After watching the trailer for Calico, I was all but certain that this game was made specifically for me – anyone who’s spoken to me for more than five minutes will agree. With cats, magic and a coffee shop to run, I couldn’t have been more excited to play a game if I tried.
The first thing you need to do with Calico is throw out everything you think you know about video game control layouts. With no way to change the pre-set controls, and no diagram or tutorial, you’re left to muddle through a very bizarre set of controls. ‘B’ is now ‘A’ – possibly thanks to the Nintendo Switch’s singular layout – your D-pad is irrelevant, and every control you can think of seems to be assigned a button at random. Once you figure it all out, it’s way more fun to play, but then the sheer amount of the screen freezing makes me think the game wasn’t quite ready to be released. At a few points, I noticed the background music skipping, which I personally haven’t heard happen since the last time I used a CD player.
Despite the glitching, the graphics feel charmingly retro, relying on 2D design and vibrant landscapes. Each area of the island has a distinct colour palette, from the cotton candy pink town, to the icy blue mountains, and the ever-autumnal orange forest. You feel truly transported to this colourful world. My only issue with the landscape is that it feels too large, with wide expanse of nothingness throughout the game. The map could’ve shrunk a little and still made sense, or simply including more NPCs to balance out the amount of unused space.
The character customisation is incredibly varied, offering a full spectrum of skin tones, hairstyles for a variety of hair textures and even hair coverings such as hijabs. I was already enthralled with the representation in Calico by this point, but I later found a list of NPCs, all with their preferred pronouns listed, and used in game by other NPCs. Inclusivity is becoming more common in gaming these days, but seeing Calico represent so many identities really made me appreciate and enjoy this game all the more.
Upon entering the game, you arrive at your new cat café, which used to be run by your aunt. The townsfolk reminisce, and request certain menu items they love, as well as your help with errands, and even helping to access new parts of the island, which had been blocked by avalanches, giant sleeping cats, and construction cats that just want bagels.
As you progress, you find a wonderful range of animals to interact with, invite to live in your café, or have follow you around. You can befriend every animal you see. Want to walk around with a cat on you head? Carry a polar bear? Ride a giant dog? Have a crow follow you around all day? You can absolutely do all of that, and more. This whimsical touch takes an already fairly magical game to a whole new level, turning any animals lovers’ dreams into video game reality.
During all this running around, and helping your neighbours, you mustn’t forget that you have a café to run! You can go into your kitchen and make a range of recipes, which you can buy or collect through helping others. The cooking minigame is peculiar, even by Calico’s standards. Once you choose your recipe, you shrink down in size and have to lift the ingredients, which are now much bigger than you, and throw them into the mixing bowl (egg shell and all). it then magics itself into the complete product, which you can then throw onto the serving tray. Unfortunately, your many animals are allowed in your kitchen, and will scatter ingredients, lay in the butter, or just entirely block the camera so you can’t see what you’re grabbing, making it seem like it wasn’t quite thought through.
The soundtrack tied all of these elements together beautifully, adding a modern cottagecore feeling to the retro design. Each area of the island had its own musical theme, further identifying each area of the island. The combination of inclusivity and the cottagecore music created a community atmosphere that is present throughout the game, with everyone in the island working together to help reconnect everyone.