Few games are as informative in name as Cat Cafe Manager. Just reading it, you likely have a good idea as to whether or not it's something you'd enjoy. The combination of a cat adoption game and a restaurant sim is enough to make coziness-seeking gamers jump in without inspecting any further. And while Cat Cafe Manager is definitely a cozy experience, it also has its faults, and the hands-off direction of it all can lend itself to both fun and frustration at different times.
The setup is a familiar one. You're new to town and have been given a plot of land. Naturally, you do what any sensible landowner would do: begin to build a small business that combines two of humanity's greatest idols: brunch and cats. Immediately upon setting off to build the cafe of your dreams, the bubbly music and adorable 2D art direction provide the lax vibes you might expect from a game like this.
But just as soon, Cat Cafe inundates you with messy, text-only tutorials. It's a heap of information dumped at your lap, which may be a rough opening for any player, but especially the younger or less-experienced crowd such a game may attract. Still, once the busy UI has been deciphered, the game's economy is actually well-designed, demanding you cater your cafe to different clientele to serve different needs.
For example, if you need more building supplies to expand the square footage of your cafe, you need to advertise to the town's punks and ensure you're serving their favorite dishes and drinks for maximum satisfaction. If instead it's ingredients and recipes you need, you'll want to get witches to visit. There are six customer types in all, and each has their own currency, as well as their own wants and needs in order to have a lovely time in your cafe.
This business-side consideration smartly extends into several aspects of the game. You'll need more than just the right selection of items for the right customers. You'll also need to adopt and train the right stray cats to cuddle up on customers' laps, befriend particular locals, and hire and train the right staff to ensure they can cook well, serve quickly, and, yes, even clean up cat pee.
In between business days, you'll start new projects--skills, really--such as gaining more staff or chair slots, restock on food supplies and cat toys, and further enhance your cafe with more stylish wallpaper, prettier plants, and snazzier tables and chairs. Eventually, your once-modest cafe will toss out the mismatched decor in favor of a consistent theme such as a bewitching bistro, a hipster hangout, or a straight-up dive bar.
Collectively, all of these considerations pour into an overall cafe rating, and each day you'll receive customer ratings from every single person who patronizes your store. It's a lovely in-game economy that guarantees there's always something to do, at least for the first dozen or so hours.
It's just too bad none of it really matters. You see, that cafe rating has little effect on anything. Your mismatched dining sets may bring down your overall rating, and a witch who was denied her beloved pretzel may mean she didn't have a great time, but Lemonade Stand this is not. Nothing is of any real consequence in Cat Cafe Manager.
During my time with the game, my almost three-year-old daughter became obsessed with it, so in times when I wasn't playing, I'd let her mess around. Naturally, this meant some menu items weren't restocked and some customers left unhappy. Certainly even some of that aforementioned cat pee went unmopped, I'm sorry to say. But when I'd take the game back for myself, I'd find I was nonetheless rich in its many currencies and resources. Because your hired staff behave autonomously, the game essentially plays itself once you bring in some coworkers a few hours in. Sure, the coffee machine may break down, but customers always settle for a backup order, even if it's simply a glass of water in the most dire of cases.
In this way, the game's laissez-faire design is a bit too hands-off, revealing this isn't so much a proper restaurant simulation, but rather set dressing for an admittedly adorable game about cats and coffee. There's no way to fail and no way even to really succeed at any notable level, as the number of customers you serve in a day comes down solely to the number of chairs you can purchase and place in your cafe.
Skill points are doled out liberally, and the money, in its many forms, will keep flowing whether you have a hopping mega-Starbucks or a rundown assembly line of herbal teas and kitty pees. All of this means your enjoyment of the game may come down to how much freedom you want. I wanted more than what's here, but I can also squint and appreciate the anti-game that Cat Cafe Manager really ends up being. Younger players may need help getting past the game's initial pamphlet of explainers, but after that, they can enjoy the game without fail states or a storyline to impede them.
One thing that will bug players of all sorts, however, is the faulty decorating mode. Tiles are placed square by square like in The Sims. When expanding your square footage, the cursor gets lost behind already existing walls. Items such as artwork that may have been hanging on a wall oddly do not move with the wall, leaving them in the middle of the floor. This even strangely changes how to use the cursor, as to reset decor after its attached wall has moved, you must click the tile below the item, rather than the item's tile itself, which is how it works in the rest of the game. Items clip through walls often too, like rugs that will sit both indoors and outdoors. This messiness gives the game a feeling of being in early access, but it's not.
It's oddly restrictive with where some items can go, too. Once I placed some outdoor stone tiles, but when I wanted to move them, I seemingly had no way of doing so. When I unlocked a motorcycle decoration by befriending one of the regulars, I wasn't allowed to place it outside the cafe like I could with some of the flowers.
It's not a bug, but it's also worth mentioning that the characters swear sometimes, which seems so wildly out of place for a game like this. There's no voice acting, so this will go over some players' heads much like the tutorials, but it just doesn't fit and leaves a sour taste in my mouth given the out-of-character nature. This really feels like a game that would keep things kid-friendly at all times, but curiously doesn't.
Cat Cafe Manager is a perplexing game. Its design is deliberately forgiving, but in some cases to a fault. It looks and sounds joyful, but bugs related to actually building the cafe of your dreams can be frustrating. It's still a game where fans of the genre can have fun with it provided they don't mind--or especially if they prefer--something so directionless, but I find it hampers what could've been a lovely blend of cat-sitting and frappe-serving.