Game Review: Catherine

This is probably the closest I’m going to get to posting a videogame review at the time of its launch. I usually take quite a while to finish games (if I finish them at all).
I imported Catherine two months ago with a friend and finished it recently. Catherine was released in the USA last July, but was only released here in Australia two days ago.

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Platform:
PS3, Xbox 360
Developer:
Atlus
Rating: MA15+
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Risque?

The key is to look at the OTHER stuff on the cover. That gives you a better idea of the kind of crazy game you’re in for.

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“The Immoral Beast has appeared. It’s the killer. Do not die.”

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Oh, how these words haunted me while playing through Catherine. As stupidly obvious as they may sound, heeding them is easier said than done when you’re trying to solve devious block puzzles with an oppressive time limit and a grotesque mess of body parts constantly on your case. Make no mistake, Catherine is a very crazy, very difficult game. But it is also a multi-layered experience that rewards persistence and skill by telling a story the likes of which no other mainstream game has ever attempted. Dare I say it is worth a look.

THE SET-UP

Catherine tells the story of a week in the life of Vincent, a 32 year old man without direction in his life who is languishing in an unrewarding long-term relationship with a woman named Katherine (who you can find on the cover of the Xbox 360 version of the game). The week starts with two things that turn his life upside down: he starts to have freaky nightmares involving sheep, during which he has to climb up set after set of imposing block staircases to avoid his worst fears, and he meets an attractive girl named Catherine (who graces the cover of the PS3 version), whom he promptly cheats on his girlfriend with. Things get weirder and more complicated from there, in typical Japanese style.

WHAT YOU DO

The gameplay of Catherine is split between two halves, with occasional deviations. One half is the world of Vincent’s nightmares, which have you moving blocks around quickly so that they resemble something climbable and ascending before you get impaled/dissolved/crushed/scorched or simply fall off and die. And die. And die. Seriously, you might have to consider swallowing your pride and playing on Easy difficulty if you don’t consider yourself a puzzle gamer. I did and I still failed way more times than I care to admit. The puzzles rarely feel cheap or artificially difficult, though, and that feeling you get from solving a particularly terrifying staircase is priceless.

Yay, more pain!

Apologies for the poor screenshot quality. Copyright issues and all that.

The second half is spent in Vincent’s waking world, at a bar called The Stray Sheep. Here you can interact with bar patrons who each have interesting stories of their own, which you can influence by your conversations with them. This part of the game is also where you’ll see the game’s version of a morality system. You can influence whether you want “freedom”or “order” (and the ending you’ll get) by such decisions as what to say in your text messages to both of the girls in Vincent’s life. These sections can be just as stressful as the nightmare sequences, but in a good way.

WHAT YOU SEE

This is the work of Atlus’ Persona team, who made, well, the Persona games. It shows in the quality of the anime cutscenes in particular, which are beautiful to watch. The majority of the game uses 3D models passed through an anime-style filter, not unlike the Persona series, but the power of the HD console has allowed for a huge upgrade in visual quality from those games. Load times on the PS3 version I played were badly disguised but mercifully short. The menus are evocative and slick. Overall Catherine looks pretty good.

The story is the main motivation for persevering through the unforgiving gameplay segments and it is a gripping, absolutely bonkers rollercoaster ride with plenty of genuinely unexpected twists and turns along the way. Character-driven videogame narratives that deal with such mature themes as infidelity and betrayal are incredibly rare and when they are pulled off this well, they validate games almost all by themselves.

Oh, and for the record, there is absolutely no actual nudity in the game. Because I know you’ve been thinking it since the top of this post.

WHAT YOU HEAR

Composer Shoji Meguro of Persona fame is at his best with the collection of songs he has arranged for Catherine’s soundtrack. Hardly any of the background music during those devilish stages gets annoying, which is saying a lot considering how often I found myself stuck in a seemingly endless cycle of retries. I have a copy of the game’s soundtrack lined up and I am keen to listen to it again when I get my hands on it. The cutscenes are also well-scored and the voice acting isn’t terrible, so there really isn’t much to fault in this department.

Again?

Expect to see this screen a lot.

WILL YOU GO BACK?

Finishing the main story will unlock a brutal two player competitive mode, which allows you to let others feel some of your block-crunching pain. There are a series of even harder challenge maps to unlock as well if masochism is your thing. The main story itself features no less than eight noticeably different endings, so if you’re a completionist you will have your hands full there.
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THE VERDICT

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Good:
Solid visuals, great soundtrack, engaging story unlike anything else out there
Bad:
Oh so very difficult
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515/110A  M  A  Z  I  N  G

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