Critters for Sale Review
Sonoshee’s 1-bit romp through existential hell is a grainy feast of monochromatic weirdness. It’s also absolutely brutal on the eyes, which sort of makes sense in the context of the game’s surreal terror and sinister themes… but even as a non-photosensitive person, I was only able to play it for 30 minutes at a time without a splitting headache.
The five sections take place across time and space in a universe made up of demonic forces, where perverse noidmen function as heralds of a larger and more nebulous apocalypse. From ancient Jordan to modern New York, it’s sort of like a taster menu of bizarro evil with multiple possible outcomes for each section, save the last. Each is named after an animal—Snake, Goat, Monkey, Spider, and Dragon—and marries elements of choose-your-own-adventure and old-school RPG features with a visual novel.
The game’s UI, which I otherwise love, also includes (for four sections) Chinese animal characters to evoke some kind of unknowable occult vibe. I understand that some designers believe this is a stylistic choice to create a harmless aesthetic flourish, or hint at the universal culture-spanning themes in the game narrative; Critters spans continents and cultures, dropping you off in far-flung remote Korean locations and the Jordanian desert.
But my kneejerk reaction to seeing Chinese characters in a magical occult setting is to sigh and roll my eyes and see if the all-too-common orientalist shortcut is “worth it”—sure, it’s not so much about the meaning of the words, but the distinct sense of otherness that these characters impart. But if your sweet-looking horror world can’t stand on its own two legs without random languages that make zero sense in the setting, 糟糕了 [ed’s note: this means “oh shit” in Mandarin].
That being said, Critters also avoids taking itself seriously, thank god—the game is peppered with goofy pop culture references, one-off jokes and fictional portrayals of real people (no spoilers here, but they’re pretty great in an alternate reality context). There are no real world-shattering revelations or complicated plot twists afoot, only well-dressed, lightly menacing (occasionally fatal) encounters with a galactic assortment of freaks and weirdos. If you’re looking for deep lore and heady chunks of exposition, this is not for you—in many ways Critters is an argument for knowing as little as possible about a game even while playing it.
The fourth and fifth chapters almost feel like a different game because things go off the rails a bit—you no longer seem to be inhabiting preset characters like in the previous sections—which helped give me a second wind to press on, despite my protesting eyeballs. At this point I felt like I’d gotten a tenuous grip on Critters’ internal mythology, which came into sharp focus in the final single-ending section, “Dragon,” which plays a bit like an all-star medley of point-and-click adventure puzzles: you’ll have to use a payphone, and write down and figure out bits of code.
Weird kinda hell
As you progress through the sections it becomes clear that Sonoshee’s two-toned project also doubles as a rollicking homage to the cosmic highs and lows of its excellent music choices—especially delightful amid the satisfying growl of Critters’ sound design (there are a couple of choice Theo Parrish tracks thrown in, and some great bits of UI audio that really complement the crunchy aesthetic). And of course, there’s the art. It’s gorgeous, in all its shimmering, noisy glory. It isn’t enough that Critters exists in another realm; it also feels like it was made there, too. Sonoshee has brought their chosen medium to new heights, particularly in hypnotic animations and hyper-stylised full-motion-video-style snippets that make Critters one of the most striking visual experiences around, even at moments where it feels shallow. Someone assembled the soundtrack on YouTube, by the way, and it rules.
The blindingly abrasive strobe effect that will make this an utterly miserable experience for some, no matter how much you want to see the pretty pictures and explore every corner of the Critters world. But if you’re willing to just ruin your vision for an afternoon and commit to the developer’s description of their own work “to make your eyes bleed” (for their other game, a shooter called Rym 9000), Critters for Sale is an oddball dip into a very particular vision of hell.