A Bitter Relationship
I love video games. I do. We've been together for a long time now, probably bordering on fifteen years. And while those years have been filled with joy, heartbreak, and triumph, I have to be honest: Video games, you've been getting boring. You just don't live in the moment like you used to! Remember the good old days of the SNES and Genesis, when you were so eager to please with new innovations like Mode 7 graphics and crazy gameplay gimmicks? Or how about the Playstation days, when it seemed a great new RPG was waiting to be discovered around every corner? Maybe it's just me growing older and more jaded, but lately you've just seemed so, I don't know... predictable. And have you stopped wearing your makeup? Because frankly, you've been looking a little grey and brown lately.
Okay, so I've taken that analogy way too far, but it still applies. Like its titular protagonist, Catherine is a breath of fresh air in a relationship that has grown stagnant. The creativity that blossoms from this game can outshine that of almost every game released so far this generation. Combined. It's almost somehow affirming of my decision to dedicate so much of my life on video games. Just when I was losing faith in games to handle complex, emotional issues with a delicate and thoughtful hand, games such as Catherine come along and show me that there is hope for greater meaning in gaming.
However, just because a game breaks new ground, that doesn't mean that it's, you know, a good game. Sadly, this truth is exemplified in Catherine, and by the time the credits roll much of the goodwill generated by its initial impressions has been squandered thanks to repetitive and highly frustrating gameplay.
Prior to its release, I was worried that Catherine's biggest crutch would be the odd juxtaposition of the simple block pushing puzzles that make up the gameplay against the story of romantic infidelity. While the pairing remains an odd one, this is far from the game's biggest failing, as the cube-based nightmare realm overlaps with reality in some startlingly clever ways. In fact, I'd have actually enjoyed the puzzles if they weren't so unfair. The difficulty shoots up so high towards the end that success feels more like an accident than something premeditated, even on the easiest settings. And just to be clear, I'm not complaining that the solutions to the puzzles are difficult to come by, or that I'm just too dumb to find the best path up. Rather, the pace at which the game expected me to solve the puzzles and the obstacles which they would throw in my way, obstacles which often came completely out of left field and caused an instant death, were just too much to take in.
It really is difficult to stress just how frustrating these sections can be. Without getting too deep into the late game story stuff, there are somewhere around ten worlds, each with multiple block towers to be climbed. From the sixth world onward, I ended up screaming at my television every time I turned the game on without fail. I retried the last level over 90 times before beating it, and I had a friend who took even more than that to get through it. Even worse, the game starts you with a set number of lives and, when these are depleted, you'll be sent back to your last save. This sounds kind of horrifying, but I never found the lives to be much of a concern. In fact, the game rewards you with lives so liberally that the opposite is true; even when retrying levels 90 times, I never once depleted my pool of lives. They're so numerous, it almost feels as if the game is taunting you. The towers are tough as nails, often unfairly so, and you die so many times, but the deaths don't even matter because the lives are so numerous, so why even bother making the towers so difficult in the first place?
I've never been one to knock points off a game because of difficulty. In fact, I enjoy a challenge, as long as it remains fair. I've already said it several times in this review, but I really can't stress how much Catherine's difficulty stretched my goodwill during my playthrough. Upon beating the sixth world, in which you must climb a tower made from ice and immovable stone while every few seconds the bottom stones crumble away into the abyss (instant death,) while a fiendish monster chases you up the tower (instant death,) while periodic waterfalls appear in random spots, pushing you into a near instant death, while random blocks remove themselves from the level's architecture and come hurtling at you (again, for an instant death,) I was greeted by the seventh world, which was even more frustrating. I just couldn't handle it anymore, and I put the game down for a month or so.
I'm glad that I ended up coming back and finishing the game, though, for what it lacks in gameplay it almost makes up for in story. Just the fact that Catherine has the guts to address something so non-traditional as relationship issues and infidelity in its story, much less make them the focal point of the plot, is enough to satisfy me. The fact that it actually handles these serious themes with a deft hand makes it even more satisfying. If Catherine were comprised of just the block puzzles, I'd have turned it off never to return within an hour. If it was nothing but the cutscenes and social interactions that make up the other third of the game, I'd have barreled through it in one sitting and come back hungry for more.
Like Atlus' Persona franchise, Catherine places a heavy emphasis on socializing with NPCs via multiple choice conversation topics. When faced with the prospect of cheating on your girlfriend, you can respond in a flirty way, eager for more action, or play it off as a mistake, or even try to reject the girl outright. This is a fairly binary example, but there are many questions in the game whose answers will require some careful contemplation. Not the least of these are the questions asked of you by a mysterious, disembodied voice at the conclusion of each level. Questions start out easy, like "Is marriage the beginning or end of life?" but quickly become more philosophical. Catherine is almost redeemed by the frequency and depth with which the game asks you to dig deep inside yourself for an answer. I feel like I have a clearer idea of who I am as a person because of answering some of the questions that Catherine poses. How often can you say that about a game?
It is for this reason that Catherine is worth playing. The gameplay, which starts inoffensively enough but quickly becomes infuriating, only serves to detract from the stunning examination of human morals that is the game's story. I was so taken in by the plot and the characters, which are both fantastic. But every time I ran out of socializing to do and had to play the actual game, I felt like I was transitioning from blissful dream to wretched nightmare. This is a game worth playing for the all the things it does differently, but I almost wish that the gameplay had taken a more traditional path. Like a bitter relationship, Catherine swings wildly from blissful to hellish and back again in the span of minutes.