Review by Crackery
"Love is Over. Love is Over. Lo--<Return to Title, apply Bengay>"
Catherine is a unique game, hence the reason I decided to review it. It creates a paradox for me: I scored it 8/10 although the criterion for such a review is "fun to play, some minor but no major flaws"; Catherine has some glaring flaws, some that would make other games by no means 8/10. That said, the game's eccentricity overwhelms these issues and creates for a (mostly) mature gamer experience that I shall lay out as succinctly as I can:
Catherine is set in modern day America, with the protagonist being the likable everyman 32 year-old Vincent Brooks. Vincent has a girlfriend named Katherine. Did I mention he starts the game cheating on her with a girl who's name happens to be Catherine? She's also the girl of Vincent's dreams. Oh, and Vincent can never remember the time spent with her.
The above is the centre of a series of events that are unfolding in Somewhere, U.S. Whilst Vincent is trying to solve the mystery of Catherine, enjoying the benefits of a relationship with her AND Katherine at the same time little to their knowledge, rumours of a strange curse is going round which haunts unfaithful men in their dreams and giving them terrific nightmares. Vincent himself falls prey to the curse which means every night he "wakes" up in this tower which he is forced to climb as its floors slowly but surely collapse. Surrounding him in this nightmare are sheep, perceptions of other men trapped in the same nightmare. All these events connect rather nicely towards the end of the game during the course of which you'll make many choices affecting a karma meter, having a strong effect on what of the eight endings you'll receive.
Unfortunately I cannot delve into the endings without spoiling them but I will say that they were, generally, the weakest part of the game and holds the score back a bit. I shall say no more but a few endings are bombastic, to say the least.
This is where Catherine truly shines, in my opinion. The minor gameplay aspect I will address first: during the day the game acts almost as a dating sim. Having watched the usual gamut of cutscenes you'll be thrust into the "Stray Sheep", the local hangout bar. You'll get to text (ooh, fancy!), talk to people that have connections to these dreams, and do other stuff people do in bars. It's basic but the menus are slick and it's easy to maneuver around.
What's important is what happens when Vincent goes to bed. You control him in these nightmares, during which you must guide Vincent up stages of the Tower at a time. Each night is a level comprised of multiple stages. A stage will have a solid cascade of isometric blocks arranged in a clever fashion that Vincent can climb one at a time and can push or pull. Strategy comes into play in that blocks can be suspended in the air as long as they connect to other blocks on one edge, Vincent can push multiple blocks at a time, he can pull a block back even though there is not footing behind him (he'll suspend from the edge), pushing blocks away strategically could open a future path, the list goes on. These are bountiful "techniques" that the game slowly ekes out to the player, creating a very stiff but fair difficulty curve (on Normal, at least... Hard can be unforgiving) and keeping the player constantly on their toes. In fact, part of the charm is the difficulty--on Normal you're allowed to abuse an Undo button meaning you can try different combinations of pushes and pulls to your heart's content, going back to whichever move you desire. This means that once you do reach the top of the stage, accompanied by a lovely ringing bell to cheer you on that gets louder to closer to the top you get, you'll feel a great sense of achievement alongside the "Hallelujah" theme that plays.
After every stage of a level Vincent will get to go to a landing and take a break. This essentially adds up to discussing techniques with other sheep/peeps and occasionally deeper topics concerning the human psyche. Most importantly, once you're done lolligagging about you go into a confession chamber to pick one of two answers to an invasive question on your personal views. These affect your karma meter, but much more entertainingly you can see what other players' chose on their first playthrough, good times.
The best part is undoubtedly the boss stages; the last stage of every level. Some sort of manifestation of Vincent's woes and fears will come out, massive in size, and verbally abuse him whilst slowly creeping up the tower. Let me make it clear, they aren't taking the stairs, they are grabbing the tower and climbing up it in an attempt to gobble you up whilst you race for the finish line. It makes for some pretty heart-pounding instances and overall just for a fun time.
Graphics are not that important a factor for me and are rather subjective; I enjoyed the heavy anime feel Atlus injected into Catherine. It might be an immediate turn off to the uninitiated as a "geek" game but the fact of the matter is that the graphics are crisp, the colour palette interesting, and the tower appropriately gothic.
Catherine does manage to have an occasional flash of artistic brilliance, though. You'll fight--if we can call "climbing away from in terror" fighting--the occasional boss that manages to inspire goosebumps. Vincent's studio room is also minutely detailed, an important thing to note given that a lot of the game takes place there.
Nothing too stellar as far as sound is concerned as well. The voice acting is done by a well known cast of VAs and that shines through in convincing performances by the protagonist and his "two girlfriends". Certain things hold back an otherwise rather strong set of sounds in the actual gameplay like hearing "edge" every time a block is being held up by an edge alone (you'll hear it SO MANY TIMES), or far worse hearing "new record!" every time you climb a step in the special pseudo-post-game mode (a glitch, I believe) regardless of records broke.
Like with the graphics, there are some nice touches though. The BOING of springing from a springboard is oh-so-satisfying. Similarly, the sound of spikes popping out of a block makes a hair-on-the-back-of-your-neck-stand-up screech. These small things are appreciated and put Catherine a slight cut about the usual.
So what of those flaws? I won't dote on them as the review will become a lengthy rant rather than anything but I will mention probably the most obtrusive one: the formulaic plot setup. The plot itself is hardly formulaic, as stated, but every day in the game is the same in that you'll have scenes at Vincent's room, then at the cafe with Katherine, then maybe at the sushi place with a pal, maybe at work, then at Stray Sheep, then bedtime. Obviously the things that happen stop things from lapsing into tedium but it should be noted that the game is 8 cycles of the same frame of stuff.
With the above said... Catherine is a game that makes obvious missteps in its attempts to be different; however, don't let that niche awkwardness stop you from getting it. Its gameplay is gripping if you're willing to invest yourself and the story enjoyable if you suspend your disbelief and enjoy its simultaneously light-hearted and grim nature.
Just remember: Love is Over! Muahahahahahaha.
Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 09/06/11
Game Release: Catherine (US, 07/26/11)
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