Reviewed: August 6, 2011
Released: July 26, 2011
Catherine is more than a game. It’s a psych experiment that will reveal more than you might want to know about your inner self; at least when it comes to relationships and commitments. With that said, you should probably avoid playing this game with your girlfriend watching over your shoulder or you might have some explaining to do.|
The latest action-adventure-puzzle game to come from Atlus Software is taking the U.S. by storm. Less than a week after launch the game has already become their top selling title of all-time and rightly so. Mixing equal parts of social interaction and conversation (adventure) by day with finger-numbing nightmare puzzles (action) at night, players will control Vincent, a 30-something average guy who is suddenly forced to deal with some serious relationship issues.
Vincent has been dating the sexy (and controlling) Katherine for quite some time and she thinks it’s time to get serious. Vincent is perfectly happy with the status quo, which means he gets to keep hanging out with his friends every night, drinking at the Stray Sheep bar. But when the too-good-to-be-true Catherine shows up one night, she and Vincent really hit it off, or at least that’s what she says when he wakes up the next day to find her in his bed.
What ensues is a complicated web of deception with Vincent trying to balance two relationships; one with Katherine who now says she’s pregnant, and the other with the commitment-free, whimsical booty call that is Catherine. Vincent seeks daily advice from his own relationship-challenged friends; Johnny, Toby, and Orlando, and even their perky waitress, Erica. But how long can he balance two women, and how long can he survive a sudden string of nightmares that are killing off all the men in town; a mysterious plague that is seemingly only going after cheaters?
Vincent might visit one or two locations each day but he always ends up at the Stray Sheep. It is here that you explore various conversation threads with your friends as well as several patrons of the pub. This will not only give you valuable insight into the mysterious story, but will also allow you to help out with the problems that these characters are facing. It is here that you can also watch the TV to get news updates, check out your cell phone for text messages (sometimes with sexy pics), play music in the jukebox and even play an arcade game that recreates the nightly puzzle levels in a cute cartoon style - a great way to practice if I could ever get past level 3.
The game really kicks into high gear when you finally decide to leave the bar. Hopefully you are drunk since alcohol seems to improve your skills for the impending nightmare. Each night you experience a new dream with its own theme and boss challenge. These nightmares all play out the same, as an increasingly difficult stack of blocks you must climb and navigate to reach the top. Each night has a few stages with a rest spot where you can talk to the other men around town who are also experiencing the same nightmare. The funny thing is, everyone in the dream looks like a sheep; although after a few encounters you will start matching up the sheep characters with their counterparts at the bar. Again, you will need to talk to everyone and encourage them all to help them through their own life challenge.
At the end of each resting area there is a confessional booth where you will be asked a morality question. These questions are surprisingly deep and even a bit personal. Questions vary from, “Do you like kids?” to “Would you lie to your girlfriend if you knew you wouldn’t get caught?” or even as random as, “would you marry a robot?” You can either answer these honestly and let the game tell you what kind of person you really are, or you can try to "game" the system to earn any of the eight unique endings in Catherine. The path to each of these endings is complicated and requires consistent answers and morality decisions. I especially enjoyed the feature that compares your answers to everyone else that has played the game if you are connected to Xbox Live, or if you are playing offline, it just compares your answer to a statistical survey of men and women.
The puzzle levels range from challenging to diabolically evil. I made it all the way to Nightmare 4 before I had to back the difficulty down to Easy. I felt like a schmuck for having to do so, but I did save my game and plan to go back and try to finish on Normal soon. Navigating the levels consists of climbing up tiered stacks of blocks. You can push and pull blocks to create steps, ledges, and bridges. You can collect various power-ups to vault two blocks at a time or create a block out of thin air. There are ice blocks that will send you sliding to your doom, spring blocks that will shoot you five blocks high, trap blocks that will spear you, crumbling blocks, immovable blocks, and even a black hole block that will suck you or any other blocks into its vortex.
The game eases you in to the various types of blocks and numerous strategies (or techniques) required for getting through the stages. You can learn and share new techniques with the sheep during those rest periods, and you can be sure you’ll use what you learn almost immediately. In later levels you will encounter sheep that will also be trying to reach the top. You’ll need to shove them aside or remove blocks out from under them to get past them, or use the Remove Enemies power-up to smart-bomb the screen clean.
The final stage of each evening’s nightmare ends with a boss challenge – not so much a fight, but merely an added incentive for busting your ass up those blocks to reach the final exit, otherwise you might find yourself at the mercy of a killer bride with a fork, a killer baby with a pacifier, or a killer…well, you get the idea. It’s bad enough the levels are slowly crumbling out from below you, but these hideous monsters will really have you scrambling for the quickest route to the top.
The presentation for Catherine is what really sold me on the game to begin with, even before I knew it was mostly a repetitive batch of block-climbing puzzles. I won’t lie – the cover art was what first got my attention, but once the game started I fell in love with the whole Golden Playhouse presentation; almost like an episode of the Twilight Zone, and the in-game anime movies and cell-shaded conversation bits during the day are as good as anything you’d see on TV. Once you get into the puzzle parts the game starts to look all-too familiar with only minor changes in the theme and background design for each nightmare. The game looks consistently great and the 1080p helps to eliminate those jaggies you get from angled lines. And for some reason I really loved the map screen that tracks your progress - very artistic.
The audio package is a work of art with all sorts of amazing music, original to this game and even a few themes from previous Atlus titles waiting to be unlocked on the jukebox. The daytime music created an almost soap opera feel to the narrative while the intense nightmare tracks really helped motivate me up those stacks. The voice acting was pure perfection from the accusing tone of Katherine to the sexy squeals of Catherine and all your buddies at the bar. The boss and the faceless quizmaster in the confessional booth are two other great pereformances. It was only this quality that kept the story remotely believable when it started to stray into the absurd near the end.
Catherine is definitely a Mature title with plenty of bloody violence, adult language, and mature relationship themes. While the box claims nudity, it’s all hinted at with strategically located foreground objects and carefully framed camera shots to hide all the good stuff. If you’re coming for anime porn then move along. This is TV-MA material at best and most of that is for language.
Catherine is a good 10-12 hour game depending on your skills in spatial awareness, logic, planning, and dexterity. Once you master the techniques things move along pretty well, and future replays can probably be finished in around 8 hours. There are some really good end-game movies and achievements for those with the stamina and dedication to play this game multiple times. You are also scored and have Bronze, Silver, and Gold ranks for each nightmare that are tracked on leaderboards, and there is even a special co-op mode to unlock so you can play with a friend.
Catherine is available on the Xbox 360 and the PS3. While the 360 looks marginally better, the PS3 offers a more refined DTS 5.1 soundtrack and superior D-pad controls, unless you have one of those new Xbox controllers with the enhanced D-pad. Playing with the analog stick can be problematic, especially in the later levels when you are spider-climbing around the back of the puzzles or always grabbing the wrong block. I had to make use of the “rewind” feature several times to reverse errant moves. But either way, you can’t lose with whichever system you end up playing on.
If you are looking for a challenging puzzle game that blends in cool anime, amazing social dynamics, moral choices, and one hell of a crazy-ass story with a twisted ending (eight of them) then look no further than Catherine. This is the girl you’ve been waiting for, and she’s going to keep you up all night…