Back in November, I spotlighted a little up and coming dating sim called Hustle Cat. Back then, the folks at Date Nighto had just met their Kickstarter goal for initial development and were on their way to distributing this fine feline troupe of characters to the masses. Falling upon some unexpected generosity, I recently had the chance to play the finished product. If I thought it looked cute before, holy shit, that was nothing compared to what I experienced. Which is to say, Date Nighto really hit it out of the park.
Mild spoilers behind the cut.
For those who need a refresher on the plot, meet Avery: sassy player insert extraordinaire. When they’re not lounging on the couch and sleeping in, they’re ordering from their favorite pizza place, hoping someone picks up their application on Greg’s List. Getting out of their aunt’s apartment—where they’re staying while she’s away—they stumble upon an out-of-the-way cafe named “A Cat’s Paw”. Though they’re not a fan of coffee, they are a fan of potentially getting a job, and the “Now Hiring” sign in the window is just enough to pull them in. It’s not long before they meet the cafe’s owner—the delightfully eccentric goth Graves—and even less time until Avery is hired. Having signed their employment papers, Avery heads home feeling accomplished, but can’t shake the feeling that something is following them. (Luckily, it’s just a cat. Or is it?)
As their first couple of days pass by, they discover that something is off about their co-workers and the cafe. Suspicious as they may be, Avery could have never guessed the truth: their co-workers are cursed to turn into cats outside of A Cat’s Paw, and Avery is now cursed as well. Although the manager, Reese, explains that all of this was explained in the papers Avery signed, Avery is furious, not wanting to be cursed. Though eventually their co-workers talk them down, upon an uneventful trip to the cafe’s basement they find a strange book, written in runes that has all of their names in it. They can’t read the text at first, but after another meeting (or ambush) with the previously mentioned stalker cat, they’re given a tool that makes reading the runes possible. And with that, Avery becomes a trash witch—in both the materials they use and their skill level. From there, Avery and their crush du jour work together to find a way to break the cat curse for everyone, in addition to maybe figuring out what the heck is going on with Graves and the strange man that seems to be looking for him.
While Hustle Cat is a great dating sim based on typical dating sim merits, I think what really set it apart from others in the genre for me was how much it shifted the focus from romance to family and friendship. Avery is in the city with only their cat as their companion, yet it barely takes any time at all for the people at A Cat’s Paw to become their second family. It’s only on the first day of work that the chef Mason declares that Avery is no longer allowed to eat breakfast alone on their own, basically inviting Avery to eat with all the co-workers every morning. It’s the co-workers who can talk Avery down when they’re fuming with anger and about to quit their job. And no matter who you end up dating, the other people are always there supporting you, helping you, and yes, teasing you about what a blushy, obvious nerd you are. While suffering the same curse as six or so other people would draw you together in some sense, all the employees at A Cat’s Paw genuinely like each other. It’s a safe environment.
Speaking of which, I love how supportive and kind all the routes are. There’s no surprise “actually they’re a total asshole, but for some reason you love it” route, and a lot of the routes have to do with compromise. Avery doesn’t exactly think before they act about 97% of the time, which puts them in strange situations, but Avery is also shown to be compassionate and caring to everyone, not just their crush. In each route, Avery and their crush grow as a person, learning something different each time. This also means that people aren’t belittled for their feelings. This especially becomes important in the routes for the male characters. While they all deal with different emotional problems—Reese is insecure and easy to make jealous, Landry has a temper and tries to keep everything bottled up, and Hayes has extreme anxiety and worries that he’s going to be made fun of for his worries—they’re never told that they’re wrong for feeling that way. Hayes is never made fun of for his shyness; Reese’s insecurities don’t end up causing his own downfall and he’s allowed to feel jealous; Landry learns that he doesn’t need to keep everything to himself and that people will help him with his problems. In the media and especially in dating sims, it seems that we love to see men be emotionally vulnerable, but only in the way where it’s one emotional outburst before he’s fine forever because now he has love in his life. But obviously it’s not like that in the real world. Having a dating sim where people continue to express these emotions, but learn to do it in healthier ways while having a strong support group of friends, is so important.
I’m glad that the gender options for Avery were included (as well as the different skin tones). I was pleasantly surprised that not only were there three gender options, but that their gender doesn’t really come up at all. While I played as she/her pronouns Avery the entire time, I never read any dialogue that made me expressly think “ah yes, that’s right, I’m playing a girl”. Even the pet names some of the characters give you are ungendered. And additionally, you aren’t the only (potentially) non-straight character in the cast. It’s mentioned in one of the routes that Mason had a girlfriend previously, and one of the other male characters had an implied relationship with another guy. As far as a dating sim goes, this is probably the best I’ve seen in terms of diversity.
Honestly, I still don’t think I can pick a favorite route: all of them have something cute to offer, and even the character I didn’t really like I ended up liking before the end of their route. And if you’re like me and love to sin, the hidden Graves route is also excellent: it explains a lot more about what’s going on while also being entirely non-creepy in how the budding romance is explored. But, if you’re not into age-gap ships, it’s completely optional and only shows up after you do all the other routes, so you don’t need to worry about getting it accidentally. For $20, Hustle Cat is more than your money’s worth, so if possible, pick it up on Steam or on Date Nighto’s itch.io!