Review: Catherine

I’m an avid supporter of choice, especially in video games. Tell me I can choose my own destiny, and you’ll have me hooked. Atlus’ latest darling, Catherine, presented an interesting dilemma: stay with your current, possibly pregnant girlfriend, or cavort with a sprightly blonde tart who mysteriously drops into your life? It’s a tale of two Catherines, one “good” and one “bad,” or so the game would have you believe. The temptation to cheat is great, but for some players, so is the desire to play it “safe” and ensure Katherine, Vincent’s current girlfriend, isn’t betrayed.

Me? I like to mix things up. I wouldn’t consider cheating an acceptable form of behavior in real life for any of my personal relationships, but when it comes to gaming, anything goes. Sometimes I play to escape stress. Sometimes I play to socialize. But I usually pick up a controller to have new experiences — whether I’d do them in real life or not, like with carjacking in Grand Theft Auto, I want to see what it’s like. And to discover that Catherine really doesn’t let you choose, per se, was quite the blow. In fact, quite the opposite occurs. Rather than playing toward a certain end with minor story adjustments along the way, you play for one of eight endings, all the while being pushed toward the societal good of sticking with Katherine — at least, that’s the impression I got: cheaters are “bad” and to explore anything out of the norm is absolutely wrong. And while I loved Catherine’s gameplay, anime cut scenes, and characters, its sense of morality I did not.

Catherine is so unlike any other game I’ve played in the recent past that it was much like a breath of fresh air: colorful, playful, sexy, and even more adult than I gave it credit for. Vincent, a thirty-something who spends most of his life at the Stray Sheep bar drinking his life away, just can’t win for losing. He’s just started a new job, his beautiful girlfriend Katherine (with a K) is pushing him to make the ultimate commitment, and he’s having some trippy nightmares. What’s more, men his age — some of them friends — are being found dead in their homes, still in bed. Could it be connected? As if things couldn’t get any more confusing for Vincent, our dimwitted hero, the cherubic Catherine (with a C) steps into the picture. The opposite of Katherine in every way, Catherine is ready to make Vincent hers, because for all intents and purposes, Vincent is unattached and available — because he can’t open his stupid mouth. This forces him into a rather precarious situation: break the heart of his current girlfriend and shirk the responsibilities marriage and parenthood will bring, or play it safe and finally take the trip to that altar Katherine’s been pushing for?

It might all sound like a dating sim or a visual novel, but those descriptors couldn’t be further from accurate. Gameplay is split evenly into two parts: time spent interacting with others at the Stray Sheep, Vincent’s favorite hangout for drinks, time with friends, and pizza, and the nightmare world that he is plunged into every night upon laying his head on the pillow. The nightmare world finds Vincent and plenty of other poor souls plunged into dangerous games of block-pushing, pulling, and climbing. Except all the other men there are sheep, and quite possibly people he actually knows in real life. Throughout several stages of the night Vincent must traverse ominous structures made only of blocks: slippery ones, exploding ones, cracked ones…you name it. In order to save himself from certain destruction, he must scramble to the top, ring a bell, and make a hasty exit.

But it’s not always that simple. Other climbers, stage hazards, and enormous boss monsters will try to keep Vincent from reaching the top, and even on the “easy” mode I found myself burning continue after continue, up to 40 at one time, just to get back up and keep going. Solving the puzzles put forth by attempting to figure out which blocks to push to make a pathway upward is addictive and satisfying, but it can be horrendously frustrating. And it’s not just the nefarious blocks that make it so. Sure, the puzzles will obfuscate, but the control scheme hinders your progress as well. Often, Vincent will dangle from the edges of blocks as a means to get from side to side, or even to hold on for dear life. It’s often a chore to pull yourself up on the correct block or navigate to a different one due to the unpolished controls. In the same beat, you’ll accidentally fall to your death due to many of the same beefs. I preferred using the analog stick to the Xbox 360′s unsavory D-pad, but even after purchasing a better controller and D-pad I still found it extremely difficult at times to maneuever Vincent and fell victim to plenty of cheap deaths that could have been easily avoided.

Aside from iffy controls and punishing difficulty at times, Catherine is a dream when you can successfully navigate each stage. As you collect coins and pillows that grant you retries (as well as utilize the almighty “Redo” available in Easy mode), you begin to realize that each new challenge is one that you can certainly tackle, given enough time. And you’ll keep crawling back, despite the fact that if you decide to quit in the middle of the stage after tagging a continue token, you’ll have to tackle the entire stage from the beginning. It’s maddening. But oh-so-satisfying, as you soon come to realize.

Unfortunately, what began as my favorite segment of the game quickly devolved into something I dreaded: time spent away from the nightmare world and in the Stray Sheep. Here, Vincent interacts with fellow bar patrons, friends, can engage in the arcade game Rapunzel (a full-fledged arcade title mirroring the nightmare world), and he can also answer text messages. He can partake of several different drinks, accompanied by interesting facts to go along with each drink type, and really get a feel for what is wrong with the world and the “cheaters” who inhabit it. Speaking to Vincent’s friends, bargoers, and hanging out here began as my absolute favorite part of the game, but it quickly began to grate on the nerves, especially when I realized that answering text message, despite the control you have over your response, really never mirrored my own thoughts on the outside. Despite my wanting to continue a relationship with Catherine rather than Katherine, I felt as though the game forced me time and time again to turn down her advances, her sexy picture mail (only viewable in the bathroom in the bar) and even time in person with her as she’d saunter in to Vincent’s seat. Speaking to Catherine would only produce some rather cold responses out of Vincent, and each time she’d ask if he were leaving — I could only say yes, or say no but do absolutely nothing. This frustrated me to no end.

In the end, I grew to hate each mundane segment and piece of storytelling, though I couldn’t wait to see how the story would eventually unfold. While the anime scenes and top-notch voice acting made interacting a pleasure (most NPC dialogue is fully-voiced), the fact that the virtually useless meter to measure your morality and even the game’s responses to my decisions only ended up making me feel as though I was playing it incorrectly by trying to be with Catherine. And in a game that parades choice but really wants to slut-shame and champion what society values as “good,” that’s to be expected, I suppose.

Catherine is still a magnificently challenging game despite its many shortcomings. And I have to say I enjoyed the time I spent with it, though I was massively disappointed by many of the same aspects I was lead to believe that, I would fall in love with. So much potential here for a video game to explore more decidedly adult topics, squandered on forced endings and arbitrary choices. The end result is quirky and satisfying, but not as intellectually challenging as I would have liked.

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