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Game Review: Catherine

By / Posted on 18 August 2011

CatherineThere was never any doubt that Catherine would be a game rife with controversial material. The development team, best known for the Persona series of JRPGs on the Playstation 2, made waves by having the core mechanic of a previous game be forcing teenagers to simulate suicide by pointing a spirit pistol at their head and pulling the trigger to release the demon warriors trapped in their brains. While the Persona series never ran short on boundary-pushing material, it was always well-considered, thought provoking, emotionally engaging and, most surprisingly, rated by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board as T for Teen (the videogame equivalent of a PG-13 movie). Finally, the Persona team at Atlus are done making high school students battle demons both personal and otherworldly, and have moved on to emotionally immature adults escaping from and confronting demons both personal and otherworldly. Also, it’s rated M for Mature (like an R-rated film). Yeah, things are about to get weird.

From a strict story standpoint, Catherine tells the tale of Vincent, a man-child who is afraid of commitment, caught in a love triangle between his no-fuss long-term girlfriend Katherine and the spunky free-spirit Catherine who goes home with him after a late night at the bar. There’s a curse, of course, that all men who cheat are haunted by their fears and worries in a horrible nightmare that ultimately kills them. Seemingly healthy people all over town are dying in their sleep and now Vincent is having these same nightmares. The decisions you make when responding to texts from either Katherine or Catherine or talking to the other men at the bar or within the nightmares you experience together decide Vincent’s morality, which culminates in one of six endings for the story.

Catherine Nightmare

The 'Nightmare' portion of the game.

While Persona took a fairly straightforward turn-based dungeon crawl role-playing game and gussied it up with an ingenious social networking simulation, Catherine takes the same focus on interpersonal relations and wraps it around an original action puzzle game. The “Nightmare” half of Catherine is a series of sliding block platforming tower puzzles – a narrow citadel of ornate cinder blocks. The exit is high at the top, and the bottom is steadily crumbling into the ether, so climb like you life depends on it, because rumor has it everyone who dies in the dream dies in real life. The puzzles start out fairly simply – arrange blocks to make a staircase to the top – and become more taxing as Vincent ascends, involving trick blocks that act in specific manners, enemies who obstruct Vincent’s path, and more advanced techniques in arranging and traversing the blocks. While a sliding block puzzle may seem a rather uninspired choice for such a daring dev team, especially as their first hi-definition title, the puzzles are surprisingly compelling. Like so many other puzzle games (Dr. Mario, Puzzle League) it’s easy to find your own thoughts drifting to block-sliding techniques when you’re miles away from your game console, scheming exciting new ways to rework your surroundings to your advantage.

Catherine Stray Sheep

The 'Stray Sheep' portion of the game.

While the bulk of the major gameplay is made up of “Nightmare” puzzles, the truly fascinating aspects come into play during the “Stray Sheep” half of Catherine. Vincent meets up with his friends at the local dive bar every night, and this is where the narrative truly progresses. Just like maintaining friendships in Persona helped your hero gain skills in battle, talking to people at the bar allows Vincent to befriend them, understand their problems, and help them survive the nightmares, as well as share advanced techniques for ascending the tower. Most amusingly, consuming drinks from the bar makes Vincent move faster in the nightmares, and each finished drink brings with it fun morsels of cocktail trivia from the omnipresent narrator. These quirky touches and warm senses of community truly make the game feel alive and personable, creating a rich cast of diverse characters that are easy to become invested in.

Two wildly different but deeply immersive playstyles, the presentation of a late night B-movie showcase, a sharp and dark sense of humor, and a healthy smattering of fourth-wall-breaking make Catherine a stunning experiment in commercial gaming. The game even shows you results of an online poll of players’ answers to questions like “Could you show the contents of your cell phone inbox to your lover?” and “Is romance annoying?” Unfortunately, the slow and laborious gameplay makes experiencing the multiple endings a bit of a chore, but the personality if so fascinating and charming that you won’t mind a second go, providing you liked the first playthrough. Precious few moments in recent gaming history have been quite as terrifying or as thrilling as being chased up a wall by a giant demon baby with a chainsaw screaming for its negligent father’s love. Yeah, this game is weird in the very best way.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.