Review by amazingu

Reviewed: 03/03/11

This game is almost a metaphore for itself

I tried to find a "Bloody Weird Games" option to tick amongst the categories, but there isn't one. I suggest this feature be implemented before Catherine hits US shores.

Catherine is weird.

To start off, I can safely say that the entire experience this game offers is unlike anything you've ever played before. It is a unique, quirky, imaginative and humorous little title, that is at once brilliant in its conception and infuriating in its execution.

To also get one other misconception immediately out of the way: there is NO sex in this game. None. It never goes any further than showing some cleavage and some slightly saucy pictures (although Vincent runs around without his shirt on for most of the time). The maturity in this game comes from its subject matter (and consumption of tobacco and alcohol), not from sex, profanity or violence (although there is some slight gore and some disturbing imagery involved).

Let me set the scene: you are Vincent, a regular 32-year old dude with a regular job, a regular girlfriend and, in general, a fairly regular life. Being 32, and dating a woman of the same age, it is about high time for Vincent to start thinking of getting settled and considering those major steps in the human existence called "marriage" and "having children", a fact that his girlfriend Katherine is all to eager to remind him of on a daily basis in none too subtle a fashion.

Like many adults, Vincent isn't quite sure if he's up to the task, and it is at that point that young Catherine enters his life. Catherine is a 22-year old pretty young blond; playful, sexy and impulsive, and in every way the total opposite of Vincent's girlfriend Katherine, who is serious, restrained and rational. Staying late at the local bar one night and having perhaps a few too many drinks, Vincent meets Catherine who takes an immediate liking to him and starts coming on quite strongly to him, putting poor Vincent in a situation that he is not only not entirely used to, but also not quite sober enough to deal with. Long story short, when Vincent wakes up in his bed the next morning, he finds that he is not alone, and his clean track record of fidelity apparently broken.

Obviously, Vincent is distraught, freaked even, especially considering the fact that he remembers nothing of the night before, even if Catherine assures him that it was anything but forgettable. From this point on Vincent finds himself in limbo between having to find a way of explaining this to Katherine, while also trying to gather enough courage to dump Catherine without her ever finding out that Vincent was already in a relationship. It is here that the nightmares Vincent had been suffering from recently start intensifying, and start taking some truly bizarre forms.

It is also here that the actual gameplay part of this game begins, and that you start to understand that Catherine (the game, not the character) isn't quite your everyday ordeal. Vincent's Nightmare World is overrun with sheep who all suffer the same fate as he, that is, they are forced to climb tall walls of blocks every single night, with the knowledge that if they fail and find their deaths along the way, they will never see the light of day in the real world again either. It is these walls of blocks that form the action element of the game, as Vincent will have to push and pull blocks of various kinds around to ensure his safe passage to the top of the wall, where temporary salvation awaits.

These action parts shall I put it...unbalanced, to say the least. It starts out easy enough, with a clear tutorial on how the game functions. Push and pull blocks to create staircases that you can climb on, collect coins and helpful items (like health drinks that allow you to make higher jumps, and blocks that can be conjured up at will), and try to reach the finish line before the whole place crumbles apart. Every time you go up one step (i.e. climb a block), a small gauge starts counting down. Reach a higher block before the gauge reaches zero, and you will have a combo! Reach the top without ever letting the gauge reach zero to accumulate the perfect combo, and make sure to find all coins along the way to ensure a crazy high score. At the end, you are judged on your performance, and depending on how you did, you will get a Bronze, Silver or Gold trophy (not the PlayStation Trophies, mind you).

Sounds straightforward? Well, that's because it is. It is, however, anything but easy. It can, in fact, more often than not be CRAZY HARD. The game often gives you hints and tips on how to make your vertical adventures a bit easier in the form of short gameplay videos, but the problem is that watching a video of someone doing something is not a very effective way of getting the player to learn/remember something. It may look easy when the makers of the game pull it off, but it's something else entirely for the player to recognize the necessary patterns at any given moment, especially when instant death is lurking at their feet. It also isn't helped by the fact that controls can be confusing and annoying when you are suspended off a block's ledge, ESPECIALLY when you move to the rear side of the wall and controls suddenly become inversed, only not completely, leaving you to randomly guess if you have to press left or right, often even requiring you to alternate between the two for no logical reason whatsoever. Controls are generally good, as long as you just make sure to stay on the face side of the wall.

There are 3 difficulty levels, Easy, Normal and Hard, although they could just as well have been named Barely Playable, Unplayable and You've Got To Be Kidding Me. It is, in fact, so bad that Atlus has announced a patch to lower the difficulty, because of overwhelming complaints from the customers. As of the time of this review, the patch has not yet been released, so it is unclear how exactly this change will be carried out, but in any case, the game as it is now is what they considered playable enough to release, so it shall serve as the basis of this review, future patches be damned. Make no mistake, this game is HARD. It will make you think, and it will make you think HARD, and if you fail to meet its unreasonable expectations within the crazy short time limit, it's instant death for you.

What makes things even worse is that Atlus decided to restrict the amount of retries you get. You start out with only 3 (7 on Easy, if I'm not mistaken) retries in the form of pillows, and more can be picked up along the way (although never enough) to serve as "extra lives" of sorts. What happens if you run out, though, is that you are forced to return to the title screen, where you will have to load your game again, restart from where you saved, which is either in the bar before going home, or on one of the landings between each block staircase in the Nightmare World. In both cases this involves having to skip through cutscenes and/or dialogues, and although dialogues can be fast-forwarded and cutscenes can be fully skipped, it is an IMMENSE pain to have to do this every single time you go Game Over, which will more than likely happen A LOT. It is infuriatingly pointless, ridiculously outdated, and completely unnecessary.

I won't lie: I have considered putting down the game for good, even selling it, at several points in the game, even on Easy. The difficulty is unforgiving, the execution is enraging, and even when things go well, the block puzzles aren't particularly fun. It is extremely rare for the game to strike the exactly right note. It is always either too ridiculously complex, or just a simple matter of hopping from one block to the next (on Easy) until you hit some random point that is impossible to figure out. It hardly ever feels balanced or fun. On Easy, you get the option to rewind your moves (up to 9 steps back), which is appreciated, but provides little solace.

It's not particularly interesting in terms of incentive either. Good performance is awarded with better (gold) trophies, but gold trophies serve no other purpose than to unlock some stages in Babel Mode, the game's variant of a "Free Form" semi-randomized puzzle mode. Doing well in the action stages has no reflection on the game whatsoever, there are no fun bonuses, and the player is expected to derive his fun from the playing of the puzzle parts alone, which unfortunately will not appeal to the most die-hard of block fetishists.

So by now you're probably thinking: "This guy must not like this game very much". And that's where it gets complicated. See, for all its ridiculously hard and tiresome puzzling, the other half of the game is so captivating, so engrossing, so well-written, so humorous, so thoughtfully and lovingly crafted that it's almost as if the Nightmare Stages were just that: nightmares.

During the day, you will get to watch cutscenes, some in real time, others in high-quality anime FMVs, and during the evening, before going home to bed, you get to walk around the local bar and talk to friends and the other customers. It is at this point that you soon learn to appreciate the love and care that Atlus have poured into this game. It is here that you are reminded of the fact that this is the Persona team we're talking about, and they're probably the best writers in the JRPG genre around at the moment. The dialogues are well-written, splendidly acted, genuinely funny, heart-felt and just a pure joy to listen to. Kick up your feet, grab a drink, enjoy the relaxing music, and just hang out with this group of buddies as they chit-chat and talk about their lives.

The bar also has a juke-box that will allow you to change the BGM (new songs are unlocked by earning Trophies, the PlayStation ones), and contain some of composer Shoji Meguro's other famous works as well, which is a nice bit of fan-service. There is also a mini-game called Rapunzel which consists of YET MORE BLOCK PUZZLES, but more compact and without any time limit. Further entertainment includes drinking, which will result in some nice and humorous trivia of each drink being fed to the player in bite-size bits, as well as making you drunk, which will increase your moving speed during the Nightmare Stages.

You can also mess around with your cell phone, answering mails from both Catherine and Katherine. There is a degree of freedom to this, and the content of the mails you send is directly linked to one of the other major factors of this game: the karma meter (although it's not actually called that). Give a selfish answer, and your karma will decrease, give a positive answer, and it will increase. This is of direct influence on the ending of the game, and with 8 endings available it forms the major crux of the game's replayability. You are also asked a question when moving from a landing to the next Nightmare Stage, which also affects your Karma, and some answers later in the game are directly linked to the ending you get. As a nice bonus, once you have answered one of these questions, the game will show you the combined results of other players' answers (only for their first playthrough) to give you an indication of how depraved humanity actually is.

Karma can also be influenced by talking to other people in the bar and lending an ear to their troubles and giving them advice. Playing your cards right here will also determine the fate of these characters, since several of them can die along the course of the story if not properly encouraged. Quite disappointingly, however, it is only the ending that is influenced by your Karma and not the actual course of the story. I won't go into spoiler territory, but your behavior towards Catherine and Katherine alike will do nothing to influence the course of the story up to the very ending, even though that really doesn't make any sense. Also, the major plot twist that the game has in store for you is rather predictable (I could explain most of the game after only playing the demo) although it has a humorous twist to it that sets it slightly apart from games/movies that have had similar revelations in the past.

I can't help but feel that Atlus kind of dropped the ball on this one. They delivered a story that I, as a 31-year old found ultimately appealing and recognizable, with some great, realistic and humorous dialogues, and some excellent performances (veteran Norio Wakamoto as the bartender does what he does best and delivers a fantastic over-the-top weird old man), but combined it with gameplay that is hardly compatible with this target audience, requiring way too fast reflexes (I'm not 20 anymore!) and a very specific way of thinking that few people are going to find easy to master. It has so much going for it, but all of it is thrown together in such a way that it both attracts and alienates multiple audiences at the same time. People who are looking for a mature narrative with endearing characters will be in for a treat, but if you're looking for a game that has fun, well-balanced action, you might want to look elsewhere.

I can't help but wonder how this game will be received when it comes to the West. I hope it convinces people of how good the writing in Japanese games can be, and how original the experiences they provide, but I'm kind of afraid the threshold of the block puzzles is too high for most people to climb.

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Catherine (JP, 02/17/11)

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