Catherine: Fear of Commitment, the Game

Drink: Catherine (Xbox360)
Flavour(s): Puzzle-Platformer, Simulation
Bartender: Katsura Hashino
Brewmaster: Shigenori Soejima
Brewer: Atlus
Date(s) Poured: February 17, 2011 (JP); July 26, 2011 (NA); Q1 2012 (EU)
ESRB Rating: M for Mature

Catherine, a puzzle-platformer, dating sim combo with horror-survival elements, involves drinking, poetics, and a relationship threatened by fear of commitment. How could I not review it? Players take up the controller as Vincent, a 30-something male with a drab job and long-term girlfriend, Katherine. The latter, finally feeling pressure from family and friends, is starting to press Vincent for a more “defined” commitment. Simultaneously, the neighborhood in which Vincent lives is experiencing a string of deaths involving males, around the same age as the protagonist, who are described as having had horrible dreams before they were discovered alone in their beds with naught but a sheet to cover their shame. A chance encounter with a bombshell blond, Catherine, at the local watering hole, the Stray Sheep, induces Vincent into a nightmare from which he repeatedly wakes up…into another nightmare: betrayal and all its lovely consequences.

While Catherine is, at its core, a puzzle game based around scaling a wall comprised of moveable blocks, the real puzzle (at least during the first play-through) is that of the story, and the real gameplay involves navigating the main character through his relationships with Katherine and Catherine. The block-based puzzles, which comprise what is staged as Vincent’s nightmares, become an obvious metaphor for escaping the guilt, responsibility, apprehension, etc. caused by the clashing of said relationships in Vincent’s conscience and are of miniscule importance (aside from being necessary to make the story progress) compared to decisions made in Vincent’s waking life. These decisions stem from questions posed by main and supporting characters alike as well as text messages from K/Catherine.

While outright questions pose A vs. B decisions, often with a good degree of ambiguity (and sometimes silly, outright randomness) as to
which side of the game’s built-in good vs. bad morality scale will point, the text messaging aspect lets players compose more personalized responses from multiple options with subsequent choices. Creating these texts feels really involving. Half the time I spent juggling the women, other times I leaned towards breaking things off gently with one, and others I leaned towards being outright disgruntled. The game reportedly has eight endings, and the way players make Vincent respond to particular questions throughout the game is what guides subsequent play-throughs towards a completionist gamerscore. While there are multiple endings, being an outright dick instead of a cowardly one (or vice-versa and everywhere in-between) does not seems to carry much relevance throughout the game. The main story (aside from the endings) seems largely unaffected by decisions, while elements that do change include Vincent’s inner monolog in certain scenes and the frequency with which Katherine texts in certain cases.

This does not lessen replay value for non-completionists, however. Even if frustrated by the story’s repetition or the difficulty of the nightmare levels on easy, players will find themselves competently challenged by the puzzles presented in the other available difficulty levels. There are noticeable changes in the alternate puzzles of harder difficulties – specifically the wall layout, and players should, after completing the game on easy, have a skill set capable of tackling such trials with more or less the same level of anxiety with which they faced their initial climb. Even if the game’s single-player theater mode becomes undesirable, players have the option of playing Babel and Colosseum modes, which also support co-op play.

All said, gameplay during nightmare stages is very fluid if only a bit too sensitive. Controls are simple and easily mastered, but I often found myself pushing blocks instead of pulling them, taking two steps instead of one, etc. – all of which works against the player given the ticking clock in the form of approaching death via support literally falling out from underneath Vincent. The in-game camera, which would otherwise be a simple, straight-on view of Vincent repeatedly scaling a wall, does change angle occasionally, adding some welcome variety when a boss is creeping up on top of the boxer-wearing protagonist or unleashing its special attack. While locked in one position, the camera can be nudged by the player in any direction as if craning one’s neck (not a bad effect given the premise of the levels) in order to look around the immediate area and better discern an acceptable path of ascension. However, the camera’s stationary point of view becomes a hindrance when Vincent is moved (intentionally or otherwise) to the other side of the wall. Not being able to rotate the camera completely around the wall prevents players from seeing obstacles such as insurmountable blocks or gaps. In such instances, efforts concerning camera angling/centering provide, at most, a decent guess as to Vincent’s relative position. Adding to the frustration felt in situations where Vincent is obscured by the very obstacle he’s scaling, the relational nature of the directional controls can often foil attempts at efficient, blind navigation.

As furious and frustrating and fun as the gameplay can be throughout its modes (did I mention gamers can just lounge around the Stray Sheep, where they can drink, talk, play the jukebox, or play an in-game arcade version of Catherine’s nightmare levels), experiencing Catherine is basically akin to watching a TV show or movie; a good chunk of the game consists of a mix of CG and animated cutscenes via Studio 4°C (Memories, Tekkon Kinkreet, Tweeny Witches). The mix of animation styles may seem odd, but it helps to think of the differentiation as a softened transition between story and game: gameplay to CG cutscene to animation to CG cutscene to gameplay…except that isn’t always the case. Whatever the reason, the animation is enticing, if only for its sense of style, and the voice acting is overall spot-on. Complaints with the latter would include gaps in what should be fluid cut-offs during exchanges between characters and short-lived instances where tone or enthusiasm doesn’t really match the mood. These exceptions are rare, however, jarring gamers (at least those of a relatively older demographic) from an overall seamless experience into which they can otherwise melt given the game’s natural-feeling dialog and ambiance.

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