Monday, 9 April 2012

Review: Catherine

Catherine has a lot going for it; a beautiful visual style, a deep yet accessible puzzle system and an absorbing story all come together to make Catherine a truly unique experience, and one that won't soon be forgot. Catherine mixes together puzzle levels, where you have to climb a tower before the time runs out, with story focused sections. In the story sections the main protagonist, Vincent, can talk to other characters, drink to reflect on what's happened over the course of the last day and play a mini-game that is just as deep as the rest of the game. Every night Vincent has a nightmare which is where he climbs a tower and over the course of the game he is trying to work out why this is happening to him and other people; some of who he knows.

The puzzles centre around climbing a tower of blocks which you can push, pull and climb up one at a time; you have to create a path upwards using different techniques that you learn throughout the game or devise for yourself. The game is split up into eight chapters and each chapter has two to four levels. New block types are introduced throughout the game and serve to increase the complexity of puzzles and force you to re-evaluate how you approach a problem. As you climb up you encounter other people, who appear to you as sheep, who are in the same situation as you and over the course of the game become more and more aggressive. Not all of the other sheep are bad though and in the landings between levels you can buy items, discuss strategies and talk to them about their general state of mind. The puzzling in this game is great with enough variation in block types and techniques required to keep it interesting over the course of the game.
Pushing, pulling and climbing may sound simple but the puzzles get really complex and require a lot of thought to overcome.
At the end of each chapter there is a boss that really puts to test what you have learnt over the course of the last chapter as it chases you up the tower. The boss sections are particularly well done throughout the game and really convey a sense of urgency as you have to quickly climb a tower while dodging their special attacks. The bosses are quite heavy handed metaphors as they take on the form of issues that Vincent has been dealing with over the course of the last day, but are still terrifying none the less. You have the ability to undo your last move as you are climbing which does allow you to cheat the bosses a bit as undoing resets their attack patterns and removes any of the items that they through at you; it's a shame the bosses are so easily cheated as it does take away from the sense of urgency slightly, though they are still difficult.

The story revolves around Vincent's relationships with his long term girlfriend Katherine and the mysterious Catherine who he seems to keep sleeping with. One of my main problems with the game was that I didn't like Katherine or Catherine and didn't understand why Vincent would want to be with either of them. The story focused sections take place in Vincent's favourite bar, the Stray Sheep, where Vincent receives and replies to text messages from his love interests. At the bar you can also talk to your friends and the other patrons, who seems to be experiencing the same nightmares as you. You can also play an arcade machine at the bar which has similar mechanics to the main game, but your number of moves is limited instead of your time; overall there are 128 levels to try and they mostly require more thought than the main game.
The landings in-between levels give you a chance to talk to the other 'sheep', learn techniques and buy items.
Not only do your choices affect what Vincent says throughout the game, but also the ending in quite a profound way. There are 8 endings in total and the range of outcomes affect more than what colour t-shirt Vincent wears in the end. I didn't like the grand reveal towards the end of the game as the reasoning for why what was happening was happening seemed pretty weak, but I don't think that this affects your enjoyment of the end of the game as this is before the final chapter and after that everything is great. On each landing between chapters is a confessional booth that asks the player a questions which affects a law/chaos meter and in the long run affects which ending you receive; how you treat the girls also has implications in this.  

Catherine's visual style is beautiful throughout, with a Japanese manga feel that percolates through every aspect of the game, from the gameplay to the cut-scenes. Vincent's facial expressions are priceless and very much in keeping with the theme of the game and really help to convey what he is feeling in a classic Japanese manga way. There is a lot of voice work in the game and it is all done to a really high standard; the only point where the audio annoyed me was during boss fights as what they say gets quite repetitive. As a character I found Vincent to be very relatable as someone afraid of commitment but having to deal with growing up and all that comes with it such as marriage and having kids, even though I'm not at that point in my life.
Vincent's voice acting and facial expressions are spot on in conveying what he is thinking at any time.
Overall Catherine is a really entertaining game; you may be attracted to the story but the puzzle elements are also really engaging, which is important as you will spend a long time with them. I felt that the game was overly long, but to some extent you can control how long the game is by what difficulty you choose. Harder difficulties require you to think further ahead as the paths forwards are less obvious and may require more block moves to advance. Be aware that easy should be considered normal and normal considered hard and hard should only be attempted by the mentally insane. Catherine offers a great and unique experience and deserves a lot of respect for trying something new. 

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