Before we go any further let me make this puurfectly clear. I am a cat person. Don’t get me wrong, dogs are fine… if you enjoy endless bouts of barking and chewed up articles of clothing. Cats are fascinating creatures, mysterious beings who live an independent life, whilst still craving love and affection. In Ancient Egypt they were worshipped as gods. The same can even be said for present time, with famous felines such as Grumpy and Keyboard Cat both being household names. How many famous internet sensation dogs can you name? That’s what I thought.
Nekoburo: CatsBlock is a rather intriguing game, with an equally unusual plot. The story centres around a lively alien race known as the “Square Cats”, who like nothing more than exploring the galaxy using electric waves. Unfortunately a strong solar storm traps the feisty felines on Earth, scattering the furry friends. The cat leader, Totan, meets a young girl named Rino, who brings him back to her home. From there it’s up to you to find the other “Square Cats” and reunite them with their leader.
NekoBuro is essentially a puzzle game; A fairly straightforward match-3 puzzle game at that. This concept covers a wide spectrum of games on the PS Vita, but Neko Entertainment have created perhaps one of the most unique puzzling experiences currently available on PS Vita. The aim of the game is to match 3 Cats of the same colour horizontally, vertically or diagonally. You look down on the game board at a 2.5D angle, with the player controlling groups of three cats dropping vertically from the top of the board. Similar to Tetris you can speed up the decent of the cats if you are satisfied with where they will land. You can change which order the three cats will drop, creating groups of the same coloured cat. Once you get a match, they will disappear.
This may sound exceedingly dull on the surface, but the whole experience around the basic gameplay is irresistibly addictive. The aim isn’t just to clear the board. Different objectives are assigned to each level, making each one feel fresh. Some levels will require you to remove a certain amount of each coloured cat within a time limit, others give you one minute to use a certain amount of power-ups. The most challenging are the quick fire levels, where your cat triplets fall at a dangerously fast speed, with the objective simply being to survive for more than a minute. These different challenges keeps the game interesting and definitely makes the experience more addictive.You’ll find yourself narrowly being defeated by a level, leading to the nagging voice in your head telling you to have just one more go. You know you’ve found a top puzzler when that voice is heard.
Of course if your game board overflows with cats, its game over. Power ups are available in game from the start, and these become invaluable as you reach the more challenging levels. These are obtained by building your power metre, which will fill up slightly every time you create a match. The more power you store up, the better the power-up. In some situations one power-up can be more helpful that another so it is important to think strategically about when to unleash the full fury of a particular cat bomb!
The look and sound in NekoBuro is truly magnificent, with a colourful art style and gorgeous design making each level a joy to behold. The music is entrancing and gives just an amazing overall sense of happiness. The game oozes charm, and every character is absolutely adorable. If you aren’t a cat fan, one look at the ‘Square Cats’ will melt your heart. It’s all just so darn lovely, and will bring a smile to even the biggest of cat haters.
Although the story elements are subtitled in English, all spoken audio in game is in Japanese. If you pull-off a particularly impressive combo, you will be treated to a very enthusiastic Japanese greeting, courtesy of one of your cat pals. You can’t fault the voice actors for their obvious enjoyment, but after a couple of replays hearing the same phrases and tones, I did become somewhat irritated by them. This is a shame as at times it did distract from the enchanting music. It really does say something when one of the only negatives is the over-the-top happiness of the voice acting.
Continuing the bizarre theme of NeroBuro: CatsBlock is what you can get up to outside of the puzzle element of the game. Between levels you are free to access Rinos living room, where Totan and other Square Cats reside. As you progress through the story, you unlock new items of furniture, allowing you to customise the room to your liking. As well as this you can even have a little fun with the feline residents by picking them up using the touch screen or using a number of different toys. A particular favourite pass time of mine was pelting the cat crew with rubber darts. Oddly satisfying. Although at first the room hub did feel slightly out of place in a puzzle game such as this, I found it charming, adding a much needed extra layer of emergence into the experience. Whereas other match-3 puzzle games have had feeble excuses for stories tagged on to their simple gameplay, being able to interact with the square headed aliens in an engaging and fun way really is a unique and fun addition.
A purr-fect combination of your standard match-3 format mixed with an intriguing, colourful and unique story allows NekoBuro: CatsBlock to stand on its hind legs and rise above the packed litter of puzzle games. With the constant allure of bettering your score as well as a challenging survival mode, there is more than one reason to keep returning to this bizarre world.