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After spending lots of time with the sordid tale of Catherine and putting down my controller to reflect on the experience, I felt refreshed. For all of the old, tired ideas that plague our industry, it was really nice to play something authentically different. And I mean really different, because Catherine is in no way, shape or form like anything you've ever played. But what's even more exciting about Catherine is that it's one hell of a game, too, and is wildly successful in most of what it attempts to do.

Catherine, from the minds at Atlus' Persona Team, tells the story of a man in his early 30s named Vincent Brooks. Vincent spends his days toiling in the tech industry and his evenings getting blasted with his friends at a local bar. He also has a girlfriend of several years, a nagging-but-caring woman named Katherine. Yes, that's Katherine with a "K." Katherine has been pushing Vincent as of late to take their relationship to the next level, prodding him to solidify their bond. But Vincent's unsure of what he wants to do.
His decision is initially made easier when another girl unexpectedly enters his life. This girl's name is Catherine -- that's Catherine with a "C" -- and after a drunken night of debauchery, Vincent wakes up in his bed to find this buxom blond bombshell naked next to him. Immediately filled with regret, Vincent's quest is to get out of the sticky situation he's found himself in, even if he's doubtful about his future with Katherine and mildly curious about what a girl like Catherine would possibly want with him. And worse yet, the situation has plagued him with chronic sheep-filled nightmares that threaten to kill him in real life (these nightmares make up the core puzzle gameplay of Catherine, but more on that shortly).

Does this plot sound unusual for a video game? It no doubt is, and it's Catherine's strongest point. Sure, the game looks really nice and has an awesome accompanying soundtrack, but it's the fact that the game deals with two issues in particular that gaming pretty much never broaches -- a fear of commitment and cheating on your loved one -- that lends to its uniqueness. But when you get into the nitty-gritty of how the game plays and how you explore the story, you'll realize that there's a lot more to this game than just plot. There's difficult puzzle gameplay, plenty of conversation to partake in, choices to make, and even a morality system to keep an eye on that gives the game inherent replay value.

In Catherine, nightmares equate to difficult block puzzles.
Catherine is separated into over a week's worth of days and nights, and Vincent will have to get through each of them in essentially the same way. After a series of cutscenes introduces you to the day in question, you'll find Vincent with his pals at a bar called the Stray Sheep, ready to down some drinks. The Stray Sheep is the game's hub of activity, where you'll be able to pick various people's brains, and figure out just what's going on in the real world that's contributing to Vincent's nightmares.

Once you're done drinking and conversing for the evening, it's time to bring Vincent home. When he's tucked into bed, his nightmares persist, and Catherine's hardcore puzzle gameplay begins in earnest. Each of the puzzles plays fairly identically to the next in premise, though the difficulty of them increases exponentially the further you manage to get through the game.
By rearranging a sequence of blocks, Vincent is expected to work his way to the top of each tower he encounters. When the game starts to throw in heavier blocks, blocks that break underneath you, blocks made of ice, blocks that explode, and more, you'll quickly find out that Catherine will challenge your very mettle as a gamer. Plus, each puzzle is timed, as blocks fall from underneath the tower, forcing you ever-upward. There are even boss battles to occasionally contend with.
Once you get through any given night's puzzles, you'll be back in the real world, able to explore the story once more. I felt a real eagerness as I played through the puzzles simply because I wanted to learn more about the plot, and while I think that the puzzles are difficult to the degree that they'll turn some gamers off, I suspect that most players will feel a real rewarding sense of accomplishment by getting deeper into the tale. If anything, the game's compelling subject matter and amazing cast of characters will have you keep trying on those pesky puzzles just to see another day.

Playing between day and night in Catherine gives the game much-needed structure and lets you know what to expect next. While the puzzle sequences are tense and require rapidity and thought, you can leisurely spend your time at the Stray Sheep drinking some booze, speaking with the patrons and your friends, and even getting your kicks with the jukebox (that plays unlocked tracks from Catherine's amazing soundtrack) and an arcade title called Rapunzel (which is a meta-game using the same rules as the nightmare puzzles). Think of your time at the bar as much needed respite from the dangers of Vincent's nightly events. Plus, the drunker you get at the bar, the spryer Vincent will be in his dreams.

Vincent finds resisting Catherine's charms extremely difficult.
Catherine has more to offer than just its core, cyclical gameplay. Scoring gold medals by completing puzzles quickly will unlock new, more difficult stages to play through, and local multiplayer will be unleashed once you beat the game in its entirety. But these are all asides to what is a main game that itself is well worth the price of admission. Those are simply little extras that serve as unnecessary -- but welcome -- icing on the cake of one hell of a story-driven experience.
Closing Comments

As if it wasn’t already obvious, I loved my time with Catherine. In many ways, I was completely blown-away by it. While I’m sure some gamers will be turned-off by its anime-style presentation and difficult gameplay, I implore those of you who are looking for something authentically different and outright fun to give Catherine a go. This isn’t a game just for puzzle fans or just for those who love anime. This is a game that melds so much together and is so different than anything else on the market that it’s for just about anyone who really loves games.


Post Mon, 25 Jul 2011 02:10:02
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