Giant Bomb Review619 Comments
by Jeff Gerstmann on
You won't find another game on the market that's quite like Catherine, but it fumbles too frequently to work.
There aren't a lot of games out there like Catherine, and even fewer of them exist in English-speaking territories. That's probably one of the best things going for Atlus' boys-to-men tale about a love triangle with a supernatural twist. It seems that unfaithful men are dying in their sleep, and you'll quickly find yourself caught among their ranks as you figure out what to do with the two girls in your life by day and climbing a seemingly endless supply of block towers in your sleep. You'll need to be adept at both if you want things to end your way, but Catherine's limited character interaction, shallow characters, and monotonous puzzles combine to form a unique experience that feels frustratingly limited in every respect.
In the game you'll play as Vincent, a weak, wishy-washy sort of guy who's always getting admonished or outright bossed around by his longtime girlfriend, Katherine. Just as he's lamenting that he's not sure he's ready to commit further in this relationship, a younger woman named Catherine stumbles into his life, and before long, he's cheating on his girlfriend with Catherine, who, by comparison, seems completely carefree and indifferent about, well, everything. Being faced with a choice between carefree youth and the increasing responsibilities of adulthood only intensifies as the story proceeds. Before long, things get decidedly supernatural as rumors start of nightmares that are killing traitorous men in their sleep and, sure enough, cheating Vincent finds himself in a nightly fight for survival against endless block-filled towers and his own worst fears.
The interactive parts of Catherine are broken into two separate chunks. When awake, you'll watch a lot of cutscenes and hear a lot of dialogue, but you'll eventually find yourself turned loose in a bar, where your friends gather at the end of every night. In the bar you can walk around and talk to the various patrons, many of whom are also enduring the same nightly ordeals that you are, but no one can really remember their dreams all that clearly. Most of the dialogue has you sitting and listening to their stories, but you'll occasionally get to make a dialogue choice that might just give them the encouragement they need to survive the night's trials. You'll also receive text messages from the two ladies in your life, and how you respond to them--or, in fact, if you respond to them--helps determine how the story unfolds by swinging an alignment meter one way or the other. Generally speaking, it'll shift to the blue side if you're choosing the responsible options that Katherine might agree with or red if your decisions are more in line with something that free-wheeling Catherine might do. The interactions feel incredibly limited, and there isn't that much to do in the bar before heading home and starting the next action stage unless you're interested in playing a retro-styled arcade version of the block puzzles that make up the rest to the game or working over the jukebox, which slowly gives you access to Catherine's soundtrack, as well as select cuts from Persona 4 and other Atlus releases.
At night, the action begins, as Vincent finds himself surrounded by sheep at the foot of a large tower of blocks. You can push or pull the blocks around, and the goal is to quickly climb the tower. The game starts out slowly to show you the basic logic behind the blocks' properties. For example, blocks will attach at diagonal edges, so you don't always need to have a block directly underneath another block for support. Once you've got the basics, later levels start introducing special blocks, like ones that crumble when you step on them, or trampoline-style blocks that let you jump up and grab onto ledges you wouldn't be able to reach otherwise, or ice blocks that cause you (and the blocks you're pushing) to slip and keep moving. Once you get the logic behind how the blocks move and start to see solutions in the puzzles instead of just a mountain of blocks, it isn't impossibly difficult. Unfortunately, that moment didn't happen for me until I was most of the way through the game. But the difficulty of the individual puzzles isn't what brings Catherine down. It's their repetitive nature. It feels like there are tons of levels in the game, and they're all roughly the same. The special blocks change things up a bit, and you'll have to climb towers while running away from a large boss-style monster during the last puzzle of every night, but the act of pulling and pushing blocks around to form staircases and create paths doesn't hold up for the entire game, and by night three or four (which is a little before the game's halfway point), I found myself not wanting to play anymore.
The big issues with Catherine are that the gameplay of block puzzles gets old fast and the way the characters develop in the story isn't engaging enough to pick up the slack. Despite being able to make choices that sway the alignment meter and alter the outcome of the story, Vincent's behavior usually doesn't line up with the choices you've made. Even if you're very clearly steering him in one direction, the story beats essentially force him to remain mostly indecisive right up until the final set of challenges. In my case, this resulted in a Vincent who was constantly saying that he was looking to remain true to Katherine, yet kept having nervous breakdowns about Catherine and her feelings. Considering how pushy and psycho Catherine acts, it's hard to imagine anyone feeling the need to "let her down gently." With the characters written that way, it's hard to care about the story very much, especially when you consider that most of your choices are made in-between action stages, where a confessional booth acts as some sort of personality test, asking this-or-that questions about how you'd act in specific situations and so on. It feels like the decisions you're making are almost completely detached from the story itself.
That said, the story sequences themselves are pretty well-made. There are a handful of fully animated sequences, but even the in-engine stuff is sharp, colorful, and full of personality. Some of the characters you'll meet around the bar have interesting side stories that are told both in and out of the dream world, and the voice cast is solid enough to make those stories work. It's a shame that most of the game's strongest points are practically crammed into the margins to make room for more block pushing.
It's certainly not awful, but too many aspects of Catherine felt like they were actively trying to push me away. More variety in the gameplay would have helped, as would more meaningful interactions with the game's cast. As it stands, the coolest thing about Catherine is that there really isn't anything else out there like it. If that's enough for you, you'll probably have a better time with the game than I did.