Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: Catherine

Platform: PlayStation 3/Xbox 360

Developer: Atlus

Publisher: Atlus

# of Players: 1 (Online 1 - 2)

ESRB Rating: M (Mature)

Official Site

Score: A

Catherine is one of the best original games of 2011, hands-down and of this writing, Atlus' fastest and biggest selling title to date. The hype surrounding the Japanese release along with initial worries that it wouldn't be localized due to its subject matter were followed by quick disappointment from Atlus fans when they found out it was staying overseas. Surprisingly, not too long afterward, word started leaking out that an English localization was underway and shortly after that, Atlus USA announced that Catherine was indeed coming to North America not only uncensored, but with PS3 and Xbox 360 cover variants, a great art book/soundtrack CD pre-order bonus and even a fantastic Limited Edition package. Definitely not for kids, anime haters, hopeless romantics or those easily frustrated by trial and error gameplay, what's here is a remarkable, visually brilliant work that bridges the gap between uncomfortable arty project and instant conversation starter.

Trying to properly explain the game to a non-gamer (or even some hardcore gamers with years of controller waggling under their thumbs) is tough simply because most folks in either camp have planted in their minds some idea of what a video game is supposed to be. Catherine both fits and defies the usual stereotypes while managing to be something so unique that it has to be seen at length (and played) in order to fully understand. And even then, you've still got a lot of explaining to do. You can call it a not quite mid-life crisis played out in game form, an experiment in storytelling combined with a supremely challenging puzzle game or a Mature-rated game that makes the rating mean something other than yet another zombie, war or explosion/expletive heavy testosterone fest and be correct on every count. It's also a fascinating, complex and very funny look at relationships that's bound to get a few tongues wagging... provided one has the patience of a saint and the reflexes of a deity to complete the journey.

What makes Catherine work so well is how it dives headfirst into its subject matter, covering age-old relationship issues, the meaning and structure of dreams and a hell of a lot of block shoving with visual and aural brilliance that makes the game appealing to anyone looking for true depth. Sure, you can find a few flaws in certain areas I'll mention below, but the overall impact of the game is remarkable in that it's intensely challenging on a few levels. Come for the M-rated temptation of titillation alone and you'll be disappointed that the game isn't the hentai-fest you were expecting. Stay for the mind-frying gameplay (and survive some truly scary puzzles that demand perfect timing) and you'll have completed a game that makes you think in more ways than one.

In the game, you play as Vincent Brooks, a 32-year old relatively normal software programmer in a relationship with a pretty yet demanding girlfriend, Katherine. K wants Vincent to marry her, but Vincent prefers things the way they are. He's set in his ways and stuck in neutral to the point of not even remembering how long he and Katherine have been together. Diverting her proposal then going out with a few male friends for drinks, Vincent later has a terrifying nightmare where he's forced to climb a huge tower made of movable blocks before it falls apart and he plunges to his death. This first set of stages is fairly simple, but even on the easiest setting, the game comes at you hard and never lets up. It's completely bizarre and yes, nightmarish, especially for poor Vincent. You see, if he dies in his dream, he also dies in his world. If that's not a motivation for you as a player to dial in and nail the puzzles, I don't know what is.

Vincent's now bumpy waking life gets an even fiercer jolt when he meets and has a one night stand with Catherine, a carefree cutie who exudes pin-up girl sexiness that's a direct opposite of Katherine's more strait-laced attitude. Of course, Vincent feels awfully guilty about his dalliance, but even though he tells his friends about it, he can't bring himself to break the news to Katherine. Of course, this has consequences all three will have to deal with as the game progresses toward one of its multiple endings. Of course, that's where you come in. Playing the game requires a ton of persistence, patience and practice as each of the nightmare puzzles offers an ever increasing array of challenges. While the core pulling and pushing of blocks in order to create safe a stairway to the exit part is the same, the introduction of new block types, pesky to annoying enemies and frighteningly hideous bosses makes the core gameplay intensely addictive despite the repetitive nature of "simply" climbing to the top of a rather deadly tower.

To some of you older gamers out there (or those that play a lot of puzzle games), these block puzzles will seem familiar in sort a Sokoban, Block Man or Shove-It (among other classics) sort of way. However, the speed needed to complete them plus the threat of Vincent's doom at nearly every turn keeps things frantic constantly. Most of the levels in the game can't be beaten on the first try by the average player, but one can collect and stock many extra lives (you'll need them). Some stages have mid-puzzle checkpoints, but using some can whittle down your stock of lives if you screw up after the checkpoint and have to restart too close to a troublesome spot. The game allows for assistance, but at a price. Vincent can collect coins while climbing in order to buy helpful items, but the game compensates for this by getting tougher. He can find and use other special items in a stage while climbing, but these are one-use only and then they're gone for good. You're constantly being thrown for a loop as the game gets harder, but you'll want to press on just to see where the story goes once Vincent wakes up.

The dreamlike quality of the puzzle sequences is chock full of symbolism that once correctly absorbed by the player, helps one understand the overall plot. Paying attention to people he meets in the real world also helps out quite a lot. In Vincent's nightmares, he's clad in polka dot boxers, carrying a pillow and has a pair of ram's horns poking from his head. Other men climbing the tower are seen by him as sheep, but to them, he's also just another sheep trying to survive the deadly climb. As there's no proper tutorial in the game (a brilliant touch if you think about it - how do you train for a nightmare?) you have to talk to your fellow sheep in order to get gameplay tips. Additionally, how you interact with some of the sheep can end up crossing over into the real world presented in the game. All I'll say is if you're a total jerk, you might lose a few new friends when you wake up over the course of the game.

Before he's launched to a new floor of the tower representing that night's dream, Vincent gets a random relationship question while sitting in a confessional by someone with a childlike voice. His (and your) answers partly determine the ending and if you're connected to PSN or Xbox Live as you play, you can see how other players responded to the same questions. This innovative use of online "play" gives each person who plays the game a tiny window into a personal bit of others lives without a second of real-life chat time wasted. Granted, everyone who answers some of these questions could be lying, but it's truly weird to choose an answer and see a pie chart pop up that reflects which percentage of guys or gals answered your way or the other. This social aspect of the game adds an extra layer to the 'conversation piece' aspect, particularly if you know a few people who are playing and meet up at some point to discuss some of the wackier questions.

Most of the non-dream game takes place in a bar called Stray Sheep, where Vincent chats with friends (and certain unique strangers), drinks to his liking (which can affect his performance in the nightmares) and has the occasional run-in with Catherine. There's also a wonderful jukebox that gets loaded with excellent tunes from the game (as well as some classic Shin Megami Tensei series music) and Rapunzel, an extremely difficult arcade game that plays like the main game (without the blood and gore) but is about five times as hard (at least). One of the coolest things about the real world sections is Vincent can receive text messages from Katherine or Catherine and reply to them using a great conversation string system. Your replies to the two ladies also help determine which ending you'll receive and it really feels as if your responses matter. Each time you send back a response, a meter pops up that shows how your reply affects the balance between Katherine and Catherine.

By a certain point you'll pretty much get that there are at least three possible endings to the game, so depending on who you want to see Vincent with at the end, you'll want to start targeting your answers accordingly. Of course, this is easier said than done as the story progresses and you see that there's no "easy" way out. Vincent has to confront not only both ladies, but his own internal stuff. The game doesn't pretend to be realistic (the setting is Chicago, but it looks like an amalgamation of what someone in Tokyo thinks Chicago might be like), but there's the impression that the guys on the Persona team were themselves sitting around in a bar talking about relationship issues when someone suggested making a game based around that.

Fortunately, the art, music and much of the writing are stellar. Studio 4c handled the anime portions and did a stunning job, while the high-resolution 3D models and programming were done in-house. The main area outside Vincent's nightmares, The Stray Sheep Bar, is lovingly detailed and while small, has a nicely comfortable atmosphere. It's no dive bar for sure, but it's got a certain low-rent charm that makes leaving tough. Of course, you have to leave at some point in order to go home, sleep, survive that nightmare and advance the plot. The nightmare sections all take place in a massive tower made up of movable blocks with a church-like way station between stages where Vincent can save the game, get clues and talk with other trapped sheep. These rest stops are only the barest comfort, particularly when you notice the depressing decor and realize that you still have a ways to go before Vincent wakes up. Classical music is used extensively (and fantastically) in the nightmares - if you've a decent sound system, make sure to get the most of it here.

If you try to take Catherine way too seriously, you may find a few parts of the game where Vincent seems too set in his ways to a fault or the two gals seem a bit too stereotyped. But compared to the one-note male and female characters found in too many games, what's here is solid throughout. Given that the focus is on relationships and a lot of things floating around in Vincent's head, it's nice that the game focuses so much on his internal and external demons while not going overboard. Oh, by the way, that M-rating is not only for a few curses and adult sexual content, but for some pretty gory death scenes in Vincent's nightmares when he fails at a puzzle. The first time you fail and fall to a nasty death, it's pretty disturbing stuff. But there are many other ways to die thanks to pushy sheep, spike, ice and other deadly blocks as well as the freakish bosses mentioned above. Play this late at night with the lights out and you may have a few nightmares of your own...

Speaking of puzzles, my only major complaint about the game is the camera - you can only rotate the puzzles slightly to the left or right and you can't see behind blocks at all. While this makes completing the puzzles even more urgent and dream-like, it hampers gameplay to the point of frustration. Seeing everything Catherine has to offer will take a few replays (or playing from certain save game points), so be prepared to suffer a few dozen or so deaths even when you're used to the way the camera does its thing. In addition to the single player game, there's an insane versus game where two players can take on each other and attempt to scale a series of levels faster than the other. Playing cheap is pretty much THE way to succeed here, so expect a few thrown elbows on the couch and maybe a thrown controller or two in the process.

While some sort of sequel seems highly unlikely, the Persona team's efforts in their first HD game are certainly worth the highest praise and make folks like me want to see them do an actual Shin Megami Tensei game next. Catherine is an instant classic and yet another eclectic winner from Atlus, a company with a solid track record for not only top-quality titles, but some of the consistently best bonus items fans crave. Of course, here's a case where the game proper is excellent even without any omake goodies, so if you're in the mood for the weird and don't mind wanting to kill your controller every so often, this one comes highly recommended.

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