Review: Catherine (PS3)

Title: Catherine
Format: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: July 26, 2011
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus Persona Team
Price: $59.99 (Standard), $79.99 (“Love is Over” Deluxe Edition)

I love the strange, weird, and macabre. Give me Lovecraft over H.G. Wells. I’d rather watch Twilight Zone than Lost in Space. And if it’s a choice between Ripley’s Believe it or Not and an Art Museum, I will choose Ripley’s every time. I always prefer to see a unique failure, than the most polished retread of old ideas. While I realize many gamers may not share my same tastes, my preferences are exactly why I am a fan of Catherine.

Dating sims have never penetrated the American videogame consciousness the way they have in Japan. Thankfully Atlus has slowly eased gamers into this niche genre, using the Persona games as a Trojan horse. Now with Catherine we are finally provided an honest to goodness relationship simulation, which provides the core of Catherine’s story. Married to this relationship sim is a three-dimensional block puzzle game that is reminiscent of Intelligent Qube turned upside down. While this dichotomy of play styles makes Catherine feel a little bipolar at times, both halves of this title are engaging in their own right.

Catherine’s story is told through a series of interactive cutscenes, that allow players to make key dialog choices, which influence a “stay with your girlfriend or try someone new” meter. Much of the primary story is well known to anyone following the title, Vincent, a tech industry thirty something, must finally face down the ultimate relationship question “Is he ready to commit and propose to his girlfriend Katherine?” However, Vincent’s life is further complicated by accidentally cheating on Katherine with Catherine, a young, blonde vixen with a bit of a jealous side. During the day you interact with both women via cut scenes and occasionally have an impromptu powwow with your friends in the bathroom at your work place. As night falls you make your way to the Stray Sheep Bar where you can interact with various other bar patrons hearing their tales of woe as you begin to realize that you have many unsettling things in common. Once you are finished at the bar you head back to your apartment and into a nightmarish dreamscape where Catherine’s puzzle aspects take over.

Three-dimensional block puzzles are not new. However, the puzzles in Catherine are given serious tension, as periodically the bottom of the tower you are ascending will start to crumble away. Dither on a particular obstacle too long or use an inefficient solution and you will find yourself falling to your doom. Each night you are exposed to new trap blocks, some have spikes that spring out of them, while others simply will move on their own. Understanding these hazards and how to navigate them is key to progressing. In addition, after each puzzle you gain access to technique videos and an item shop. These two features make the intense puzzle solving of Catherine more palatable. Each video gives you hints that will come in handy in the next puzzle stage, while the items provide extra lives or the ability to place an extra block to get you out of a jam. These items are also strewn about the puzzle tower itself. Here is where design of Catherine shines, generally you have checkpoints near pillows, which give you two additional lives, so as long as you get to the pillow you will always be accruing additional lives. While many have noted that Catherine is not an easy title, between the videos and ability to collect a ridiculous amount of extra lives – I ended the game around 90 – it gives you everything you need to progress. The only obstacle to overcome is your own frustration, as you will hit points where you simply cannot figure out a workable solution to a section of the tower. This follows the pattern of most puzzle games where you will beat your head against a wall trying to discover a solution, only to walk away for a while, mull it over, and complete it on your first try next time.

Most puzzle games suffer from some technical issues, and Catherine is no exception. The camera is not terribly useful if you are on the backside of the block tower, as you can only swing it to the left and right, not completely rotate it. Couple this with controls that get reversed if you spend time on the back of a block and you have a recipe for frustration. Thankfully Catherine provides enough variety in its puzzles, through new techniques and new trap blocks, to keep you engaged and wanting to progress to see how Vincent, Katherine, and Catherine all turn out.

Titles from the Altus Persona team have always oozed style and Catherine is no exception. Building on the religious iconography of the Persona series players are often confronted with various Judeo Christian images – whether it’s the sheep and shepherd metaphor present throughout the title, the church bells that ring as you approach the level goal, or the use of a confessional as a mechanism of transport between levels. Contrasted with the overtones of the nightmare world are the simpler settings of Vincent’s daylight hours – a restaurant, a workplace bathroom, or his favorite hangout, the Stray Sheep Bar. The in-game engine provides most of the visuals quite well, adding creepy little details everywhere. For key cinematics Studio 4° C, of Animatrix and Jeanne D’Arc fame, take over and provide an anime sheen to the Persona team’s visual designs. These two styles compliment each other nicely and make Catherine an aesthetic feast for those who love the off-beat.

Voice acting has always been one of Atlus’ strengths and Catherine further proves this rule. While many of the male characters can border on the whiny, emo men from other Japanese titles they never cross that line. Vincent seems under duress and beaten down, as he should. Katherine projects the sense of a mature woman who knows what she wants, in contrast to the sultry, but simple Catherine. Often I prefer voice work that fades into the background in order to let the story shine through, however in Catherine the voice acting is what makes you invest in these characters and ultimately compels you throughout the narrative.

Vincent navigates his future to the strains of a Shoji Meguro score. Eschewing the bouncy J-Pop of Persona’s 3 and 4 Meguro has instead taken inspiration from the visual design and incorporated classical orchestral pieces, suffused with his own unique spin. You will run up the tower to the strains of Mussorgsky’s “Hut on Chicken Legs,” piecing together how to maneuver the final blocks of the stage before the tower evaporates below you. Once you hit the level’s exit, sometimes by the skin of your teeth, you are greeted with the “Hallelujah Chorus” – simply magical. In an age where indie tunes try to add emotion to game commercials – hi Gears of War – or music control is given over to the player – take a bow GTA – it’s nice to have a score that reminds us sometimes the classics are the best.

Once you complete stages in Catherine with a gold ranking, combining precision and speed to clear the tower in record time, various multiplayer modes unlock. Multiplayer consists of Vincent and Katherine working together to advance up the block tower. These puzzles have the potential to be disastrous without another skilled player working alongside you. This is not simply a “girlfriend mode” that you can throw a newbie into. The combination of timing and coordinated block moving will leave you hating the other person unless you are blessed with infinite patience or someone else who has maneuvered through the story mode. This game is all about relationships and yours may end if you try to push this mode on someone who isn’t ready for it.

Is Catherine a perfect game? No. Does it have its share of technical problems and a crazy “only from Japan” ending? Yes. But, is it a breath of fresh air in the middle of a year peppered with sequels of sequels – just look at how many 3’s are coming out this fall? Yes, most definitely. Catherine is at its heart a puzzle game with a relationship simulation thrown in to keep you going. Have no illusions about it, this game is not for everyone, or even most game fans. Catherine is incredibly quirky, unabashedly odd, and more than slightly disturbing. However, it is also a title that when you reminisce about 2011 and all the shooter memories have faded away, you will remember. Like thinking back on old relationships, when you recall Catherine you might cringe or you might smile, but you will definitely remember.


Written by Justin Spielmann

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