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In a Nutshell

  • Graphics: 83
    Visuals are very stylish and attractive (in more ways than one), but the puzzle sequences that make up the majority of the gameplay are visually bland and repetitive.
  • Gameplay: 38
    The puzzle sections are awkward due to twitchy controls, are excessively difficult, and make up way too much of the game.
  • Production: 80
    Cutscenes are very high quality, but the dialogue and writing is very awkward.
  • Sound: 60
    Catherine's voice is kind of screachy and irritating, but the voice-work is almost good enough to compensate for the crappy dialogue, and the soundtrack is a surprisingly entertaining mix of classical-electronica and J-pop.
  • Value: 66
    Multiple endings and optional side quests involving the minor characters add depth and replay value, but you'll have to sit through the puzzles again and again in order to witness everything.
  • Overall Score: 65

Despite the over-corporatization of the video game industry, not every game is going to be a consumer mega-hit like whatever Call of Duty game that happens to be coming out any given November. Sometimes, these little-known, niche titles can be real gems in the rough (Demon’s Souls, Trine). Other times, they just barely get by. But more often than not, they are utter garbage.

Catherine is not a game for everybody. Not only does it have a very mature plot, but most people probably won’t find it’s gameplay very appealing either. But even though I wouldn’t consider Catherine to be a particularly good game, it isn't a horrible game either, and I have no doubt that its charmingly quirky nature will earn itself a very hardcore following from its niche fans (particularly among adolescent boys). And I definitely have to give the developers credit for really trying to create something that is new and interesting instead of just something that has mass-market appeal.

Catherine - morning awkwardness

Catherine - more morning awkwardness

Yeah, you might not want to let the kids and/or wife watch you play this game. Don't worry though, there's no actual [animated] nipples or genitals. Just lots and lots of cartoon cleavage and side boob.

The entire game consists of pretty much 3 parts that loop a handful of times:

  1. Long-ass cutscene that the player has absolutely no control over.
  2. A scene at the bar in which you walk around with your hands stuffed in your pockets, talking to friends and fellow patrons, and sending/receiving text messages on your phone.
  3. A series of increasingly-long and increasingly-difficult puzzle/platforming sequences in which you push blocks around in order to climb to the top of a wall of cubes.

Rinse and repeat. Or not rinse. But definitely lots of repeating.

The first two parts tend to be the most interesting parts, while the puzzle sections start off being fun but quickly devolve into a frustrating mess of bad camera, twitchy controls, and unnecessarily escalating and cheap difficulty.

Social simulation that doesn’t involve jibberish languages or removing the ladder from swimming pools!

The entire game focuses on a very hectic and confusing week for the poor main character, Vincent, whose long-time girlfriend, Katherine (brunette) starts subtly hinting that she wants a more serious commitment from him (i.e. marriage). Shortly after, while contemplating his future in his favorite bar, a bubbly blonde vixen by the name of Catherine literally falls into his lap. Young Catherine is very [sexually] aggressive, and an affair ensues. The remainder of the game revolves around the week-long affair, in which Vincent fights with his own sense of guilt, some very strange nightmares, and the fact that Catherine just keeps showing up in his bed every morning regardless of how committed he was to not see her the night before. These events are coupled by background news reports of strange deaths being suffered by single men in Vincent's area, and the circulation of rumors regarding a man-killing witch. It's a very strange tale, indeed...

The game has a “morality” feature that uses your responses to text messages and questions over the course of the game to determine your character’s loyalty to his current girlfriend, Katherine. During cutscenes, your character’s responses to some situations will be based on your loyalty, but you have absolutely no control over these decisions when they happen. As soon as a cutscene starts, you have to just sit back and watch. There’s multiple endings to the game (seven, I think), and they are based on your loyalty rating and a few other factors.

Catherine - Rapunzel arcade side-game
You can play this "Rapunzel" arcade game. It's gameplay is identical to the nightmare puzzles, but without all the traps.

There’s a few side-elements, such as the bar scenes and an arcade game called “Rapunzel” that lets you practice your block puzzle-solving skills when at the bar. The big side element though is the ability to talk to various patrons at the bar, all of which have stories to tell and their own moral dilemmas. In fact, most of them are in the same situation that you are, even though none of them ever recognizes it. They’re all going through depression and having issues with their relationships, careers, and so on. You can try to comfort and reassure them, and if you do, they will survive the curse longer and can provide you with tips on how to solve certain types of puzzles as well as subtle insight into the game's ongoing plot. This creates themes of mutual support and “strength in groups” that I found very appealing. It’s just too bad that you don’t get the tips on how to solve puzzles until after you’ve already had to figure them out for yourself.

Bad controls make the puzzles hard.

The bulk of the game consists of the nightmare puzzle sequences that involve pushing and pulling cubes in order to make a stairway up a giant wall. Early in the game, these puzzles are challenging and fun, and there’s a pretty fair learning curve. The ice level early in the game is a great example! It really hammers home the deliberation and foresight that you need in order to be successful in the later levels. It is really well designed and thought-out. But immediately after the night of the ice level, the puzzles just start to go overboard, and some control and camera issues start to make things even more frustrating than they need to be.

The puzzle controls are very simple and easy to learn. There's pretty much only two commands: move and grab a cube. As the game progresses, the techniques that you have to use to solve the puzzles become increasingly complex, but are all based off of these two simple commands. So overall, the puzzles are very elegantly designed. Unfortunately, the controls are very twitchy. The analog sticks are almost impossible to use because you have to flick the stick just the perfect amount or else you’ll run too far or not move at all. Both of which can get you killed. You definitely want to use the D-pad instead.

Catherine - the 'Back Spider' technique
The camera doesn't follow you if you shimmy behind the blocks - which is required in later levels! The controls also invert, which can be very frustrating if you get stuck on a corner behind the wall and can't see where you're going.

The camera can also be a bit of a problem. You can use it to pan the camera left, right, up, or down, but you have very limited control over it. It really becomes a problem in the second half of the game when some puzzles require you to move behind the wall. But the camera doesn’t follow you around to the back, so you completely lose visibility of Vincent. To confuse matters even more, the hanging controls can invert when you move behind the wall. So not only can you not see your character to begin with, but now the direction buttons make him shimmy in the opposite direction relative to the camera! You can compensate for this by holding the direction button down the entire time (which causes the character to keep shimmying in the same direction), but if you stop at all, you might end up going back and forth until you finally pop out on one side of the wall or the other.

Other puzzles later in the game require you to drop down to lower levels, but there’s no control that lets you drop off the edge of a cube and hang. You have to just run off an edge, and if there’s no cube on the level below, Vincent will drop down and hang off the edge; otherwise, he just steps down onto the cube below.

That last one is a minor, nagging complaint, but all the control and camera issues eventually start to compound on each other. In most levels, you can be killed instantly by traps or enemies, costing you a valuable continue.

You can undo actions, but you can’t undo the brutal difficulty.

Fortunately, the bad controls and camera are at least partially mitigated by the presence of an “undo” button, but if you’re using it to undo death, you need to be able to use it at an instant’s notice, otherwise you’ll be starting at a checkpoint. Although you also have to be ready to react instantly after using the undo button because it seems to only reset you’re location and the cubes. Enemies and bosses don’t seem to reset their attack patterns, so sometimes using the undo button will get you instantly killed.

Catherine - slipping on ice teaches an early game lesson
Slipping on this ice and falling off the edges of the wall in this mid-game stage teaches deliberation and foresight, but the time limit, enemies, and traps that appear later really make it impossible to retain that deliberance later in the game.

This game requires you to think very carefully, but it also rushes you with a time limit. Early on, this combination adds an enjoyable challenge to the game. But when you’re dealing with spatial puzzles, time limits, traps, and enemies, and then you also have to stop to consider what controls you’re going to push in order to perform the simplest of actions, it just gets really frustrating really quickly. All those valuable lessons that you learned earlier in the game (remember the ice level!) suddenly go out the window because you’re in too much of a rush to be able to stop and think.

The puzzles themselves just keep getting longer and longer over the course of the game, and you have to do more of them in a row in before proceeding to the story segments. The final boss even has one section that loops verbatim three times! The hardest parts of the nightmare puzzles also seem to happen at the furthest point between two checkpoints, so if you fail, you have to redo all the tedious parts of the level before you get to the challenging part that you actually need the practice on.

It’s not really bad design. It’s just brutally challenging. I’ll admit, by the end of the game, I hopped onto Youtube and followed along with video walkthroughs of the last few stages, just because I wanted to get them over with.

Control issues aren’t just limited to the puzzles either. Even in the bar scenes, there is no way to cancel out of dialogue sequences. So if you talk to somebody who has run out of new dialogue, you have to sit and listen to the entire conversation repeat, or just mash X to try to keep skipping to the next line of dialogue. Again, it’s a minor, nagging issue, but in a game where all you do is walk around and talk to people, it’s a pretty major component of the game!

Sexy story time!

Catherine - The Stray Sheep bar, the group's normal table

Catherine - The Stray Sheep bar, with side characters

In the bar, you can talk to your friends (including the hot, redheaded waitress), and various patrons as part of the game's mutual support motif.

The story segments and character interactions end up being the most interesting parts of the game, but cumulatively, they make up less than half of the game. The dialogue is very awkward and clumsy, but the voice actors deliver their lines such that the bad dialogue actually gives the game an appealing surrealness (kind of like the awkward voice acting in Silent Hill 2 helps contribute to that game's unsettling atmosphere).

The characters involved in the side-content have very little to do with the game’s plot or endings, but they all manage to be sympathetic enough that you actually want to help them, and their stories are usually interesting enough that you don’t mind listening to them – especially since they usually parallel your own plight. In terms of game utility, however, they don’t really amount to much more than trophy-bait (you get trophies for helping each side character through to the conclusion of the game). This adds a bit of depth and replayability if you want to hear everyone’s story, but doesn’t do much else for the game. And there actually is a surprising amount of depth to the characters.

Catherine - she's very bubbly
Catherine is very bubbly. It's like having an affair with an irritating video game teenager - but what a body!

The cutscenes themselves are exceptionally well animated. Catherine (the blonde one) has a very screechy voice, and is a bit too bubbly and air-headed, but she’s indeed very sexy, especially for an exaggeratedly-feminine animated character. And the music is actually quite good and catchy. But in the end, this game probably should have just been an anime movie. The puzzles get way too irritating, and I ended up just wanting to get through them so that I could get on to the story segments. I wouldn’t mind replaying the game in order to see the other endings and what effects the morality decisions have (if any) on the cutscenes over the course of the game, but then I’d have to sit through the puzzles again. And I really don’t know if it’s worth it.

My advice is to try it before you buy it. There's a demo on the PSN. If you're curious about the game, then download and play the demo first. If it piques your curiosity, then maybe this game is for you.

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