Love's a tricky thing, isn't it? Well Vincent, the unfortunate main character of Atlus' puzzle/platformer 'Catherine,' finds that out the hard way. Now, I'm a big fan of games that are just a little bit different from the norm, and this is one of the most refreshing games I've played this past year. Catherine boasts both an impressive and thought provoking story line and fun (as well as annoyingly addictive) gameplay. Considering these are, personally, my two most important features in a game, it's no surprise that I found Catherine to be a really engaging and enjoyable experience (and I realise how that might be interpreted in the wrong way...I mean the game, for all you dirty minded people out there. Honestly....)
Catherine is the first game developed by Atlus to be on the current gen consoles. As the makers of my favourite all time games (Persona 3 and Persona 4 - I honestly couldn't choose which one I like better), I was rather excited to see how the game would play out. As well having character artwork by Shigenori Soejima, the soundtrack is written by my one of my favourite composers - Shoji Meguro. Throw that in with a weird, yet compelling storyline and interesting characters - this game sounded like heaven on a bluray disc to me. And I wasn't disappointed, although...heaven was probably not the right way to describe it. It's more like hell...but for all the right reasons.
So, what's it all about? Well, Catherine takes you through a week in the life of Vincent Brooks - a 32 year old guy whose comfortably pathetic life gets thrown into turmoil when his long term girlfriend, Katherine, wants to settle down and get married. Things go from bad to worse when he then wakes up the next morning with stunning blonde beside him, conveniently also named Catherine. Confused and incredibly stressed out, Vincent's dreams turn to nightmares as he is haunted by the important decisions he now must make in his life. Not only that, but there’s a strange rumour going round that people who fall in their dreams and don’t wake up before they hit the ground, die in real life. Are these situations connected? Well, that’s what Vincent’s trying to work out. I know - it doesn't really sound like a conventional story concept for a video game, which is one of the reasons why I found Catherine to be such an appealing game.
The story is interesting in a sense that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ options. Usually, in game where we pick choices, there are blatant evil and good options, that can see main characters being jerks who punch people in the face for no reason or saints who save kittens and puppies. In Catherine, there’s no such thing. Vincent can’t really be evil, nor can he be some goody-two-shoes. The options are more neutral. It’s kinda refreshing in a way and feels more...human? Whatever you’d call it, it’s a nice change. At times, Vincent might drive you insane as you wonder if someone could really be that stupid, but he’s actually quite an endearing character. You genuinely feel sorry for him and the situation he’s found himself in. I found myself actually rooting for him and wanted him to figure out what the hell was going on. It’s the same with the other characters too. The two ladies are also great characters. On paper, Catherine looks to be definite winner, what with her cuteness, laid back attitude to relationships and all. Yet, there was something about Katherine that made me warm to her and I genuinely felt sorry for what was happening behind her back. Vincent’s friends are also quite an interesting bunch too, but then again, I’d expect nothing less from a game developed by the same people as Persona!
The game itself is split into two playable 'sections' if you will. The first being at Vincent's local bar called 'The Stray Sheep'. It's here where the main chunks of the story play out. This is usually done through the use of very pretty anime style cut scenes that depict Vincent's day and the dilemmas he faces. At the end of each day, Vincent meets his friends at the bar and this is where you control him. Here you can interact with the bar's other patrons, choosing your actions and dialogue, all of which affects the outcome of the story. You also receive text messages from both of the K/Catherines. It's an interesting mechanic - you pick how you want to respond in quite a detailed manner and this all affects your relationship and interactions with the two ladies in Vincent's recently troubled life. I actually really enjoyed the 'Stray Sheep' sections of the game. You got to know the characters that frequent the bar, getting involved with their problems and struggles and there's a really nice sense that your choices do affect the way they progress through the story. Once you're done drinking and chatting, you can then decide when you want Vincent to head back home, leading up to the next playable section of the game.
Each night in his nightmares, Vincent is forced to climb up a tower, stage by stage (in his boxers, may I add) until he reaches what is only referred to as 'perfect freedom'. These stages make up the main playable parts of the game and involve pushing and pulling out blocks in order to make steps to progress up the tower. Sounds simple when said like that, but there's more to it. As you climb, the stage slowly falls away below you, meaning that there's always that constant pressure to climb up faster. Not only that, but each stage implements new mechanics, getting trickier as you go. To begin with, it's simply just about climbing upwards as fast as you can, but then it begins to add in different types of blocks. Spike blocks, for instance, kill you if you stand on them. Then there's ice blocks, which makes you slide off at a rapid pace, often making you loose your footing. In a nutshell, the idea behind these sections is actually relatively basic, but Atlus have made the game freakin hard! It's very punishing and can often be frustrating. There were many occasions where I sat, staring at the obstacles in front of me thinking "bloody hell, how the hell am I supposed to do that?!" Trial and error are an important aspect of this game - you make mistakes and you will die...usually quite horribly, might I add. I mean, how often do you get stabbed by a chainsaw wielding baby...? (Yeah, it's that Japanese...) You have to progress up the tower learning from what you've done previously, so having a certain degree of patience is a definite necessity. Now I'm not the greatest platform gamer, and I'm not the most patient person either, but I actually found myself really wanting to progress through these levels, just to see what's going on in the story. There was a strange sense of determination, as I vowed I would not be defeated by some giant wall. Luckily, each stage isn't really that long (although it took me half an hour to do some small segments of it), so it's broken up quite nicely, meaning you get suitable breaks from your frustration. There's a real sense of achievement when you reach the top of each level though - I was usually pretty dam pleased with myself when I finally conquered each stage.
At the end of each level is a ‘boss stage’. These consist of being chased upwards by some horrible demon thing, manifested from Vincent’s fears and worries. Each one of these bosses tries to kill you, or affect you in some way that makes climbing the tower incredibly difficult. I found these sections both challenging and fun, as they make you utilise the techniques you learned during that stage, only in a more deadly environment. Try having to figure out which blocks to move whilst having a giant hand trying to impale you into the wall with a fork. It’s fun...trust me.
I could sing this game’s praises for this entire review, but I guess it's important to cover the negatives as well. Truth be told, there wasn't really much that annoyed me about the game. One of it's biggest problems was the fixed camera. I found the camera angles during the climbing stages to be a little irritating, as sometimes I couldn't quite see where I was supposed to be going, or where I actually was in parts. The control system, whilst simple and mostly effective, requires a lot of precision. I was playing this on Playstation and I found myself using the D-pad to control my climbing (in fact, I never even touched the analogue sticks during most of the gameplay.) This leads me to wonder how I'd ever manage to play it on Xbox (not doing a controller comparison, or rating one over the other) because the D-pad isn't the...greatest. Analogue sticks would make it tricky and maybe even more frustrating...at least, in my opinion. And, as I said before, the game is very, very hard. Some people might be put off by that, so I guess it’s worth mentioning again.
Overall, Catherine is definitely one of the most interesting games I've played this year. I know it's been out for a little while now, but this is actually probably the best time to buy it. It's not a very long game by today’s standards (I racked up about 13-14 hours finishing time.), so some people probably wouldn't wanna pay £40 for it, but it's definitely worth getting preowned. It's a real gem of a game - I can honestly think of nothing else like it that I've ever played. And, to say I'm not the greatest fan of platform games, this is definitely on my recommendation list (should you care to listen to my opinion of course). It's got great replay value too and a variety of different endings and cutscenes depending on the choices you pick. I found the ending I got was actually really awesome, so I'm a little begrudged to do anything differently, but my curiosity will probably get the better of me eventually. It also might be worth looking into if you fancy trying something incredibly challenging. I'll swallow my pride and admit that I only played it on the easiest setting (I wanted to know the story, ok?) but the harder difficulties are renowned for being rather challenging. In fact, they had to include a patch with the North American release that actually made the game easier. So if getting your ass kicked repeatedly is something you like in a game, then maybe you should check this out.
Anyways, I digress a little (as usual). In short - Catherine is a game you should definitely play, at least at some point in your gaming life. I suppose that the important question is, which one will you choose - Katherine or Catherine? I picked the one who voiced my favourite Bleach character...(yeah, I know right.)