a little more intuitively and alerts you to one of the bad ends.  

*so a lot of this has to do with the little details that vary from route to route, or rather what clues you get to why everything is going on. Mason’s route is pretty unconnected from everyone else’s so why not do her first, same for Hayes but there are two important lines at the end, namely that there are four apprentice witches and a short line about double curses. Avery and Hayes are obviously two of the apprentices, Reese outright says yeah he knows magic as well, but blink or you miss Landry admitting he knows about magic (or rather, knew about it before the cafe) and since he’s double cursed (come to think of it, that might apply to Graves too) his route next! Plus there’s a police officer introduced in Landry's route who shows up again in Finely and Reese’s route so Finely’s next and then Reese’s last since you get the most answers about magic in Reese’s route than anyone else. Honestly by the time you get to Graves’ route there really isn’t a lot left to explain, you can figure out how the curse works by the end of your first route (no matter which one is was) so in some ways it’s more of a formality, admitting that yes, here’s how this works and this is why it’s cats instead of anything else (although guessing that shouldn’t be too hard either).