Have you ever been with a girl who was pushing you to get married, and you were a bit resistant, then a blonde girl with gravity defying hair shows up in your life and turns everything upside down? Yeah me neither, but after playing Catherine, I can imagine about what it would be like.
Catherine is the latest release from Atlus, the team behind the Persona and Trauma Center series (to name a few). The hardest thing about describing Catherine is finding something to compare it to. It is one of the strangest and most original games I have ever had the pleasure of playing. It mixes a strange, funny, and sometimes downright dark storyline with fast paced puzzle gameplay.
You play as Vincent Brooks, a thirty-two year old man unsure of the future he wants. When his long-time girlfriend, Katherine, starts talking about taking their relationship to the next level, Vincent gets a bit spooked. As if his fear of commitment wasn't enough, Vincent awakens the morning after his talk with Katherine to find a strange blonde, also named Catherine, in bed with him. Moreover, after waking, he is aware that he's had a terrible nightmare, but can remember little more than the fact that it was terrifying. This is where the puzzles begin.
Each night you arrive in a strange sheep-filled world, armed with only your boxers and trusty pillow. You are greeted with a tower of moveable blocks leading towards the only exit. The player must carefully analyse which path to take, but cannot take too long, because the bottom layers of the level will slowly but steadily fall into the abyss. You are able to climb only one block at a time, and can push an unlimited amount of blocks at once, but you are only able to pull one block at a time. You can also hang off the edges of blocks, allowing you to manoeuvre yourself around the tower. The game can be played with an outstanding number of techniques, which you will learn throughout the game in numerous different ways. To try to explain them all in this review would be impossible. For a game that seems simple, it actually has a lot of complexity to it.
You will have a set number of floors to complete every night, each having a 'landing' between them. Here you can save your game and interact with other sheep stuck in the nightmare with you. At each landing you can also buy an item of use in the forthcoming puzzles, which can be purchased with coins you collected during your climb. The merchant sheep offers different items for each stage, everything from energy drinks that allow you to climb multiple blocks at a time, to the ability to create a block in front of you; these can be very helpful if you are getting stuck in spots during the night.
To leave a landing and proceed to the next tower you must enter a church-like confessional. Here you will be greeted by a strange voice that seems to know a lot more about you than it should. You will also be asked a question, which can relate to anything from relationships to praying mantis mating habits. How you respond will affect your alignment in the games “Chaos versus Law” meter; Chaos refers to living a hectic life, one where you live however you want; what some may call freedom. Law is represented as being a peaceful, planned, and what some may consider dull, life. Your alignment with the meter will affect how Vincent thinks and responds throughout the game’s story and cut scenes. It will also determine which of the game’s eight different endings you will receive.
After you pick a response, you will be rocketed to the next puzzle. During the loading screen you will see the online statistics for other players' first time responses to the question you received, which I found to be a very cool little feature. I've played through the game several times and I'm still getting questions I hadn't seen before. The final floor for each night contains a 'boss' puzzle, the boss being a monster relating to something Vincent fears in his life. Each boss has a different attack it launches at you, and the boss will climb the tower behind you much faster than the blocks fall in normal stages.
Assuming you survive the night, you’ll awaken to another day. In Vincent’s case, this means more relationship problems and drinking at the local pub, The Stray Sheep. Every night you’ll meet up with your friends and have a drink, or two, or if you are going for achievements, four. You can choose from a cocktail, Japanese sake, beer, or whiskey. For each glass you finish you will be rewarded with a fun fact about said drink, as well as a drunken stagger when you get up and walk around the bar. Here you will also can send and receive text messages with your cell phone. As in real life, most of your time is spent texting members of the fairer sex, although sometimes your friends will send a text your way. These messages add to the story and you can reply to them with a variety of different responses. Like with most of the conversations in Catherine, depending on how you respond, it will affect the games “Chaos versus Law” meter. You can also save and replay previous puzzles with your cell phone, which provides a convenient way to go back and pick up any gold awards you missed.
While in the bar you can also talk to the other bar patrons. Talking to these people will expand the story and the way you respond to them can also affect your meter. The game is filled with little extras as well, such as 'Rapunzel', an arcade cabinet in the bar; this is a pixel arcade version of the game's climbing sections, with slightly different rules. Another extra is the jukebox, which allows you to change music in the bar; more songs unlock as you earn more achievements.
As you progress through the story, each level will become a bit harder. They add in new blocks with each night, such as frozen blocks you slide off of, explosive blocks that turn nearby blocks in crumbling rubble, spring blocks that launch you into the air, and even monster blocks that have a mind of their own - this keeps the game fresh and prevents it from becoming repetitive. I never found myself growing tired while playing, and the game has a learning curve that is nicely balanced. The pacing between puzzle, story, and bar time is spaced out wonderfully.
In addition to the main plot, the game offers several different modes highlighting the tower puzzles of the game. Competitive mode is a mode in which you compete against a local player to see who can earn the highest score on various different climbing stages. Another mode is ‘Babel’, named after the biblical story involving the enormous ‘Tower of Babel’. In this mode you must climb increasingly larger and tougher towers with a set difficulty. Each stage is unlocked by getting various amounts of gold awards from the main story. This mode is extremely difficult and is even stated as being for expert climbers only. Babel mode can also be played with a co-op buddy, but as with completive mode, this is sadly only locally and is not online enabled.
Overall I found Catherine to be a very fresh and fun game. I’ve replayed the game multiple times to unlock all the endings and the puzzles are still fun. The story itself is strange and interesting, and it's easy to empathize with Vincent. His situation is specific, but not so alien that the player feels as if they are watching a soap opera. Certain parts being portrayed in anime may worry some people, and I myself was in the same boat. Having never really cared for anime myself, I was afraid it would turn me off of the story, but after playing, I can safely say the games cut scenes are mostly done with in-game graphics, with only a few being actual anime-styled animation. What is done in anime style didn’t bother me, and I found myself actually enjoying them.
If you are in the mood for a new, fresh, and strange videogame with elements you’ve never seen together, then I suggest you give Catherine a whirl.
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