I have a lot of good memories growing up of time spent with My Little Ponies and Barbies and Strawberry Shortcake dolls. It wasn’t necessarily about the dolls, all soft plastic and strawberry scented in pastel and bold pinks and purples–it was more the feeling of some sort of flowery, glittery magic that colored the worlds I’d make for these toys in my head. It’s hard to really find that wonderland of rainbows and glitter and magic again anywhere, and when I do I tend to hang on to it. It’s one of the reasons I’ll spend long hours tending flowers or creating elaborate holiday displays on my island in Animal Crossing.
So from the first ten seconds of the trailer for Calico, which I first learned about during the PixelPop festival, when I saw people wiggling cats and riding giant pastel bunnies in a shiny, watercolor world I was there for it. There are very few games I’ve encountered that have that “marshmallow world” feel nailed as well as Calico does. Everything is cute and sugary and honestly, delightful. Until it isn’t.
While nailing that feeling is impressive in its own right, vibe and aesthetic alone do not make a game. If the mechanics behind the moving parts of the world aren’t working, it rains on the cotton candy world and dissolves a lot of the fun. I’ve seen a lot of gorgeous games this year that just fall apart when it comes to mechanics, turning something frothy and light into something frustrating and tedious–sometimes even unplayable. It’s a terrible feeling as a reviewer to be so excited for a game only to know, even if you enjoy it, that it’s a hot mess, and right now, that’s Calico. That’s not to say I didn’t have a good time with Calico–it’s just that that good time was far overshadowed by extremely awkward controls, bugs, and some unnecessarily mysterious aspects of its gameplay.
A game that’s meant to be beautiful and relaxing succeeds not because it’s light on gameplay or structure, but because the gameplay and structure are so finely tuned and intuitive that they melt into the background of the game’s world. Calico is gorgeous–all pastels and shine, with just about every scene one you could easily see be a print on the wall.
In Calico, you’re a newcomer to an island of magic and cats. You’re moving in to take over your aunt’s cat cafe after she retired, reopening it for the people of Heart Village and beyond to cuddle soft creatures and get a cappuccino and croissant at the same time. The world is a sort of impressionistic watercolor one, with hand drawn characters that reminded me of the sort of characters in the worlds of cartoons like Rainbow Brite, or even Strawberry Shortcake herself.
Your job is to befriend woodland (and mountain, and beach, and…you get the idea) creatures and house them at your cafe, and bake pretty cat-themed things to sell to all the villagers. You decorate the cafe yourself, you bake, and by way of having to get to know the villagers, become the town’s personal assistant, really. It’s a fluffy world but you have to make money to buy all those spooky skull floor mats, crop hoodies, and potions to turn you into an ice cream sundae or make your eyes glow, so capitalism is still king.
Unfortunately, both the core gameplay and the world’s systems prove extremely frustrating. You notice this first as you’re creating your character. Calico’s got a robust character creation menu with enough choices to keep you busy for at least a half an hour deciding if you want starshine or heartshine in your eyes, with plenty of hairstyle and color choices, and body and face sliders to make your character truly unique. It’s fantastic to see so many options. But, both on keyboard or using a controller, even character creation tools are a mess. Some of the navigation is explained, but other things, like going back a menu or saving color changes, aren’t explained at all, leading you to have to pick things over and over before realizing that you have to hit something additional to save your color choice. Even if your choices are all locked in, though, sometimes the game simply won’t save them, despite you following all on screen prompts.
Though Calico has a relaxed format, it’s still got a few main systems anyone who’s familiar with games like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing will recognize. You are running a cat cafe, after all, and you’ve got to not only populate that cafe with cats, but decorate and sell the coffee and treats that’ll draw in customers.
Here again there’s great potential complicated by mostly terrible controls. Perhaps the most solid system in the game is with the animals. Every animal you encounter, be it pig, goat, bear, cat or ferret, can be your friend. Instantly, without any need to cajole or charm them. Sure, you can wave a cat toy in their faces and wait for them to roll around jubilantly, then pet them and listen to them purr or chitter, but all you really need to do is pick them up and give them a command. Simply lift the polar bear over your head, maybe give him a good wiggle (a silly but fun option) and then tell it “Follow me!” “Go to the cafe!” or “Be Free!”
Animals in the world are unique and fun, with default names like Horsie! Or Tiger that you can rename. If your rename features a Q or E and you’re using a keyboard to input the name though, you’ll need to type quickly because as soon as you hit the E in Sparkle, you’ll flip to another page and be left with the alternate spelling Sparkl.
This is the way of Calico–to understand what you’re supposed to be doing, even constantly seeing the controls on the screen (unless you hide them with h, an option you only see you have if you’re playing with a keyboard, which to date the developers don’t recommend), and then to not be able to do it for some reason.
Perhaps the best example of this comes with the crafting system. In Calico, your cat cafe cranks out everything from flan to macarons and you have to bake them fresh daily. For a whimsical twist on the standard crafting system, in Calico when you bake, you become a tiny version of yourself carrying giant ingredients around and tossing them in a bowl to magically combine. But if you’re making a sandwich and you accidentally chuck in tea, for example, even when you remove the tea, you can’t complete the sandwich, even with all the right ingredients. In theory, tossing shimmering baking ingredients at a big bowl with the now giant face of Pudgems looking on should be fun, and it is fun to toss an iridescent stick of butter around and watch it slide across the counter, just putting things down and throwing them is so fiddly that the game becomes more a chore.
Directions for the Calico’s final main system suffer the same fate–little explanation and bad implementation. Where controlling motion is concerned, it’s the same thing. When you, for example, adopt a cat that looks just like yours in real life and then use a potion to make it bigger and therefore rideable, you have dreams of frolicking in Calico’s gorgeous meadows.
Unfortunately (and I’m going to use that word a lot with Calico) sometimes simple things like leaping become complicated, as sometimes they’re not possible at all, or suffer from an extreme amount of input lag. I used both keyboard and a controller during my playthroughs and found them both equally encumbered as far as bulky menus that were poorly explained.
You’ll find out a lot about Calico’s world through a great series of characters and quests that have you gradually opening up new areas to travel to, from Cutie City where business cats reign supreme to the mountains or the beach. You’re on a time clock as with many games in this genre, and though it doesn’t majorly impact the outcome of your playthrough, days are a little bit short, given everything you’ll need to do to both make money and advance the story.
Characters are lovely, with well thought out dialogues and relationships and all manner of sweetness and sunshine. One of my favorite characters actually called me sunshine, in fact, and it was a delight, rather than an annoyance. Calico spares no expense on charm, and quests in the village will have you celebrating anniversaries and helping the shopkeeper’s new employee find their way as a person, magician and worker. You’ll encounter giant cat butts and cats being assholes, and repair relations between lovers and friends, making each quest a chance for a new encounter rather than a task to be checked off. I enjoyed my time visiting the characters every day.
When everything was working, it could be a delight to play Calico. Romping through beautiful scenery to a light and airy background soundtrack, I’d stop my glittery and flower crowned kitty steed to admire the trail of raccoons, cats, bears and horsies I’d selected to take on that day’s adventures and just breathe it all in. Money was rolling in from that day’s crop of cat shaped cupcakes, sandwiches and flan and my investments were bearing fruit, and I was on the hunt for a gift for someone’s birthday. Tomorrow, after I figured out how to finally appease the villager’s interior decorating tastes so they’d come to my cafe, I’d turn myself into a kitty with the potion I’d finally saved up enough money for.
So I did. It…didn’t go as planned, and I became a body horror kitty bottomed thing. And even then, I thought, ‘you know what? I’ll just turn myself into an ice cream sundae and maybe that’ll fix it.” and I pressed on. Such is the charm of Calico–you don’t want anything to mess up your beautiful day. Shortly after this happened, my first save was lost entirely, and the big glittery world I’d already spent enough time to get enamored with despite the controls and glitches gone in that same instant. I’ll be honest, it stung. Not because of the “work” I’d put in figuring out what to actually do despite ample tutorials, and not because of the way I’d finally found the sweet spot for the baking game after a ton of trial and error–but because I enjoyed being in the world, and it had made me feel joyful and free.
Do I like the world enough to deal with bad controls, bugs and quests that can just get stuck or go back a step? Yes, I do. But would I recommend it to someone else to play? Probably not. While developers have been addressing and fixing bugs and glitches even as this review was in progress, the core systems, menus and controls that make up the gameplay of Calico don’t feel ready enough without a massive revamp, and it’s a damn shame. Calico’s world was inviting, warm and beautiful and a place I’d love to return to, but the overall experience left me frustrated and disappointed. That said, if you’re enough of a fan of worlds with endless friendly animals to befriend, cute cat shaped things and owl magic, you may still find yourself having a good time despite the problems, like I did. Since the developers have been so attentive, with a little time and TLC we think Calico could become something truly fantastic.
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