Cat Lady: chatting to the developers of a feline-themed twin-stick shooter

The name might throw you off a bit – while Cat Lady does indeed feature a lady who likes cats, it’s also not some cutesy romp through… whatever it is you might expect it to be a romp through. Unless you expected said romp to be of the cutesy variety and through a twin-stick shooter/rogue-lite, then you’d be bang on. You’d probably also be co-founder of Rose City Games and Cat Lady director, Will Lewis.

“Myself and our artist, Jake Fleming, started from the idea of cute-meets-spooky exploring a domestic household,” he explains. “We both grew up having close relationships with our respective grandmas, being at grandma’s house, being a little creeped out by old estates and antiques. We also have similar tastes in cute-meets-weird games. Starting out with some exploration mechanics, the concepted style and perspective led to something that felt more top-down combat in nature, and we went in that direction after leaning more into games that the team members are fans of.”

That direction took on a more rogue-lite form as progress was made, and with the genre comes the expectation – founded or unfounded – of the ‘git gud’ mentality. It might look adorable, but Cat Lady can challenge even the most hardcore of players – you know, the ones who actually refer to themselves as ‘hardcore’. All the same, difficulty has been considered from day one, and the team is making a big effort to make sure there’s something for all comers, even if your hand-eye coordination is on a par with an actual cat.

The cats are used as magical weapons, fitting given they are some of nature’s most brutal killers.

“We want to reward players with more challenging situations, no matter their skill level,” Lewis says. “In our testing, entry areas are a great place to explore and learn the ropes, but can also feel really rewarding to blast right through if you’re a skilled rogue-lite player. As the game continues on, we want to really ramp up that challenge to make sure fans of the genre are challenged, while players who are new to the genre can have access to lots of upgrades that enable them to choose how they progress and how they want to approach tougher situations.”

There have been other changes in development too, as you might expect, with earlier plans factoring in an increased sense of exploration, for example. But the vision was whittled down to a far purer, less broad form: the twin-stick shooter. A twin-stick shooter in which you take control of Ally and harness the magical powers of a selection of different kitties, in order to take down an army of ghosts which have invaded your grandma’s mansion, across a series of random levels made up of handcrafted individual pieces. Naturally. But even with that design choice, the cats weren’t always your firearms. “We originally wanted to consider using cats like Pikmin,” Lewis says, “Throwing them to manage enemies’ paths and work on destroying elements of the environment, but giving the player more agency and providing less stress towards managing your cats won out.” Cats as weapons, then.

Naturally, boss fights make an appearance, and are just as adorable as everything else in the game. Only more difficultly adorable.

A focus on testing has been a key aspect of Cat Lady’s development, with its recent move to Steam’s Early Access program another move in bringing the game to the community to help test it out along its development path. With balance so key to a game like this, it’s definitely a smart move to broaden the range of people who are actually playing it, even before Cat Lady is finished. “We kind of lucked out in that the Basement, the first area of Grandma’s mansion, tested well at a mid-level of difficulty for a vast majority of our early players,” Lewis explains. “So we’ve been able to tune up from there. But: throw in permanent upgrades that enhance the abilities of Ally and her cats, work up some starkly new enemy behaviours, and play a bit with player rewards, and things can change in an instant.”

A boon to Cat Lady is, of course, its bold and beautiful visual style from aforementioned artist Jake Fleming, a long-time friend of Lewis. “His style is something he’s been developing in stills and animation for a while now, and it worked out well to develop into the low-colour, hard-lined style that shines in what he’s doing in Cat Lady,” says Lewis. “He’s always been a fan of limited colour palettes since playing NES and Game Boy games growing up. The mixed ‘cute and weird’ aesthetics of games like Kirby, River City Ransom, Super Mario Bros. 3, and the possibly lesser-known game, Stinger, are all easy childhood references explaining his current work. Oh, and he loves cats.”

Visuals are minimalist, but bold at the same time.

Finally, and because we have to spoil the party every now and then, we have to ask: isn’t the term ‘cat lady’ a pejorative? To our delight, Lewis and the team have already considered the point and offer a robust rebuttal. “It can be,” he says. “But instead of harking back to the old trope of the ‘crazy cat lady’, we wanted to instead celebrate the updated mentality we see and hear today: cats are cute and cool, we can’t get enough of them, and we want everyone to know! We hope the cute designs and personalities of Grandma and Ally’s cats will shine and get everyone else feeling the same way too.”

Ohhhh, ‘Ally Cat’ – we just got that.

Genre: Twin-stick shooter / Rogue-lite
Format: PC
Developer: Rose City Games
Publisher: VIZ Media
Release: Out now (Early Access)

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