There are definitely common themes in video games that make me feel like I’m in for a really good time. I’m a huge fan of relaxing life simulator games. I love titles where I run my own business and customize my own area. And if you want to throw all of that at me and also tell me it’s a cute and magical world filled with cats, I’m all in favor of that. On paper, nearly everything about Calico from Peachy Keen Games seems to appeal to my sensibilities, but does it manage to hold up in the long run?
In Calico, you inherit a cat café from your aunt, who has decided to retire and travel the world to see cats on other islands around the world. Unfortunately, she took all of the furniture with her, so it’s up to you to redecorate the café, find new animals to fill it with, and turn it into a thriving business. I really liked this premise. I definitely got Harvest Moon vibes, except you’re inheriting a café instead of a farm, and that’s a positive start. One thing that’s quickly established is that you’re not on just any old island, but a magic island, and the magic is used to explain how basically anything and everything works out for you. Like how you’ll never need to buy ingredients for your recipes because magic keeps your kitchen fully stocked.
Calico aims for a very casual approach, but from the start the stakes feel very low. Money is used to buy new recipes, furniture pieces or clothes, but anything beyond that feels a bit simplistic. Even Animal Crossing had a debt for you to pay off, as lax as that was. But the café is definitely one of the most defining parts of the game, and has a lot of nice elements to it. You’re free to customize both the dining area, as well as your upstairs apartment with a variety of different pieces of furniture. These items can fall under different categories like cute or spooky, and these will appeal to different types of clientele. The café is whatever you make of it. If you want it to be cute and pink and filled with kitties, do it. If you'd rather a more gothic aesthetic where ravens perch on the tables and the coffee is served as black as your soul, you can do that too.
The cooking itself is one of my favorite parts of the game. Instead of just putting all the ingredients in a bowl and having the recipe make itself, Calico has a pretty unique mini-game where your character shrinks down and actually runs across the countertops to pick up ingredients and throw them into the bowl. Though I did have a few issues with the physics during these games, as your character is so very strong I frequently threw the ingredient well over the bowl and had it land somewhere I couldn’t get to, forcing me to start from scratch.
And lastly you need to have cats for your cat café, right? Well throughout the island, you’ll find a wide variety of animals, not just cats, and you can pick them up and send them to your café where they’ll just live and hang out. There are cats, dogs, ravens, red pandas, polar bears and many more for you to discover as you explore the island. There are also a variety of toys you can get and equip to play with the animals that just serves as good old fashioned relaxing fun. There is something special and adorable about watching a raven happily roll around on the floor to play with a piece of string.
The island itself is rather interesting and divided up into several sections, most of which are blocked off at the start of the game. The island scenery is lush and colorful, and there are tons of little design touches that added to the atmosphere and made me smile, like clouds in the shape of cats. Overall, this makes it one of my favorite aspects of Calico. The townsfolk are all interesting enough, most of which serving some sort of useful purpose like Estelle, who runs the furniture shop. Unfortunately, the size of the island acts as a bit of a double edged sword because there just isn’t much to do on it. You’re free to run around and find animals for your café, or just to follow you around and there is some cool stuff to just discover like an enormous cat sleeping inside of a log. But there just isn’t really anything to do besides running back and forth, which you’ll be doing a lot of when performing various delivery tasks and fetch quests for the islanders. There are even mounts you can unlock to get around faster and easier, but I think the entire island could have been shrunk down by about a third and nothing would have been lost. It’s also pretty easy to get turned around, considering there is no mini-map, which became less of a bother as you start to get your bearings, but would have been appreciated nonetheless.
The issues I had in Calico started as just little things here and there, but the small issues quickly begin to add up. I didn’t mind going to the clothing shop and seeing what was clearly a sailor hat labeled as bunny ears. I was eventually able to get used to your character’s relatively ugly running animation where they hobble around like a toddler. The number one issue I have with Calico however is the camera. This is one of the worst cameras I’ve ever seen. It constantly tries to wrestle control away from the player and tries to line itself up as if it were a 2D platformer, but a camera aimed at the character’s side does not look, feel or work well in a 3D environment. I pretty much always had to hold the right analog stick to try and keep the camera in place, and on more than one occasion the camera's non-stop movement as I tried to fight it made a bit nauseated and I had to set the game down for a few minutes to get my bearings.
Calico does manage to do quite a few things right, and there is a lot of potential in this title. The visuals and the world are charming. I like the customization options. It’s cute being able to recruit and play with various animals throughout the island. The residents of the island are all fine enough. But at the stage the title is currently in, it needs a lot of works in its controls and physics. If you’re really aching for a new title in this genre, it might be worth a look, but I’d wait for a few more updates before getting too invested in it.
John reviewed Calico on Steam with a copy provided by the developer. The game is also available of Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Mac.