Friday, April 13, 2012

Catherine review

Catherine is a unique tale of love, sheep and building blocks.

Formats: Xbox 360 (tested), PlayStation 3
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Deep Silver
Age rating: BBFC 15
Released: Out now
Vincent Brooks is a chump. A 32 year old coaster who spends his evenings slurping rum and coke with his mates while his long-term girlfriend Katherine nags about marriage from the other side of a text message. A 21st century goof frightened of love, commitment and growing up.
After another hazy night in the Stray Sheep --the smoky local bar where all the patrons have something to say-- Vincent has an illicit liaison with a nubile young blonde, Catherine. It's then the nightmares start. In his dreams, Vincent drops into a hellish realm of shifting, twisting building blocks. As the bottom stack of blocks falls beneath his feet, Vincent must climb the seemingly never ending tower, shuffling blocks to form staircases and handholds. If he falls, he dies, and he'll never wake up.
Atlus's Catherine defies easy classification. At its core it's a puzzle-action game, with you guiding Vincent through his nightmare. It's a surprisingly vicious master too, the tower's bottom layer is constantly crumbling and tumbling away, forcing you to think fast, yanking out blocks, avoiding traps and adhering to Catherine's skewed rules of gravity. It's a game unquestionably designed to play through on Easy first, the learning curve steep and stretched across three different difficulties. The initial stages cause few problems, with you able to fumble your way to the top. But it's not long before relying on blind luck becomes a poor option, the intricate, devilish formation of the towers forcing you to think carefully about your techniques, how the blocks will fall, and how one misplaced block can stop you dead in your tracks before flinging you to the spike pit below. Prepare to get very acquainted with Catherine's game over screen.
So it can be frustrating. However, there are few games as wonderfully satisfying when you overcome a trial. A cathartic mixture of pride and relief. Catherine is crafted in such a way that every conquered stage is a triumph, a hard-won victory and another step to freedom. You begin to root for that chump Vincent, desperately giving him the leg up he needs to escape.
At full flow, with you shunting blocks in quick succession and Vincent dancing across them in his boxer shorts, Catherine is a rewarding beast. Some control hiccups can interrupt your rhythm, however. When Vincent is clinging onto the back of a block, the controls are inexplicably reversed every time you stop, causing head-scratching aggravation. There are also instances when you'll want to grab onto a block and end up tumbling off the edge as Vincent casually continues moving. With a bit of care this can be avoided, but will crop up in instances where speed is essential. Fortunately Atlus are aware of the quirks in their own system and provide an "undo" button which you'll definitely want to get familiar with.
There are certainly occasions where the nightmare stages can feel a little too much like hard work, which is a wholly deliberate gambit by Atlus to get you into Vincent's head. In between nightmares, you will get the chance to visit the Stray Sheep, chat to your pals, drink and get to know the other weirdoes that frequent the bar. Vincent will also be able to text Katherine and Catherine, a suitable nod to the overwhelming role technology plays in modern relationships. While Vincent provides the exact words, you will be able to influence his tone and attitude towards the two women. Do you see Katherine as an overbearing wench and the end of your freedom, or the secure future and lasting love you've always wanted? Do you see Catherine as the exciting, free-living girl that sends you naughty pictures, or the slightly unhinged temptress who should cover up a bit? What's most fascinating about Catherine's narrative is that it never explicitly judges you, and if you think it does, then that's saying something about you, rather than the game. It's certainly heavy-handed on the metaphors, and the denouement on the way to eight different endings has already split opinions. But that's kind of the point. Catherine will mean different things to different people, a game that runs far deeper than its titillating surface might suggest. And the journey to finding out what it means to you is certainly one worth taking.

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