Gaming Age


Catherine
By Atlus
PlayStation 3 (US Version)

A unique tale of cheating gone horribly wrong from the folks behind the Persona series.

Catherine

Catherine is probably the hardest game I'll play all year, I really had no clue it was going to be this tough. This is the new game coming from the Persona Team, published by Atlus for Xbox 360 and PS3. It's a puzzle/action hybrid, where you'll control the main character and guide him through nightmare induced levels that involve pushing blocks into place to climb a large wall. The main character, Vincent, is in the middle of a moral quagmire, having just cheated on his possibly pregnant girlfriend of five years. The nightmares he faces every night are draining him of his sanity, and may be tied into the mysterious girl that he's currently having an affair with. Oh, and her name is Catherine. And his girlfriend's name is Katherine. Oh boy.

From a story perspective Vincent's dilemma is actually handled really well. If you have any experience with the last couple Persona titles, you know that this team is capable of producing some top notch stuff plot wise. Catherine is no slouch in this regard, and the fact is you'll spend about half your time watching cutscenes that play out the story instead of actually pushing blocks and climbing through the stages of the nightmares. For some games this would be a negative, but it works out here due to the excellent writing and passable dub work. I do wish we could get the option for the original language track, since subtitles are present, but the dubbing works well, and features some notable voice actors that fans will recognize from other Atlus titles.

Along with the story, you can help guide Vincent's choices as the tale progresses. It does feature the somewhat common morality meter found in other titles like Mass Effect, and some of the answers to questions asked can be a little obvious in their intent. After finishing stages of the nightmares you'll be asked a morality question that's meant to be aimed at the player more so than Vincent. These factor into your meter, and then there's also story specific moments that you can make decisions in that will play a role as well. Finally, there's some optional dialogue that you can entertain with various side characters that will allow you even more opportunities to swing the meter to the left or right. Essentially you can bounce back and forth between Freedom and Order (bad and good, respectively) multiple times in one playthrough, as it doesn't take much to move the meter either way. This plays into the ending you receive, which there appears to be multiple versions of.

Catherine

Besides the block climbing and story watching, Vincent gets some limited interactions with other characters via his local bar, which essentially acts as the hub world for Catherine. At the bar you can speak with Vincent's buddies, talk to other bar patrons, view and send text messages from different characters, play the optional arcade game Rapunzel, and down a few drinks. The characters you encounter in the bar eventually make their way into Vincent's nightmare stages at different landing points that break up the levels in each nightmare. These characters are also facing some moral dilemma that's put them in harm's way, and Vincent can possibly save their lives by providing the right type of support via dialogue choices. Drinking at the bar will power Vincent up in his dreams, allowing him to move quicker, and then everything else you encounter there is just optional story building material. It's also the only place to save in between nightmares, which I'll harp on a bit more in a second.

The actual gameplay, to flesh out the whole block climbing thing a bit, is hard as hell. At the beginning of a nightmare stage, Vincent is placed at the ground floor of a wall of blocks, which he must pull, drop, and push in order to advance up the wall. Each block is the size of Vincent himself, meaning he can only climb one at a time, and needs to stagger the blocks in a way that makes them climbable. However, while the blocks might look suspended in mid-air, they are dependent on other blocks for support. If you move one block away and its sides are not touching another, it will fall and possibly be lost forever. You can easily screw yourself over on these stages, and as the game progresses you'll do so often.

Along with that, the blocks below you are constantly crumbling, meaning you only have so much time to progress upwards. This becomes even more important during boss stages, where you're typically chased by a large monster that will not only tear down the blocks quickly, but also has specific attacks that can kill Vincent outright. Some of these fights are downright ridiculous in nature, and by the time I hit the boss of the 4th nightmare, I had to switch from Normal to Easy difficulty just to finish the game. Finally, as you progress into harder nightmares, the game will toss new block types at you. These include ice blocks, which will slide over other blocks more than one space, but will also cause you to slide over them and right off the edge if you're not careful. There are bomb blocks, which will activate if you step on them, broken blocks that can only be stepped on a number of times, monster blocks that have a mind of their own, and so on. Along with that you'll encounter random enemies, sheep, which are also trying to climb the wall and will attempt to knock you off of blocks or just outright kill you.

Catherine

The gameplay itself is pretty fun, even though it can be ridiculously hard, but it does have some flaws. For one, the camera in the game is awful. You have limited control over it to move it up, down, left and right. However, you don't have full 360 control over its movement, and occasionally it'll get into this overhead angle that can really obscure your view. This becomes even more frustrating when you're trying to maneuver Vincent around the backside of the wall, which is necessary on occasion, because the camera literally will not pan around with him. Also, since his movement is reversed when he's climbing around the back, it can get unnecessarily difficult to move Vincent to his desired spot.

I also found the controls to be a little too touchy at times, I'd often go hanging off of an edge of a block I didn't intend to, or accidentally push a block in the wrong direction. The game does allow you the ability to back up a few moves by tapping the select button, which mostly alleviates this complaint. However, in the heat of the moment, especially during the boss sequences, not having precise control over my movement often led to a heated one way exchange between me and my TV.

Another issue I had with Catherine was the checkpoint and save system. The game requires manual saves from the player, not unlike a lot of RPG's. You can either save in the bar, via Vincent's cell phone menu, or in between floors of each nightmare. Some nightmares are broken up into three or more floors, and being able to save in between them is fine. But, only being able to save inside the bar means that you can often have a large gap of time after finishing a stage before you can save again. Why I don't have the option to save my game right after I finish a nightmare, instead of having to sit through numerous cutscenes before reaching the bar hub is beyond me. This is less of an issue if you've got 8 hours to sit down and power through the game, but if you're trying to tackle a level before work or before you go to bed, it's not convenient to have to sit through more story after you finish a level before you can save.

Catherine

The checkpoint system that you encounter while in the nightmare levels is usually pretty fair, but seems inconsistent at times. There are stages you'll encounter where the checkpoints are spaced out quite a bit, while other stages involve checkpoints that are very close together. If there was a little more uniformity in how these checkpoints are placed it would lead to a little less frustration when you fail after a particularly long sequence.

The last thing I'll mention is that the PS3 version of the game does have some odd sound issue involving the sound volume when switching between the animated scenes and the rest of the game. The volume in the animated scenes is noticeably louder than everything else, which is apparently a known issue that a patch will be fixing shortly. It's worth mentioning though, as I was frequently annoyed by needing to adjust volume while switching between cutscenes and stages.

Overall I think Catherine is a pretty solid game, and certainly unique, but by no means perfect. I'd expect a little better from the Persona Team, as I absolutely love that series, but I'm a little let down by what Catherine had to offer. The game looks and sounds great, but the gameplay isn't quite my thing. Lots of little annoyances bring the experience down, and overall sap my will to play through it again anytime soon. The optional modes tacked on, like the challenging Babel and vs. Colosseum mode are nice, but their multiplayer is restricted to local only. The additional material included with the game, consisting of a nice little artbook and sound sample CD are cool for people picking this up day one, but aren't quite enough to make this a must buy. I'd strongly suggest playing the demo before dropping $60 for this one, as I really feel like this is a mixed bag. It certainly tempers my expectation for the next thing the Persona Team tackles outside of an actual Persona game.

Dustin Chadwell

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