When I heard that Combat Cats was a game about an island of catnip-crazy felines who pilot fighter jets to recover their stolen stash, I immediately downloaded it, no questions asked. The fact that its graphics looked like they’d been jacked straight from the original Duke Nukem was just icing on the, um, missile launcher. What could possibly go wrong?
As it turns out, the answer was “a number of things,” but I didn’t pick up on that until later. Initially, I just admired the blocky retro graphics, which are themselves catnip to gamers who remember the days when Doom ruled the FPS landscape and pixels were the size of our hands. Combat Cats keeps itself rooted in that grand tradition, mixing some modern 2D animation in the gameplay itself with throwback art in the map and store areas.
Which brings me to the actual game. You play as an ace feline fighter pilot charged with destroying the Aquarium Alliance, a bunch of fish (also with planes) who stole Kitty Island’s drugs. This aerial combat takes place in the form of a side-scrolling shooter where your attacks depend on how well you do in a tile-matching game below the action. Match four or more tiles to unleash flamethrowers, freeze rays, poison gas, or missiles at your enemies—or to make much-needed repairs to your plane on the go. Combos will make your attacks more powerful. Being slow to act will get you shot down in flames. (Cue AC/DC soundtrack.) Once you match a bunch of tiles on the board below, you’ll see some corresponding attack animation in the scrolling screen above. It’s a system that reminds me of Tiny Token Empires, only much more fast-paced and demanding.
those of us who are unbearably crappy at putting together combos in matching games, there is still hope: By earning coins and catnip in early levels, you can buy upgrades for your weaponry and repair kits. Thus, once you’re buff enough, you can simply bulldoze your way through tougher levels without the need of fancy combos (though when those do happen, they’re pretty sweet and give you thermonuclear capabilities). Unfortunately, this doesn’t make any difference once you’re up against the final boss, who looks like one of those armored worm things from The Avengers. Its regeneration and relentless, powerful attacks require you to chain together absurd combos if you ever want to unlock the coveted Survival Mode.
Peculiar learning curves notwithstanding, it’ll probably only take a few hours of dedicated playing time to reach the fifteenth and final stage. For a game that’s only a buck, that’s a pretty good amount of playing time, and survival mode will offer endless opportunities to unlock the silly alternate planes and pilots available to you, like a witch’s cat and broom (personally, I’m saving up for the alien kitten).
But for me, hitting that block gave me a moment to reflect on the problems at play in Combat Cats. First of all, combat is essentially random. Even if you do manage to string a 5x combo or two together, there’s no guarantee you’ll get the tiles you desperately need. More than thrice I’ve died for want of repair tiles. And as good as the in-game animation is, you’ll have almost no time to appreciate it while trying to think three moves ahead and place your tiles effectively. I spent all my time staring frantically at the blocky tiles, trying to create combos through force of will. As funny as the storyline is, it’s only brought up in the opening “cinematic” and the final level, and the soundtrack is the same half-minute of generic electronica looped over and over. (To be fair, the game stopped playing any music after a while even though I had the setting switched on. I didn’t complain.)
These are just some pretty basic problems I had with a game that’s fun for a while but which just couldn’t hold my interest for very long, even as a cat person. The system basically shoves two kinds of games together without trying to make them blend. This creates an enjoyable experience, but it’s wildly chaotic, and all the hip aestheticism in the world can’t make Combat Cats anything more than a mildly entertaining way to while away a few hours.