Review: Cat Cafe Manager

13 Apr 2022

It takes very little effort – bordering on no effort – to get me interested in the prospect of a cat cafe.

My two cats are two of the most important living things on the planet to me, and I love cats in general. They’re stupid furry pillows full of knives who vibrate and make noises, how could you not love cats? I also enjoy good food and being able to just sit around luxuriating with food and some kitties. A cat cafe is an easy sell for me, top to bottom.

So I was extremely excited to take a spin in Cat Cafe Manager, because it offers a sim for something that I think is pretty awesome to begin with. Unfortunately, I found myself growing increasingly less charmed with the idea the more I tried it out. Far from impressing me with its feline charms, it wound up having some issues that dragged down the experience pretty completely. Which is a real shame when it feels like so much of it has solid ideas running through it.

Cat Cafe Manager releases on PC and Nintendo Switch on April 14th. The PC version was player for this review.

The Tail of Management

First and foremost, it’s important to note that as with many games of its type, Cat Cafe Manager is not a title primarily concerned with story. If you’re looking for an epic yarn, you are going to be disappointed. What’s happening is in fact quite simple and straightforward. You’re inheriting your grandmother’s old cat cafe in the town of Caterwaul Way, and… that’s it. You’re going to have to do everything you can to run a business while keeping in mind that this small town is facing pressure to modernize and be bought out by corporate investors, and…

Oh, you already knew that? Oh, that was the plot of Stardew Valley? Well, shoot.

While there is some degree of story playing out here as you restore the local shrine to cats and get to know the regulars, it’s very much the sort of story that has little to nothing to do with you. You have a few regulars who come by and have their own stories, for example, but their stories don’t really intersect with you in any way beyond “you choose dialogue options and then they talk at you for a few moments.” Heck, the regulars in question don’t have much in the way of multi-note personalities. Carla-Lalla is basically just a sweet slightly clumsy woman, Finley is an artist with imposter syndrome, Mateo is your archetypical Business Man Doing Business Things, and so forth.

That’s not to say that any of them are odious or unlikable; I’m particularly fond of grizzled old fisherman Bonner, who knew your grandmother and has a lot of sweet stories about his life with his husband. But I just didn’t care much about any of them, and it never felt like getting these people to like me was something that required effort on my part beyond just calling them over a bunch. It very much feels like a story you observe rather than one you interact with.

Press Paws on Ambition

All right, so none of that is actually a major problem with the game. Seriously, this is a game about building and managing a cat cafe. You don’t need the story to be good or even acceptable, you need the actual management of cats and cafe to be fun. And… it’s not terrible, but it also has some really big weak points along the way.

Let’s start with the basics, and right away this reveals one of the main problems. Your primary means of interacting with customers is simple. Customers have a little bubble over their head indicating what they want. You walk over to the customer and click on them, holding down the button until it fills in completely. Then you run to the kitchen and click on part of your kitchen to fill that bubble. Then you run back to the customer to click on them again to serve them. Sometimes they just want conversation, in which case you don’t have to run back to the kitchen.

That’s it.

Notice how there’s little to no cat interaction in there? Yeah, so did I. The cats are basically just milling around in the background, more like decoration than anything else. You provide them with enough stuff to keep them happy – enough food, toys, litter, and scratching posts – and otherwise you really don’t interact with the cats at all outside of training, which is just clicking points and assigning stats.

Every cat and every employee at the cafe (including the player character) has stats. For employees, those stats include cooking, cleaning, chatting with customers, repairing broken stuff, and taking care of cat-related tasks like filling food bowls. For cats, each one has stats relating to how comfortable and suitable they are for each of the game’s six customer types.

Yes, aside from your regulars (who represent five of the six groups), all of your customers are generic people belonging to one of six groups. Vagabonds pay in fabric (used for buying some furniture), Witches pay in nectar (used for buying recipes and ingredients), Artists pay in gems (used for buying more functional furniture), Fishermen pay in fish (used for buying cat supplies), Businesspeople pay in gold (used for buying more advanced furniture and cat supplies along with fish or gems), and Punks pay in materials (used for building out new parts of your cafe).

In and of itself, this probably sounds like a decent enough setup. Since the customer payment methods are segmented into specialized currencies, you don’t have to worry about the most lucrative group in theory; you want them all to be satisfied, and they’re all useful and valuable in their own ways. It only sounds like it would be a problem if, say, the currencies are wildly lopsided in acquisition rate and need. Which, unfortunately, is exactly what happens and where the game balance starts to drag down rather significantly.

See, cooking requires ingredients, and those ingredients run out pretty fast. Nectar is intensely necessary if you want to offer things other than glasses of water to your customers. Nectar is also spent on buying new recipes, and if you keep raising your reputation with your regulars, your customers are going to come in and start asking for new things… even if those recipes aren’t on your menu.

Personally, that seems like a bit of an immersion-breaker to start with, I don’t walk into a restaurant and order a taco if the menu doesn’t offer tacos, but that’s just me.

Anyhow, because of nectar’s outsized importance, you need a lot more of it than you need just about anything else. You can tailor your advertising so you just get witches in your store, but that causes you to go through ingredients for things witches will order pretty quickly, necessitating more nectar, and getting you locked into a cycle of hurting where you need this one thing. It gets worse because almost everything you’ll want to buy for other currencies also requires copious amounts of gold, and the general lopsided nature of the economy meant I found myself starved for nectar and forever worried about running out of vital ingredients while I had more fabric and gems than I knew what to do with.

It’s not truly dire or anything. It’s fun enough, and you can get some fun out of the game and training your cats. But it doesn’t feel particularly balanced a lot of the time, and that’s a recipe for frustration as you’re pushed into certain corners by game design. I didn’t find myself getting stuck, just frustrated. And that’s never a good sign; instead of the addictive “I can’t wait until I unlock X” element, I was mostly just wishing the game would give me enough nectar to just play normally.

A Coat of Paint

The animation in this game is absolutely gorgeous. Every sprite animates very fluidly and cleanly, with lots of cute and unique cats to adopt along the way, and everyone has a wide variety of different animations for walking, sitting, petting cats, performing tasks, and so forth. The sheer lushness of the game’s graphical presentation is a thing of beauty.

It is a little more difficult than it should be to manage things in design mode, unfortunately, but that’s partially a symptom of the game trying to keep its controls down to basically the mouse and two buttons on PC. The interface also has some pretty strict character limits for cat names; I was unable to name my first cat Princess von Fluffington the Fourth, and my second cat Garbage Man (my natural inclination was to name him Garbage Man of the Trash Cat Coalition, of course) just had his name display as “Garbage” in most of the menus.

This limitation is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that you can also rename your employees after you hire them, so I decided to have my player character be terrible at remembering everyone who worked for her. My cat cafe was staffed by our expert team of What’s-her-name, Some Z Thing, ??????, and Craig-or-Chad. (I am pretty sure it was neither Craig nor Chad originally.)

Music is sedate and kind of repetitious, there are only a handful of tracks and they play constantly. It feels like letting you choose music would have been nice, but in many ways the game already feels like a stripped-down experience, like the developers were trying for what is functionally an ultralight glider. So let’s not split hairs.

Whiskers in the Dark

At the end of the day, Cat Cafe Manager is not a disaster. It’s not the sort of game that I point to as an example of how to do everything wrong, nor a game that was just so grotesquely unpleasant that it left me feeling icky. (And I’ve played games like that before.) It has things that it wants to do, a set of goals it wants to hit, and it mostly hits them with only a few missteps.

The problem is that not only are those few missteps there, the goals it’s aiming for are already far lesser than I would expect from the game as a whole. It promises something that is nice, fun, comfy, and cozy. While the game is certainly light and avoids getting bogged down in unnecessary detail, it also fails to really capitalize on its ideas and winds up being a bit unbalanced, a bit undercooked, and a lot underserved compared to a lot of other entries in the field.

If you’re really into management sims, you’re going to get something out of the game. But otherwise, as much as I love the look and charm of the title and the concept, this is probably not going to find a forever home in your library.

~ Final Score: 6/10 ~

Review copy provided by Freedom Games for PC. All screenshots courtesy of Freedom Games.