Catherine Review (Xbox 360)
In Summary: Catherine offers a creative and fresh take on video game stories, yet the core gameplay often leaves a lot to be desired and it’s difficulty could create a frustrating experience for the inexperienced.
The Good: The best of what Catherine has to offer lie in its story, morality-system component of its game play, trippy visuals, and haunting score.
The new title, from developer Atlus, gets us caught up in the life of Vincent Brooks, age 32. During the day he works a dead-end job, carries a perpetually running tab at the bar while getting blasted with his friends, and occasionally goes to lunch with his girlfriend of five years Katherine (emphasis on the “K”). Katherine is a smart, motivated, and over-caring girlfriend but there is something oddly attractive about her. She has a special place in her heart for Vince, no matter how much he seems to disappoint her, but her biological clock is ticking. She’s ready to settle down. Is he? Meanwhile, one night Vince wakes up next to the girl of any man’s dreams Catherine (emphasis on “C” this time) not remembering a thing about how it happened. Catherine is a blonde bombshell with a carefree personality. She is young, wild, and free and seems to tickle the other part of Vince’s heart. Sort of a split personality juxtaposition between the two, one a fling and the other a possible life-long partner. All the while, Vince experiences nightmares in which he dreams of sheep, block puzzles, and a condescending, enigmatic presence that taunts him as he progresses through these levels. He eventually needs to figure out what he wants with his life. A monumental step bearing responsibility or to continue to live his care-free lifestyle? These themes of infidelity, guilt, early 30’s angst, insecurity among partners, marriage, and eventually a possible pregnancy, depending on how you play the game, are unlike anything you’ve seen in this industry before.
I’ll leave you with the basics of the story and won’t get into what happened later on. Yet if I were to explore that option please understand that it’s hard to offer up true spoilers in writing about Catherine. Like I said previously, depending on what decisions you make, the game could play out a number of different ways and each player’s time with the game will be original. Catherine’s day-time game play lets you drink, drink, drink, drink, drink, socialize with and offer up advice to fellow patrons of your favorite bar. Text messages sent to your phone and how you respond to them will affect outcomes of situations later on and you must think wisely when balancing Vince’s love life…. or else! Seriously, the wrath of these two crazy women is no joke. I’m scared talking about it. During the night-time/dream game play, which we have more on later, you are forced to answer moral-based questions with two options to proceed. Example: “Are you prepared to come into physical harm to save the one you love?” (Answers: A) Anything for her. B) NO WAY, MAN!) The game almost does decision-based game play full justice and surely has high replay value. With eight endings, and countless ways to achieve these, you could play it 20-30 times and never experience the same Catherine, pun intended.
The story and game play come through with a beautiful anime style that will offer a trippy visual experience. Life-like facial expressions and perfectly transitioned cut scenes round out the visual experience which is pretty much perfect. Sure there have been anime-style visuals in games before but this one ranks right up there with the best-looking of them. It’s gorgeous, Grade A, top-notch. Tying together all that is good in Catherine is an equally mind-bending score. The music can chill to the bone and is especially good during the action/puzzle sequences. Catherine’s music was developed by Shoji Mejuro who chose to remix classical music in order to “emphasize its horror aspects.” (Wikipedia page) His creative take on classical music, using synthesizers mainly, is effective in that it will leave you tense and on the edge of your seat. I turned the game off the first night I played after 3 hours because the music was getting to me so much, making my head spin. That’s a lot of time, but I wanted to go all night. Good job Shoji, but phew, I need an Advil.
The Bad: Very bluntly, Catherine is unnecessarily difficult. Even on the easiest setting the nightmare section of the game can get frustrating very quick. It’s graspable at first with relatively simple puzzles that can be achieved by a trial and error system. Dying to advance your way can’t hurt during this time and you learn the basics of the core gameplay during Vincent’s nightmares while progressing through an enjoyable story and controlling his day-time actions. However, around about the midway point the block puzzles become extremely hard. Sometimes there’s only one way to even complete a puzzle or a section of puzzle therein. Given that these parts are timed, and during boss battles you are being chased and a barrage of attacks are thrown at you, the game’s difficulty is heightened that much more. If you are inexperienced at puzzle games, especially ones that require technique and quick thinking, this game will be your nightmare, pun intended. A quick tip for success: you need to learn and master the techniques the game proposes to you during certain sections, it will make the game a little more manageable.
I’m really glad I don’t have a complex that necessitates the need to punish controllers after frustration sets in. I would’ve broken at least three during my time with Catherine. That’s 1 controller per 5 hours. That’s 90 dollars in 15 hours down the drain. Again, good thing. Keep this in mind my hot-head gamer friends. I love you guys, it’s fun to play with y’all in a multi-player setting but heed my warning that if you sit down with this game please take it easy on your controller. It doesn’t deserve your abuse!!!
Eventually, my enjoyment of the decision-based daytime game play was bogged down by the core puzzle gameplay that takes place during the nightmare stage. I understand that old-school gamer mentality where it’s argued that games used to “challenging.” I understand this, they were games after all. What point in a game if it doesn’t challenge you? I agree, I remember those times and it worked for something like…. Mario. By contrast, I believe that a game shouldn’t be overly-challenging when telling a story, especially with a story THIS good and that’s exactly what Catherine fails at doing. It doesn’t have good balance in this facet. If you put it on easy it should mean you’re inexperienced and want to enjoy the story. It shouldn’t mean, “I want sheep and block puzzles to rape and pillage me repeatedly in my sleep while I contemplate ways to cheat online.” Just to clarify, I put it on easy when I started because I had heard how hard it was and how amazing the story was in addition. Excuuuuseeee me for thinking that I could get away with this. Looking back, good thing I didn’t put it on Medium because I might have elbow-dropped a puppy. Yeah I don’t have a problem with controllers but puppies… SCREW THEM! Sorry about it. Kidding.
…All in all we got a solid title out of Atlus. It’s brilliant in spots, yet it falls short of sheer excellence when it’s consistently equal parts entertaining and frustrating. However, I feel refreshed that ambitious new ideas like this are being attempted. Lord knows it’s only good for the video game industry.