REVIEW – Unfamiliar

First laying my eyes on Unfamiliar at PAX Aus 2019, I was immediately drawn to it. Mostly because it was a game about a cat and I am very predictable and easy to please. I bought a copy there and then (they had a great deal with a t-shirt and a game code that doubled as catnip seeds), and I waited for its release.
Now it’s finally out, it’s time to take a look at the familiar and less… Familiar… In Unfamiliar.

A magical journey

In Unfamiliar, you play as Yew the cat, traversing surreal locations to gather ingredients to further improve your kitty tree house and craft cute accessories to wear. There’s really not much more to it beyond that, which is a fact the game prides itself on. There’s no story, no pressure, it’s part game, part interactive chillout simulator.
At first, Yew only has access to one level and, to be honest, it took me all that level and some playing around with the treehouse options to realise what the game was even about. There’s no real tutorial or direction given beyond a page in your item/recipe book that explains what you can do (plant seeds, build your treehouse, wear different outfits, etc.). Beyond that, the gameplay mostly revolves around traversing the same three stages hunting down the ingredients you need.
The gameplay itself is also fairly straightforward, with the only controls you need being the four directional buttons (whether that’s on a gamepad or a keyboard) and an ‘interact’ button used to collect the ingredients you stumble across on your journey.
It also took me a little while to figure out that was all there was to it, there was no jump, there was nothing else in the levels, it’s just you, your paws, and the road ahead. This again feeds into its ‘chill out and relax’ philosophy, in that there’s nothing in the level that can be considered a threat, and nothing in the level that requires too much thought. Essentially, it seems to be more of a ‘lose yourself in the experience’ kind of game.

I can give my cat a backpack

The simplicity of the gameplay is fine when the aesthetics are so gorgeous, and again, experiencing the worlds is part of the appeal. The surreal art style offers up a world that’s both simple to navigate (there’s one main path and the occasional branching path), but there’s beauty in that simplicity. The aesthetics of the level are minimalist, but that just adds to the atmosphere, offering up a world where in some cases, one can’t even be entirely sure which direction is up or down.
It wants the player to get lost in a world without consequence, where wandering is the draw card. Which is fine, for the most part, but the levels themselves do have a lot of repeating segments, and the lack of direction can cause some confusion as to where has already been explored. Especially once the levels begin to loop set pieces, which lead me to some confusion. Though if a path still has collectables on it, it hasn’t been traversed, and it’s fairly difficult to get so lost that you’ll find yourself backtracking by accident.
In saying that, though, the looping did make me wonder if I was going the right way at first, and added to what felt like artificial padding in the end, given that there are only three different zones for Yew to traverse. This means that in order to gather all the ingredients to finish your treehouse and get all the outfits, you’ll be following the same paths a lot.
While this is made better by the beautiful art style and the amazing soundtrack, which is a sort of low-fi beats to relax/purr to, it does begin to wear thin after a little while. But it’s also made more delightful in that dressing Yew up is an important feature, and there are so many cute outfits to craft and wear, along with skins that are absolutely gorgeous.
Though the other mechanics, like gardening, building your cat tower, how to unlock more things to craft and the like aren’t well explained and I wasn’t entirely sure how to approach these mechanics.

Witchy vibes, whiskery vibes

It’s a short game, and it’s better suited to a relaxed afternoon rather than something that might offer repeated plays (though the soundtrack, which is available separately, will absolutely offer some repeated plays). But it’s also full of a lot of good ideas and one very, very cute cat.
It’s a brilliant first showing from Mana Tea games, and it makes me excited to see what they’ll offer up in the future, especially in the way of chill games that are built for relaxation while offering up new, interesting ideas.