As Dream Daddy continues to enjoy considerable well-deserved acclaim as well as a booming fandom, I found myself thinking of other western dating sims that flew a bit more under the radar. It’s certainly no crime that DD’s young writing staff garnered the producorial support of the Game Grumps, allowing their sweet, sincere game further reach. But there are also other, earlier western dating sims who’ve tried to write more inclusively—going at least as far back as Hanako Games’ Magical Diary in 2011. Today I want to spotlight Date Nighto’s 2016 game Hustle Cat, which won my heart with its low-key but empathetic romances and fantasy elements. And also, its literal cat people.
Hustle Cat stars a semi-customizable protagonist named Avery Grey—players pick Avery’s skin tone, hair length, and pronouns—who is looking for a job after moving to a new city. Avery stumbles on a strange café-cum-cat-rescue and asks the strange, goth as hell owner for a job. But beyond deciding which cute coworker to romance, Avery also has to deal with the magical grimoire they uncovered in the shop’s basement—not to mention that every employee is cursed to become a cat once they leave the premises.
Hustle Cat has pleasant, pastel art that works well within its humble budget. There’s no voice acting, minimal music, and generally only two portraits per character (a normal and “shocked” version); however, the artists included a fully animated opening credits sequence that sets the bright, bubbly tone, and each route contains unique CGs (special illustrations).
The cohesive art design gives it a leg up from Dream Daddy in terms of artistic cohesion—the art looks slightly rougher, but the protagonist and their love interests clearly belong in the same universe, and Avery’s semi-permanent design means they can actually be drawn next to their love interest for big moments like the first kiss. CGs are a longstanding in visual novels (usually for porn), and work both as achievement trophies (collect ‘em all!) and encouraging the player to invest in the story.
The writing resembles a YA novel in tone—18-20 year old characters facing issues like unemployment, strained family ties, social anxiety, and online harassment; and a rather quippy tone that’s light but restrained enough to keep from feeling smug about its own cleverness. Bits of cleverness abound, like the fact that dating someone who’s cursed to transform into a cat means taking them to your apartment as a cat (the influence of Hatoful Boyfriend is obvious but never unwelcome). Each individual route usually deals with a small-scale interpersonal conflict and then the overarching magical plot. It’s a nice way to add stakes, but hampers the replayability somewhat.
A lot of the issues come down to the all-important fast forward button, which is there to help players skip through setup and all-route scenes they’ve already seen. The best implementations of this function move super-fast and are coded to stop once they hit a piece of dialogue that hasn’t been triggered before or a dialogue choice. Hustle Cat’s, by contrast, is fairly leisurely (it has to be held down), and doesn’t account for whether dialogue is new or repeated. This means increasingly tedious scrolling through the early portions of the game while you try to start a new route. The third act is also semi-consistent, barring the love interest who helps Avery battle the antagonist. The game runs about 10-14 hours for 100% completion, and maybe 20% of that will be spent scrolling.
None of that was a dealbreaker, mostly because the game is such a soothing experience. This isn’t the sort of dating sim where you need an exhaustive flowchart to complete a route, and you know what you’re getting when you choose a dialogue option. In some ways it’s comfort food writing – a literal coffee shop AU rendered in soft colors, with happy endings for every route. But there’s room for that kind of story just as much as grimdark ones, particularly when it’s done as well as it is here.
The game’s embracing of diversity is a big part of that. Issues of sexuality or race don’t figure into any character’s arc; rather, those elements are included in a way meant to normalize them. The love interests can be romanced by any gender and have a variety of skin tones (I hesitate to say ethnicities, since every character falls into being a thin, traditionally attractive anime character with similar facial structure—as always, I’m far from an expert on this point). Its lack of body diversity might be disappointing, but I still appreciated the effort being made to create a welcoming experience for the player.
I never regretted my time with Hustle Cat. It’s an addition to an underserved subgenre with strong writing and a memorable cast. I might not have binged straight through, but every time I went back to complete another route it was a welcome return. It’s a compact story at an affordable rate ($20, but it usually runs cheaper during Steam sales). It’s fully relevant to Dream Daddy fans’ interests (particularly Damien fans; while café owner Graves is cis, he’s also a giant goth dork), and I hope to see it get the better acclaim it deserves.