Sunday, September 11, 2011
Video Game Review: "Catherine" - Atlus
In a land of sequels, prequels, big budgets, tired old IPs and identical new IPs, one wonders where all the creativity has gone. Certainly not to the next Call of Duty, where all they need is a few more guns and maps to call it a new game, and definitely not the indie game scene, where most of its inspiration seems to come from age-old fads resurrected. What the industry really needs once in a while is a kick in its side from something so staggeringly strange and wonderful that it's almost impossible not to love.
Enter Catherine, the new title from Japanese developer Atlus, who are behind the Megami Tensei and Trauma Center IPs. These people certainly specialize in the weird and creative, and Catherine has only that in common with their other titles, nay, other video games in general.
Looking at the cover, you may ask yourself, "why did you buy this game? It's clearly for straight men." But no! The game is far more than porn bait and erotica, though some of it is more than a little suggestive. Catherine is a puzzle-platformer dating-sim romance game. Yes, that's all one game. By day, our protagonist, Vincent Brooks, struggles with his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, Katherine, while he finds himself cheating on her with a mysterious other girl, Catherine, even though he doesn't remember any part of it. By night, he has strange dreams of climbing wall after wall as a sheep, surrounded by other sheep who are trying to achieve the same goal as he is: freedom. But how are day and night connected?
Let's talk story. Vincent Brooks is a man who should be in the prime of his life, but he's found himself in a totally new job and a girlfriend of several years who has just figured out she's pregnant. He's also met a new girl who, though he doesn't remember it, he has been using as an escape from his current girlfriend. That is, he's cheating, and neither girl knows he's with another. He doesn't know what he's doing, and he is tormented by both of them as the story continues. In one way it puts a face on the person who desires to be with another girl, and in another it shows just how horrific the situation can become, especially in the hands of someone like Vincent. In the end the player is left with a choice: Katherine, his long-time lover that he may end up with in a shotgun wedding, or Catherine, the extremely attractive young woman that's just come into his life? The choices the player makes in the game determine the overall outcome of his trials, whether or not he chooses to hurt or help people, and the questions he answers. Though sometimes he seems a little too reserved, (often times I ended up yelling for him to say something he should be saying, like to comfort his girlfriend or to get out of a bad situation) Vincent himself is an average character we can all relate to.
At night, Vincent having these strange nightmares that he can't remember in the morning. Nightmares where he climbs for his life, trying to outrun the crumbling of the floor below his feet. One thing he does know for sure: if he falls in his nightmare, he dies in real life. Around his local hangout in the waking world there are rumors of a strange curse that attacks men who cheat on their lovers, and eventually Vincent makes the connection that this curse may have something to do with the nightmares he (and eventually, as he discovers, other people in his bar as well) is having. The story, and much of the game, as well, revolves around love, marriage and freedom. The symbolism in the dream represent man and woman (Venus and Mars symbols all around), and marriage (the in-between save points take the form of a small church, with pews, red carpets and a confessional). The story has a lot of depth and literally questions the player on their views of love and marriage.
The story is told, like any other game, mostly in cutscenes. The graphic design takes the form of an anime story and the scenes even switch between video game- and anime-style animation. Facial expressions are over-the-top, detail is deep and characters are compelling, if a bit poorly voiced at times. The action music is also totally fantastic. Shoji Meguro remixed classical pieces for the gameplay sequences, bringing a sense of epic scale and fast-paced action to many of the climbing stages. An example of the music is his remix of "Polovtsian Dances" by Borodin, which so perfectly fits the theme of climbing an epic mountain, as well as Bizet's "Farandole," performed with electric guitars and drums as well as orchestra. The game, as far as I can tell, comes with an art booklet and a music CD with all the action sequence music. As well as making the action more interesting, it's a great listen on its own.
The gameplay is divided between nightmare and daytime sequences. During the day, Vincent hangs out with his buddies in the Stray Sheep after work. He interacts with his friends Jonny, the intellectual smoker who's stuck in a relationship with someone he says he can't marry, Orlando, the fisherman whose wife left him years ago, and Toby, the young, naive boy with a crush on the waitress. As he drinks, Vincent is encouraged to interact with the other patrons and regulars of the bar, as well as the owner, "Boss," and Erica, the waitress. These interactions aren't entirely important, but who knows? You might start seeing them in your dreams. You can also text your lovers, drink your alcohol and play the video game in the corner, which is based on the dreams you're having and could very well save your life with practice. All these elements bring together a dating sim type of gameplay for the daytime, but they are essential for the story, which is one of the two focal points of the game, and it really isn't an issue. It's actually fun to talk to the people in the bar, and once you start to care about their well being, you start hoping for your favorite patrons to walk in so you can talk to them, see how their lives are going.
At night, Vincent has his nightmares. They are the other big focus of the game alongside the story. These sequences give you a very simple goal: climb for your life. As Vincent with ram horns, you must move around the big blocks to create paths across gorges, stairs to the next highest level and to create pathways to your freedom. It sounds simple; in fact, the rules are not hard to learn and the techniques the game teaches you in between stages become second nature with practice. But don't get me wrong. This is a hard game. Very hard. Sometimes it's damn near impossible to figure out exactly how to climb up a particularly unusual wall, full of holes or lacking in blocks to stack and make stairs, so you're left there to wonder how to climb the wall while the floor slowly falls away below your feet. Sometimes not so slowly. Each new area introduces a new kind of block, from ice blocks that will make you slip across its surface to trap blocks that sent up spikes to impale you. These sequences are also where the game really earns its M rating. There's a lot of blood and gore, especially when you die, and not to mention the huge, incredibly disturbing bosses that come after you at the end of each area.
In between stages you're allowed a rest area, where you can save, and you will be very grateful for these. You can also talk to the other people that are climbing in your dreams. Some of these people are based on the people you've met in real life, and talking to them may mean the difference between life and death for them, and for you as well, as they will teach you new techniques for climbing. The only time I could have any problem with the game is here; the somewhat wonky controls can be infuriating if they don't do exactly what you want them to do, which can result in instant death. Good thing lives are plentiful: not once did I run out of them, and I ended up with 80-something by the end.
Some of the best things about the game come in the little tidbits of goodness that come in the most unexpected places. During the day when Vincent is hanging out in the bar, for instance, he will finish his glass of whatever he's drinking and the game will pop up with trivia about the drink. There's even an achievement/trophy for getting each piece of trivia for a drink, which will almost certainly be reached for at least one drink if you simply finish one every night, since Vincent's drink of choice is rum and cola. During the nightmares, in between stages he must enter a confessional to continue so that the lord of all this madness can ask a question of Vincent. Really, though, he's asking the player personal questions about their views on love and marriage, like "Do you see someone who cheats as admirable?" or "If you and your best friend's lover fell in love with each other, would you pursue a relationship or back off?" These questions are necessary for the story as they dictate which girl you end up choosing and affect Vincent's internal monologue in reaction to various plot twists, but the best part comes after the question, when the game accesses the internet to bring up a pie chart of how other players answered the question. It's old technology, but it's really cool to see that being implemented in a game in that way.
Overall, this game is one of the most unique and interesting games of the year. Not only that, it's really fun. The puzzles and block climbing gameplay, though seemingly too simple at first, will have you coming back for more, and the possibility of different ending encourages multiple playthroughs, even if you won't be answering the mid-area questions honestly next time around. The visual style is compelling, the music is fantastic and the story is a classic, tried and true romance. You owe it to yourself to experience this game, its exciting, lovable story and its addictive gameplay.
Catherine is available for the Xbox 360 and PS3 from Atlus.