I first saw Calico during Nintendo’s Indie World Showcase this month. It immediately caught my attention because, in my heart of hearts, I wish that I was a magical teenage somebody living the cottage-core life of my dreams and riding big honkin’ cats. Thanks to the tiny team at Whitethorn Digital (self-described “defenders of easy games”), I, too, can explore a beautiful world and pet some good animals.
Full disclosure: this is a review of the launch version (1.0.1), available as of December 24th. Several pretty big bugs plague the title at this time, which according to the upcoming patch notes, should be addressed as soon as it clears console approval (it’s already patched on PC). Keep that in mind as I discuss my experience with the game.
STORY – FELINE FABLES
This is a character-driven adventure title, dropping players right into a village filled with interesting townsfolk and many, many animals. Your character is now the proprietor of a once-shuttered cat cafe, and everybody is excited to have a new point of interest. Getting to know the villagers is the point of the game and how you advance the plot.
Everybody needs something, from small favors like “can you start carrying roll cakes?” to “Could you ask my friend why she doesn’t talk to me anymore?” The errands you run are how the personalities and backgrounds of each person unfold. The writing was fantastic. I really wish that I could take screenshots or video (that feature is waiting to be patched) because it’s so dang funny.
There’s a secret group that loves owls. There are tiny cats in construction hats! A dad who wants to be rad again, so he requests that you place rad furniture in your cafe so he can see what it’s like. I adored the characters I met and wanted to help them because they felt real. Nobody tries too hard to be cute, and their personalities fit the world really well.
A big thing that I really enjoyed was that, from what I’ve been able to find, there aren’t any pronouns in regards to the player character. You can customize to a surprising degree, as much of the body that would typically adhere to gender is based on sliders. In a weird sense, it means that an adorable game about cats has a “boob slider“, something normally used in games to purport a misogynistic viewpoint. Here though, it’s not used to encourage a sexualized appearance but simply to allow players to design their character as they see fit. Think more Dream Daddy than The Sims mods.
GAMEPLAY – PAW-DONE THE MESS
The overall feeling of Calico is… loose. Things just aren’t set in stone. There are tons of different animals to befriend and play with, and you can even ride the larger ones for faster travel. But objects and characters definitely have some muddy geometry. I was able to ride a capybara up a mountain like it was a horse in Skyrim, which is funny in theory! But capybara’s can’t be ridden up mountains, and questlines aren’t supposed to lock up your save file.
I really liked the courier quests more than the cafe design ones, but that might be due to still being heavily into Animal Crossing. I’ve been scratching that design itch in a form that’s better-polished, so changing my cafe’s layout isn’t hooking me here. It is pretty great to drop bean bags and scratch towers all over, though.
What did feel fun each time was the cooking mini-game, which shrinks you down and makes you throw the ingredients into the mixing bowl to magically make all sorts of delicious looking treats. Donuts, bagels, cream puffs, coffee, it’s all adorable, and finding new recipes just means that I get to make more cute stuff.
The biggest thing to collect, though, is the good animals that wander the area. Right now, my cafe is home to a giant red panda, a family of polar bears, a literal murder of crows, and many, many cats. Some of these I bring with me on my journey, like a giant furry entourage, while others I’ve designated to the shop full-time, allowing them to mark their territory and enjoy the rug shaped like an egg.
General movement is fine but really needs a bit more polish, especially as the run animation makes my character look like they have to pee. On top of that, some side quests are broken to the point where I can’t complete them because the local onsen owner won’t acknowledge that I’ve delivered all of her capybaras (those dang capybaras).
Many of this will be addressed in the upcoming update, which the team acknowledged on Twitter is coming but delayed due to the holidays. But as of yet, this makes for just an okay experience rather than a fantastic year-end experience.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – PURR-FECTION
I think that if I were ever a teenager again, I’d lead really hard into the cottage-core aesthetic that dominates current trends. I’d cut my own hair, break bread with friends more often, and surround myself with fur and plant babies. In my head, it all looks exactly like Calico.
From the perfectly crafted kitty butts to the vibrant flora that dominates the landscape, it’s all a tiny dream that would live in the perfect notebook of a budding artist. I wish I could live here. Combine that with the stunning soundtrack courtesy of Slide20XX, and this is a place that I’m going to spend more time in.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any graphical bugs, because there are plenty of those. Characters will disappear, the dialogue will end abruptly, I’ll get stuck in a wall, there’s a bunch of that. The most prevalent one I encounter is when I try to mount an animal, and the option just isn’t there. It’s frustrating, it’s concerning, but if I pull from my impressions of the current game, there’s enough to sell me on it after the bugs get fixed.
Really, truly, if this game is for fans of good furry babies, it sells you on that fact early on. All you have to do is walk around a mountain and come face-to-butt with the backend of a gigantic cat. The behemoth has gotten itself stuck in a log, and before you is an enchanting scene of a massive cat butt struggling to shake its way to freedom. I’m not sure that there’s anything more beautiful than that.
Calico was reviewed for Nintendo Switch. A key was provided by The Indie Bros.