Monday, August 1, 2011

Love Is Over? The Catherine Review

Catherine is definitely not your everyday video game. This is not a game that incorporates the conventional themes you'll see in most games today, but more about what themes that are rarely used in this medium of entertainment. You're not playing as a character that eventually becomes a hero. Instead, you're playing someone that struggles to deal with maturity, love, and freedom as he tries to figure out what is right for him now and his future. The Persona team at Atlus are able to tackle such issues in such an unique and fascinating way with Catherine, their first game on the current generation of consoles. It is definitely one of the most original games I played in a while.

The story of Catherine is about a man named Vincent Brooks, who is 32 years old and in a relationship with his girlfriend Katherine McBride. She tells Vincent that their relationship should be taken to the next step, which is a telling sign for engagement and marriage. Throughout the game, Vincent deals with his struggle whether or not he is ready to take that next step and accept the new responsibilities being thrown at him, but he randomly meets Catherine, who definitely has the looks of a young dream girl to most guys fulfilling their personal desires. This all leads to Vincent getting nightmares while sleeping as he has to climb up block puzzles as a man with sheep horns to stay alive in the real world. Players have to decide Vincent's future of handling the love triangle he is faced with of choosing to stay with Katherine or cheat to be with the younger Catherine while figuring out why he has weird nightmares as well.

The majority of the gameplay in Catherine is the nightmare stages which consist of block puzzles as I mentioned earlier. Within a time limit of losing blocks, Vincent has to reach the top of the level by moving blocks to climb up to the goal. This sounds easy on paper, but out of the gate, these block puzzles can be challenging to solve especially in the later half of the game. Simple tactics can get you far in most stages such as making staircases, but as the game progresses, more advanced techniques are pretty much required to beat these levels. These advanced techniques can be learned in the landings, which appear in between levels talking with fellow sheep. Special items that appear in most levels are also useful in tight situations from clearing out enemies that are in your way to having an extra block help you climb more steps. The block puzzles are definitely harder later on once more special blocks such as trap blocks with spikes, ice blocks which can cause you to slide into death if you're not careful, and blocks that can't be moved at all. Additionally, the sketchy controls can be a problem for most players where moving the camera around does not really help at all and movement while hanging from a block can be an issue when the controls flip around at times. Then there is the boss battles at the end of each stage where an ugly creature that resembles Vincent's nightmare comes out attempting to deny Vincent of survival. These bosses have powers that can ruin Vincent's night such as changing normal blocks to dark blocks that are heavier to move and even switching your controls. Even on easy difficulty, playing Catherine for the first time is one of the most challenging games you'll play this year, but if you're willing to think outside the box to solve these puzzles and not get stumped, you'll be able to progress through the crazy story fine.

There is a scoring system among all that climbing which ranks you on how fast you reached the top, collecting extra money at random spots, and keeping a high chain of steps climbed. Gold, silver, and bronze prizes are handed out at the end of each stage pending how high your score was which can be compared in the game's online leaderboards. Even though most players would be happy with silver or bronze prizes so they can progress through the story, there are unlockable bonus stages as you collect gold prizes, which are not easy to get especially on normal and hard difficulties. Catherine does a pretty good job of making each difficulty drastically different to encourage multiple playthroughs as the harder the difficulty it is, the more blocks you have to deal with to climb your way to the top making levels longer to beat. There is also definitely a sense of satisfaction when you figured out the right solution to these puzzles and getting out of tight situations. However, these block puzzles will become a grind to the point repetition kicks in (especially at the end of the game) for most players if you're playing just for storyline purposes.

Every night, Vincent hangs out at the Stray Sheep bar, another focal point of the gameplay in this game, with his friends Jonny, Toby, Orlando, and Erica. He gets their opinion of the problems he is dealing with throughout the game. There are a variety of things to do when in Stray Sheep as he can help out other people having similar issues by encouraging them, drink more to have a better chance of succeeding in the nightmare stages, answer texts from the girls he is dating, and even play a 8-bit version of the block puzzles called Rapunzel. The texting in this game is pretty basic as Vincent types a general response to the girls, which influence the law/chaos meter (I'll talk about that in a bit). He can also leave at any time to start up the nightmare, but you'll likely miss out on some conversations that can be vital later on. The Stray Sheep sections are a good break from watching all the cutscenes and surviving the nightmare stages, but you are not really doing much in these parts unless you're willing to go for the various achievements/trophies.

The law/chaos meter is what decides Vincent's position in the love triangle he has to deal with. It is a different take on the whole morality aspect that recent games have been trying to implement. Vincent's decisions throughout the game influence this meter and dictate which one of the eight endings you'll get choosing to be with Katherine if you stick with the law side or Catherine if you choose the side of chaos . These decisions range from responding to texts, helping out other NPCs, and answering the confessional questions in between levels. The confessional questions can be either obvious in one direction or even 50/50 as these are questions you always real yourself in real life, which can hit home a lot of people currently in relationships. The results can be quite shocking when tallied up by online polls, similar to one of L.A. Noire's intuition points. Personally, I was surprised how people certain questions, which can be something like do you want to have more responsibility in your life? Then again, it is hard to tell whether or not players are answering honestly unless they are going to beat the game only once, or pick the chaos answer just because they want to get a bad ending. At times, it can be difficult to tell whether certain responses are right for which side you'll choose in some conversations as you might pick the one that sounds a lawful response, but ends up being the other way around. Despite some flaws with the mechanic, I still liked how the law/chaos system generally works in the game.

Graphically, Catherine looks great considering it is a Japanese game sticking to a slick graphical style. Atlus balanced out the ratio of in-game and anime-like cutscenes pretty well for the most part. The anime scenes done by Studio 4C do look like you're watching an actual anime show at some points. The Gamebryo engine looks fine in the current generation of consoles as the characters definitely have their distinctive looks. The bosses during block puzzles definitely look weird and ugly in a good way as they are intended to be. As for the sound, I was a little skeptical of the English voice cast for the game since there was no option for Japanese VOs with subtitles, but they turned out great. There is definitely a sense of attachment with some characters as you'll feel bad for Vincent at times for what he has to deal with. It is great to see how character progression is handled throughout the game with the English voices and the story as things do get tense and emotional in heated moments. The soundtrack is also beautifully done as well from the nice classical tunes in the nightmare stages, the rap song in the intro, and other chill tunes that can be played in the Stray Sheep's jukebox (which also includes songs from past Atlus games).

Even though it is flawed at times, Catherine is one of the more unique games out there due to how it tackles themes rarely seen in today's gaming market. It has been fascinating to be playing as a protagonist that struggles to find the right path for his future, whether he is ready to settle down becoming a mature adult, or just be another person fulfilling his own wants and desires not being tied down. The block puzzle gameplay can turn some people off especially when things get hard to the point you die more than a dozen times before finding the right solution, but the game hands out extra lives like candy if you're worried about that. For those that just want to see how the story pans out, it is recommended to start on easy and go on to a harder difficulty on a later playthrough. Speaking of later playthroughs, Catherine has a good amount of replay value after beating the main game with bonus babel stages to unlock, the Colosseum mode (local multiplayer with only two players), and getting the multiple endings. I am actually interested how various audiences will play this game whether if they are single or currently in a relationship with a significant other in terms of the decision making especially with the confessional questions. Catherine is surely not for everyone, but if you are willing to play a game that is refreshing while having that crazy Japanese flare, this is definitely worth picking up.

Score = 8.5/10

  • Very good and refreshing storyline that deals with such themes rarely seen in games such as love, maturity, and freedom.
  • Unique gameplay for a puzzle game
  • Solid implementation of the law/chaos system
  • Great graphics and sound (Anime cutscenes, soundtrack, and English voices as examples)
  • Good replay value with multiple endings and bonus modes
  • The difficulty curve can turn players off especially in the later half of the game where things can get extremely hard, but not impossible (even on easy)
  • Controls can get become problematic at times especially in tight situations
  • Some minor decisions that you make might not go the way you wanted at first