Hustle Cat review impressions
Cat cafes are magical places in their own right — a space where you can cozy up with a dozen or so kitties (likely after bribing them with treats), hot drinks, and, sometimes, even cake.
These feline-friendly eateries are still rare in the United States, but luckily Date Nighto has the next best thing. Their newest game, Hustle Cat, features a coterie of cutie cat cafe workers, each with their own secrets and personal turmoil, although the game never ventures too far into angsty territory. As the newest employee, you get to form relationships with the friendly cast before selecting that special someone with whom you’ll form a more romantic bond.
In between all of the cat-sitting, social media blitzes, pizza parties and early morning basement rendezvous, you’ll delve into the mysteries of A Cat’s Paw (the aforementioned cafe) as you seek to undo a strange curse plaguing the shop.
The game plays like most visual novels/dating sims. I appreciated Hustle Cat’s character creator, which allows you to choose your preferred pronoun before selecting from a series of non-binary character designs. Once you customize the protagonist that best suits you, you’ll be immediately thrown into the story.
Hustle Cat is most definitely a visual novel, so you’ll spend much of the time reading. Choices pop up on occasion that steer the story on one of its many branching paths. You always have the option to save and go back on decisions, and Hustle Cat boasts an auto-save feature that works quite well in case you forget.
My first run through (romancing Finley) left me a tad disappointed in the story department. I never learned much about who the big bad was, or where all of this magic business stemmed from, not to mention several plot points that were never resolved.
I thought this would be the game’s biggest flaw, but it quickly became one of its strengths. Hustle Cat reveals its plot in a careful, steady drip that rewards those who explore each character’s storyline across multiple playthroughs. Exploring each character arc leads to something new, slowly building the story until you unlock the final, secret narrative branch that brings the game to its oh-so-satisfying conclusion.
The game takes maybe three to four hours to play through on your first try, and after that you can speed through additional attempts with the game’s handy fast forward button. What could’ve easily been a slog turns into a determined rush to uncover more of the tale, aided by Hustle Cat’s breezy writing.
The characters drive this story, and all of them are nuanced, likeable people. From the eccentric former goth-turned-cafe-owner Graves, to the skilled (yet withdrawn) barista Hayes, each character has their own fascinating back story. As you get to know each character better, you’ll help them deal with any manner of very human issues, from social anxiety disorder to internet harassment.
While these stories have the potential to get heavy, they tend to focus on the character overcoming or learning to cope with these challenges in some way. It’s easy to identify with these people, and seeing them succeed despite their issues lends the game a positive spin and encourages players who might be struggling with their own personal baggage.
Hustle Cat’s characters are all 3D, well-realized figures. It’s especially notable, though, that the game’s protagonist, Avery, is not the silent type—a common staple in most dating sims/visual novels. Avery has their own personality—flawed (I feel like whipping out the vacuum cleaner every time we return to Avery’s apartment), yet strong-willed, possessing a great sense of humor, but also a bit of a temper. It’s easy for players to identify with Avery, allowing them to connect with the story effortlessly.
The game is filled to the brim with pop and internet culture references, adding to the game’s charm. One character channels the #blocked hashtag into a magical attack to combat internet harassers who hunt her down in real life in a particularly empowering turn of events. At another turn, you might catch a sly, self-aware dig at the dating sim genre, or a surprise nod to your favorite podcast.
All of this is visualized with lovely hand-drawn artwork. The cat designs are especially endearing. The first sight of Jelly Donut, Hustle Cat’s feline internet celebrity, will elicit audible “awwws”. The backgrounds and characters are also lovingly designed.
Playing Hustle Cat is like spending time with good friends. It’s warm and comfy in its simplicity. It will leave you craving a good cappuccino when all is said and done—something to savor as you think back fondly on a memorable cast of fuzzy kittens and good-looking baristas.