Love it or hate it, it's a relationship that just might be worth diving into
Atlus is a brave publisher. Almost two years ago they brought Demon's Souls over to the States, where it became a cult hit of sorts. This year they've taken another big risk in bringing Catherine over. However, Catherine is almost nothing like Demon's Souls. Well, except for it's every bit as challenging.
At it's core Catherine is a puzzle game. You rearrange various blocks with the intention of climbing all the way to the top of the level to escape. You play as Vincent, an indecisive man who's life quickly begins to spiral out of control. He's been dating a girl named Katherine for years, and one day he finds himself in waking up with a strange woman, named Catherine, next to him. Later that day, things get more complicated. It's a mess that Vincent needs to figure out, and quick, because he's also started to have nightmares, which when he wakes up can't recall any details.
The gameplay is broken up into two different parts. The nightmares are the core of the action. It might seem simple to rearrange blocks, so you can climb to the top, but Catherine imposes a time limit. What then happens is a frantic struggle to rearrange blocks at random until you get a grasp of what you're supposed to be doing. Even worse, there are Catherine's equivalent to boss battles where the time limit is stricter, or the bosses will use various attacks to straight up kill you. The learning curve is rather steep as a result of this. In fact, it wasn't until after completing stage 6-3 that I got the hang of it all, and understood what I was supposed to do. Once I did get the sense of what I was doing, the rest of the game got fairly easy.
Throughout these stages, new kinds of blocks are introduced that require you to adjust how you go about getting to the top, because your previous method has become obsolete. It keeps the puzzles feeling fresh, but it makes things more frustrating, especially when you're under time constraints. What's mystifying about Catherine's difficulty though, is that, you'll want to keep playing. As frustrating as it can be, it's hard to quit. Maybe it's because you acquired 30 lives in the process of failing, and don't want to lose out on the checkpoint you've just gotten. Of course, it could just be me. Even when I cried that the puzzle was impossible, I couldn't stop myself from trying again and again.
Even with its difficulty and suffering dozens of tries with every puzzle, whenever I completed one, I can't say I felt the same satisfaction as beating any boss from Demon's Souls. I was almost dreading the completion of a puzzle, because it just meant I was back at square one. It's probably for the best that I figured things out when I did, because I'm not sure I would've liked the game at all. I'd say I figured things out at around the half-way point, and having to suffer through another half of a game would have been unpleasant, especially for one as long as this. I can't really speak for how quickly most players will be able to figure things out, but it should give you an idea, of where you'll find yourself when playing this game.
In between many of the puzzles, there is some down time. You can't visit with others stranded in this dream world, discover climbing techniques, and buy items. Items can be used to help get out of a tough spot, but you're only allowed to carry one at a time. In between the actual nightmares is the other main component of the gameplay, and it follows from this visiting with other unfortunate souls. It's refreshing, because after going through hell, you get to relax for a bit.
You're given various cutscenes after you survive the night of torment, and then you'll be let loose in the bar. You'll be able to talk to your friends, other patrons, and the bartender. Each has their own interesting life story they'll be willing to share. You can also drink, which will make you move faster during the nightmare phases of the game, and when you finish your glass, you'll be given little nuggets of liquor trivia. There is also a jukebox where you can choose the background music, and an arcade game Rapunzel. It takes the premise of the nightmare component, and puts it into an arcade style game. It's a neat little addition to the game, but it raises some questions. It just shows how basic the gameplay really is, and it's almost like the game is insulting itself.
The main part though, is receiving texts and calls from the two women in your life. You can really think about how you're going to respond, and how you respond will affect a "morality" slider and eventually the outcome of the game. What's troubling about it though, is Vincent always comes off as indecisive. Regardless of how you respond, you don't really get the feeling you're accomplishing anything. As the story progresses further and further, it becomes more and more apparent that your choices aren't going to affect much until the very end. It's almost as frustrating as the puzzles are early on, but one can easily appreciate what Atlus was trying to do at least.
The choice system is more forgivable, because of how unclear everything is all the time. You'll encounter real and/or pseudo-evidence that will make you second guess yourself, and wonder about both women. It's quite interesting how it all develops. It also doesn't hurt that the subject matter of infidelity is quite original for a game to be based around. It's also quite interesting that you could almost describe Catherine as a horror game. I imagine for many men, Vincent's situation is one of the last they'd want to end up in, and the nightmare sequences and boss battles play off of it well. The story does feel pretty clever at times, but towards the end, it gets a little off track. Overall though, it's quite an interesting tale in spite of this.
On the more technical side, the anime presentation may be something to love or to hate. It's very much based on your preference. As someone who's not a big anime buff, I didn't mind it at all. Some of the facial expressions got a little tired after awhile, but other than that, I think the game looked pretty solid, and carried with it its own style. The soundtrack seems fitting enough for what was happening, nothing really stands out, and the voice acting is a lot better than I anticipated it being. As cheesy as the game looks going in, it didn't really ever seem to be a deal breaker, in large part due to the solid production values and style Catherine carries. It certainly has its moments of bizarre, but something is charming about the whole experience.
I have some minor gripes about the control adding to the frustration of the game. At times it feels too sensitive, and at times it doesn't respond how you intend. Sometimes it feels like a puzzle to just figure out how to move around while hanging from a block. The most interesting part of the game though, to me, is the questions in between each nightmare stage. It's almost like a massive social experiment. If you play online you'll be able to see data of the responses of other players' on their first playthroughs. Relationship type questions like, "What would you do if someone of your sex was hitting on your partner?" help make a more interesting experience.
Catherine is a bit hard to judge. It's basically a puzzle game. The learning curve and amount of anger it'll try to squeeze out of you will make you want to quit, but for some reason you'll probably keep playing. It feels very much like a love or hate it game, but I find myself not really sitting on either side of the fence. Perhaps it is a love it while you hate it type of game. Like any relationship, it has its ups and downs. Give it a shot, and dump it, or give it a shot and stick with it through the good times and bad all the way to the end.