Visual novels often cross over with the dating sim genre. Through the magic of lots (and lots) of reading, picking how to spend your time and the occasional choice, you have the chance to experience an ultimate love story or maybe to just get your romance on. It’s a genre that can often be the subject of ridicule – who spends time trying to romance fictional characters? But dismiss the genre at your peril because it is often the source of very original, creative narrative experiences. Hatoful Boyfriend did it with pigeons. Dream Daddy did it with dads. Doki Doki Literature Club did it with cute girls.
It was only natural that someone would then turn to cats. The first thing to know about Purrfect Date is that yes – you can romance cats. The next thing to know about Purrfect Date is that it’s totally PG. If that’s not what you came for, well… there are other places to look, I’m sure. (Cough)
The story begins with a research assistant, who is super excited to make it on to an exclusive programme studying cats on a remote island. Once off the boat, you have your credentials checked by a grumpy security guard and are escorted to the campsite to meet your superior, Professor Pawpur (!). Over a drink, he tells you about the island and what you’re expected to do, then gives you the Cat-A-Log (!!), which is like a Pokédex for cats that lets you see their information and various stats. Seems simple enough. Oh, and by the way, there’s a section of the island that has some fierce feral cats on it, helpfully called the Danger Zone. Don’t go there, ok?
So far, so innocent and yet you know what is going to happen. After one weird first night, you wake up covered in scratches and able to communicate with the cats who were simply meowing before. They very helpfully tell you that you’ve been ‘bitten’ by an Elder Cat, and thanks to some kind of virus, you’re going to turn into a cat unless you research a cure. That’s when the story and the game really kicks off.
There are three activities: Romance, Recon and Research. Romance gives you up to 5 chances to hang out, or date, the cat of your choice – more of that in a moment. Recon tasks let you investigate the island and its mysteries. Research tasks let you work on a cure. You have a certain amount of energy, so between tasks you have to take time to recharge or suffer the consequences. Also, only certain tasks will be unlocked to begin with – depending on the other tasks you choose to complete and therefore how you progress the story, other tasks will unlock and shape what ending you receive.
The chapter ends once you finish three research tasks, so early on, each research assistant is condemned to a fluffy doom, with the next chapter starting all over again with a fresh research assistant who will hopefully come closer to finding a cure thanks to the work of their predecessor. The end of each chapter gives you a screen that shows you how much progress you’ve made when it comes to endings and unlockable secrets, and also how much progress you’ve made on a cure.
There’s a lot going on under a cartoony art style and silly premise. There are 18 endings and a lot of secret scenes to unlock – one 4-hour playthrough later and I still felt like I had barely scratched the surface. The central mystery of the game is entirely absorbing, with Bae Team skillfully seeding hints here and there, and the occasional reveal raising my eyebrows more than once.
But they sure as hell know how to dripfeed a story, and at points it was frustrating to feel that an avenue was locked for now until more had been done in another area. Sometimes with visual novels/dating sims, you can see the branching storylines and therefore know what choices you need to make in order to push the story onwards. Here, there were so many threads that it became difficult to see where the seams were, and some things therefore felt like very arbitrary choices. That’s not quite a bad thing, it is a testament to the team’s skill at weaving a story, but it did, at times, mean that I felt like a kitty tangled in their yarn.
But you came here for the cats, right? So let’s talk about the cats.
Each research assistant has the chance (if they wish) to romance a cat. Once you pick one to romance, you go on dates with them where you find out more about them and their own stories and personalities. And what personalities! The cats are fun with distinct personalities, so each romance is a different experience. MacMurphy is an Irish charmer, Snooty Booty is a high-maintenance princess, Floofybutt is the intellectual of the group, Trixie is a dreamer, Kibbles is totally nerdy and there’s a mystery 6th cat as well. Hilarious names aside, the cats are sweet and funny and the dates are a real treat to read through, each one capturing the spirit of each character.
Clearly, Bae Team really, really love cats. But they also really, really love telling stories. Actually, just playing this game, you get the impression that Bae Team really love a lot of things, and they’ve poured their heart and soul into this game. I approached this with the level of cynicism that I always approach dating sims with – fully aware of the suspension of disbelief that would be needed, fully aware of the silliness that comes with a dating sim that involves cats, fully prepared to look out for the various tropes and ready to follow prescribed pathways to get to the various endings. I’m also not even really a cat person, so I braced myself for lots of things that would probably only make sense to those who like cats. And yet, within the first 30 minutes, which is key for all visual novels, I was completely charmed by the sense of humour, the cheeky puns that dotted everything, the self-awareness and the good spirit that is in every fibre of this game. One playthrough wasn’t enough to make me really feel like I knew the whole mystery behind the island and the cats, and those tempting numbers of endings to see and scenes to see are enough to make me want to read more.
The game makes a big deal out of being about cats, and it is what it says on the tin. And yet… and yet… it’s more of a can of worms than it lets on. You might go in expecting a silly dating sim about cats, and yes, you will get that, but you’ll also get a well-written, absorbing mystery with a lot of charm and a sweet sense of humour that brings some fluff to the dating sim/visual novel genres.