Review: Hot Tin Roof: The Cat That Wore A Fedora

Hot Tin Roof: The Cat That Wore A Fedora is the perfect example of a game that gets dragged down by minor flaws, a game that could’ve been incredible and unique but instead becomes something to be slogged through by the end. It’s a shame when that happens, when you desperately want to like a game but it fights you at every corner, and that’s exactly what happens with Hot Tin Roof.

The game starts cold, throwing you in without a lot of preamble or tutorial, and you’re expected to pick up the nuances of how it all works as you go along. You’re barely introduced to your character, Detective Emma Jones, or her partner, a cat named Franky, before you’re sent along to start investigating a break-in case. In classic noir fashion, nothing is as simple as it seems and the mystery only gets deeper the further along you go. Even still, Hot Tin Roof makes a fantastic first impression, with a great aesthetic and sharp, funny writing that continually surprises over the course of the story. Hot Tin Roof isn’t afraid to push boundaries with occasional edginess, dive into or out of cliché effectively, or simply spend time reveling in its legitimately funny dialogue. It combines classic noir with a charming retro-3D art style that turns every creature into a series of boxes, then marries the two with a jazz soundtrack with chiptune influences. It’s a cool aesthetic, plain and simple, but I wish the world was more fun to explore

Most games today end up holding your hand too long with arduous tutorials and overlong introductions, but Hot Tin Roof has the opposite problem. It’s tough to know how anything works at first, and that can lead to a lot of unnecessary (and frustrating) fumbling as you get your bearings just figuring out how basic systems like the conversation options or simple navigation work. This is a problem that only gets worse as the game goes on and more complex mechanics are layered without any explicit acknowledgment from the game. You’ll mostly be walking left or right, although you’ll often be able to move toward the foreground or into the background to change paths. As a result, you’ll occasionally run into situations where the camera prevents you from seeing as much of the environment as you need to as the game tries to force that sidescrolling perspective all the time and you miss a jump or get hurt by a level hazard. You’ll spend a fair amount of time engaging in relatively standard platforming — it’s not particularly satisfying, but it controls well enough that it’s not clumsy, either. Finally, you have a revolver that can shoot different types of ammo, from normal bullets to a grappling hook. It’s an interesting set-up, and the level of variety the game gets out of merely swapping ammo types is pretty impressive, but manually loading bullet types is a pain by the end of the game as the puzzles get more complex and having separate guns mapped to specific buttons would’ve helped.

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Hot Tin Roof is probably something you’d consider a “Metroidvania-light.” It borrows elements from games like Super Metroid, offering you new items that allow you to access previously inaccessible areas to return to, but it’s more of a puzzle game than anything else. You’ll explore the world the way Samus might explore the planet Zebes, scouring every corner, checking for crucial new items and collecting everything you can, but the meat of the gameplay here is less action and more adventure. The puzzles generally aren’t sectioned off as distinct entities to solve, and instead the world itself presents the challenge as you’ll need to swap out bullet types to reveal hidden switches or platforms, open doors, and hunt for clues. Most of them aren’t too difficult to solve, but a few of them have such classically obscure adventure game-style puzzles that you could bang your head against the wall for another hour, never finding the solution. Listen, life is finite and your time is more precious than even you give it credit for; just go ask somebody on the Steam forums for help if you get stuck, which you will. It’s entirely possible (and in fact, quite easy) to inadvertently break the scripting of the game by getting hopelessly out of sequence and complete certain objectives before you’ve completed crucial ones. My playthrough in particular was so out of order that a critical plot twist was revealed by one character telling me to free another character from jail despite that character never having been arrested — or even suspected. An entire murder took place and I had somehow collected the full set of clues for it and acquired an arrest warrant before I’d ever even seen (or heard about) the murder for myself. I left an area thinking I had gotten everything I needed from it, not realizing that there was another section to it with a story-critical character waiting until I checked the game’s forums to figure out why nothing made sense anymore. That’s not a problem you should have to deal with.

When you play a game like Super Metroid or Shadow Complex, how do you approach exploration? You push forward, exploring every crevice, until you’ve gotten stuck or found a new item, then you check your map to see where you need to go next or what doors can be opened now. Hot Tin Roof is just that, except remove the map. The lack of a map or any clear objective list makes this game nigh impossible to figure out sometimes. There’s typically no great indication of where you’re supposed to go for clues next, so you’re left to aimlessly wander the city. Sometimes the police chief will give you a pointed hint if you ask; sometimes he’ll essentially just say “go solve the case” or “go arrest that guy” without ever mentioning where “that guy” actually is. Occasionally, you’ll finally luck upon the final clue you need for a case, bring it back to the chief for an arrest warrant, and he’ll tell you that his officers will arrest the suspect so you should get back on the streets, but the inevitable response you’ll always have is, “To do what? I just caught the guy.” You’re playing as a detective, so there’s something to be said about having to figure it all out yourself, and that’s valid. But when the game gives you a new bullet type and tasks you with using it to find an indeterminate number of clues scattered through everywhere you’ve already been, and you can’t just check a map to see which doors are colored like your new bullet type like any sensible game of the type would do, your first response is going to be to quit the game entirely because it’s ridiculous. It’s lame to wander the same area for an hour not knowing what you’re supposed to do, where you’re supposed to go, or how you’re supposed to get there because there’s not a map or a basic objective list. The game took us somewhere in the ballpark of nine or 10 hours to complete, but add a map and that number gets cut in half and becomes twice as much fun.

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In general, Hot Tin Roof is not a game that respects your time at all. You can loop through the same dialogue options infinitely if you’d like to, or if you hit them by accident, watching the characters just repeating the same things over and over without any option to skip through it like you’re in some hellish purgatory. You can return to old areas and get the exact same dialogue triggers, even though it makes no sense for Jones and Franky to speculate about which way the window was broken in for the first crime long after they’ve already solved it, unless there’s some kind of BioShock Infinite-style space-time dimensional tear the game forgets to clue you in on. You can pick up the same clues from old crime scenes and conversations, and it’s up to you to remember if these are new or if you’re just burning down the candle of your life. You can bring those same clues to the chief and he’ll give you an arrest warrant, despite the fact that the suspect has already been arrested because he already wrote you that same warrant hours ago, twice, because you’re still stuck. You can spend half an hour revealing all the myriad completely invisible platforms in an area to make it easier to figure out where you need to go next and how, then save and quit, and next time you load your save, the game has hidden every platform again. Flaws like those add up to become something maddening.

Those flaws are all a pretty huge bummer because there’s so much to like in Hot Tin Roof. The game hits its noir vibe with ease, but it doesn’t use it as a crutch, either. There’s a fascinating and funny world at play here, one pretty predominantly ruled by cats where rats live in a ghetto and one even wears a cute little tie; present evidence pointing to a rat in one of the crimes and he’ll accuse you of racial profiling, a funny line of dialogue that never got old for me. The boxy art style does wonders for the game, and so many of the animations lend an incredible amount of life to the characters. In particular, the saving animation that has Jones hopping on a toilet and narrowing her eyes a bit before a little poot sound comes out is actually kind of adorable when you’re seeing it for yourself. Franky’s ever-glaring eyes and sardonic attitude pair well together for a cat and made her a worthy partner. So the character work is great, the art style is cool, the music is fantastic, and the game itself is just not that fun to play. It’s disappointing.

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Closing Comments:

It’s a real shame that Hot Tin Roof doesn’t live up to its aesthetic. None of the flaws would be that difficult to fix on their own and all have very clear solutions, but the game in its current state just isn’t worth your time. The repeated dialogue that you can’t skip through, the totally aimless nature, the ease of getting hopelessly out of order, and the complete lack of a map all work together to kill any enthusiasm. It’s the kind of game you desperately want to be better as you’re playing it, the kind of game that you want to like so badly but it just won’t let you. There’s a real chance that some of these flaws will get addressed in the future as the developer has already been vocal about trying to address certain issues, like sequence breaking, and at that point, the game would be a no-brainer to recommend, but as it stands right now, you should probably take a pass on Hot Tin Roof.