Thursday, August 11, 2011

Catherine Review

CatherineGood evening noble ladies and gentlemen;  J. Wellington Rommefeller here to bestow upon you yet another elegant evaluation of the video game persuasion.  This week I’ll be reviewing “Catherine”, a game I first caught wind of in a short online blurb that unceremoniously dubbed it a “porn puzzler”.  Understandably, I was shocked and a bit put off by this somewhat profane description and dismissed it as a game I was not likely to play. Last week, however, a good chum urged me to download the demo and give the game a shot. The demo was short, only twenty minutes or so, but the story and gameplay intrigued me enough to throw presupposition into the wind and opt to rent the title. Was the demo my gateway into an unexpectedly wonderful experience, or would the “porn puzzler” have me sighing and cringing at my television as I did all through the cut scenes in Final Fantasy X-2?
Catherine is a difficult game to define. It’s part dating sim and part puzzler, but far less awful than that description makes it sound. In fact, I would say the dating sim component alone is far better than one would expect within that genre. The game begins with its protagonist, Vincent, being pressured by his long-time girlfriend Katherine pop the proverbial question.  Vincent, the quintessential indecisive 30-something, balks at the idea of marriage and seeks escape at his favorite grimy watering hole. One drunken encounter with a blonde, drill-haired hussy, oddly also named Catherine, throws his world for a loop and he finds himself forced to choose between the two ladies.
 To add to that stress, every time Vincent sleeps he is plagued by nightmares in which he is a frightened sheep who must use heavy square blocks to build stairs, ascending tall towers quickly enough to avoid falling to his death below. Sound vexing? It is! And it is wonderful! The story does an incredible job of building and maintaining tension, through both the nightmares and the cut scenes. As Vincent tries to sort out his relationship with the two women, he must take great care to ensure they never learn of one another, leading to frequent anxious and potentially compromising situations. As pedestrian as the story of a cheater who must hide his misdeeds sounds, Catherine does a particularly good job of drumming up feelings of pity and concern for Vincent, effectively transferring his desperation to the player. This fact is not surprising, however, as Atlus has a history of creating games with wonderful narratives, such as the Shin Megami Tensei series and Radiant Historia. The story is also helped along by a “morality meter” which tips toward good or evil depending on the player’s actions and choices during the game. These decisions allow the player to identify with Vincent even more, as their choices directly lead to certain consequences in the game. The player’s preferences also conclude in one of eight separate endings, giving the game replay value and providing a reason to go back and play as dastardly, honestly, or amiably as you may desire.
A smashing story can only be supported by equally entertaining gameplay, and Atlus does not fall short here either.
The concept of the gameplay is simple—pull out blocks to form stairs and climb ever higher. The blocks adhere to one another via their edges, not always obeying the laws of physics, but enabling Vincent to hang off of them and navigate the stage. Some special blocks add difficulty, but the game is centered on those few fundamental concepts. Having a set of simple rules allows the player to find techniques on their own, as there is no one correct solution. This also means that no matter how many times a particular stage is played, different solutions are guaranteed to emerge depending on your mood, skill level, and techniques you remember. If you’re worried about being unable to discover gameplay tactics on your own, fret not as small breaks between levels give you the opportunity to learn new techniques from your sheepish brethren.
These brief interludes between stages also allow you to learn the stories of some of the other sheep in a situation similar to your own, sheep who strangely resemble some of the sad frequenters of Vincent’s favorite bar. You can get their full story by chatting them up in both locations and you can even save their lives through the dialogue choices you make and how often you elect to speak with them. This feature makes the player feel as if they are responsible for the people around them, and gives an incentive for speaking with people and not rushing through the storyline. Clever play, Atlus.
The gameplay is greatly enhanced by a soundtrack comprised mostly of modern remixes of classical pieces. Hearing a single two-minute song repeated for twenty minutes could be an auditory catastrophe, but when it’s Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude, I actually found myself missing the music after the stage had concluded. I recognize that this is entirely a matter of opinion, but the song remixes are done so cleverly that I still have not grown weary of them and, in fact, listen to them often when not playing Catherine.
The only bad aspect of the game I was able to discern was that the audio levels between animated cut scenes and the rest of the game were utterly different. Once I realized that an animated cut scene was imminent, I scrambled to lower the volume, lest I frighten the good Baron Catticus from his slumber. This issue is especially agitating because at the conclusion of each night, a loud, grating noise is played as Vincent’s awakes, and if you do not realize what’s happening you may find yourself in need of fresh skivvies.
I myself rented Catherine and have completed the game on normal mode. I enjoyed the game so much that I actually purchased it after finishing the story, something I rarely do with rented games. The gameplay and story do a marvelous job of engaging the player’s emotions and the music certainly enhances the experience. The replay value is quite high with the different endings, two-player puzzle mode, and a smashingly difficult challenge mode. I implore you to give this game a chance if you like puzzle games, dating sims, intense stories, or great music. Its gameplay is not unlike a mix of Q*bert and Persona, but is far less annoying and more gratifying than either. Do yourself a favor and at least download the free demo to give this game a go. I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
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