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Catherine (PlayStation 3) artwork

Catherine (PlayStation 3) review

"A piss the bed nightmare if there ever was one."

It’s weird how playing a lot of one particular game can affect your mind. It’s there when you close your eyes, it mingles with your dreams, and your thoughts just seem to pass through the game’s perspective. This is actually called the Tetris effect, coined when people played a lot of Tetris and couldn’t help but think about shapes for the time afterwards. They would ponder over their plans for the day and it would feel like T and L shaped blocks forming in their head.

Vincent’s case is a little more severe. The game he often plays on his local pub’s arcade cabinet has manifested itself as a reoccurring nightmare of his. It’s a puzzle game about climbing towers of cubes, a frustrating bout of spatial reasoning sure to linger in anyone’s thoughts long after setting the controller down. But in the nightmare, the blocks collapse from beneath Vincent, and if he doesn’t climb fast enough he’ll end up on the morning news. As a corpse.

Men are dying in their sleep, and there’s a rumor going around town about a witch’s curse that punishes unfaithful boyfriends and husbands. Those who survive the nightly ordeal can’t seem to recall what they dreamt about, but as the deaths become more frequent, people begin to worry.

With nothing but his polka dot boxers and pillow, Vincent must rely on his intellect to take on each horrific assemblage of cubes. He can only hop up the distance of one cube at a time, so the fundamental idea is to quickly create makeshift stairways by pulling and pushing blocks into place. Pulling them from the tower would naturally cause it to collapse, but it won’t. Just as long as the edge of a cube is touching another cube, nothing will fall-- physics be damned.

This is the rule you live by in the nightmare world, and being clever with it is immensely satisfying, though it does take some getting used to. It doesn’t help that some of the trickier puzzles are early on, making it awfully frustrating at first even on friendlier difficulties. You might just end up staring helplessly at a massive wall of cubes, your thoughts becoming one with Vincent’s – “Fuuuuuuuck.”

What’s more frustrating is that Vincent hasn’t even cheated, so what gives? He’s in a steady relationship with his girl Katherine, and the nightmares didn’t take hold of his life until she started hinting at marriage and kids. Now, he’s scared of commitment, scared of responsibility, and scared of entering the next stage of his life. But he’s not scared of the rumors, because he’s simply not the cheating type.

Okay, so he did cheat, and hey -- don’t judge. Have a few drinks and try to say no to the girl of your dreams when she asks to go home with you for the night. Vincent’s one night stand is the result of his indecisive state of mind, and Catherine, a seductive free spirit, swooped in when he was most vulnerable. She’s provocative, playful, a complete opposite to Vincent’s down to earth and workaholic girlfriend . She’s an escape, and also a little insane (super kinky, no doubt).

Distraught and regretful, he immediately confides in his closest friends at the bar, which amounts to the other playable part of the game. Here you order drinks and get relationship advice from your buds, and talk to other patrons. Although this segment is incredibly chill and has the wonderful vibe of Shigenori Soejima’s character design, it doesn’t compliment the frantic puzzle dreams all that well.

Conceptually, it’s very cool, meeting other men at the bar who also attend the puzzle ritual each night. They all appear as sheep in the nightmare, herded there to confide in each other’s sins and to take on the trials set before them. You can save these dudes and their relationships by cheering them up either at the bar or in the dreams, but some will lose their way. Instead of showing up for drinks the next night, you might see their bed ridden corpses on TV.

But their problems amount to just a few lines of dialogue each night, straightforward stuff about leaving their partners and losing passion. And Vincent’s available dialogue options are in fact very repetitive, too. If you play as the good guy, you’ll be shouting “Come on, don’t give up!” for the game’s entirety. And if you choose to be more promiscuous, well, nothing really changes at all.

It’s off putting because the game throws choice at you in all sorts of cool ways, but there’s no pay off. You can text Catherine when at the bar and tell her to leave you alone, or ask her for “PIX NAO!!!1!!” – but Vincent will continue to meet with her and act shady around his girlfriend regardless. He just mopes about, ashamed of his actions, and does nothing about them. After days of nothing interesting occurring, Catherine can feel like it’s not worth the frustration of its puzzles.

By the time this is realized, however, you may have gotten pretty good at them. The stages become addicting, and new block types are introduced every night. Slippery ice blocks, spike trap blocks, crumbling blocks, bomb blocks. Strangely shaped towers of blocks, powerful items that change blocks, enemies that compete with you on your blocks. The frustration fades, and pushing and pulling begins to feel nice, like the cubes are sliding across your thoughts. Tetris Effect!

When the love triangle reaches its climax, Catherine approaches the balance it was after from the start. Beautifully animated cutscenes render all of Vincent’s most awkward, “oh shit oh shit oh shit!” moments, and hilarious close calls between the two girls he’s seeing. These daily life stresses then become the boss stages, faster paced climbs where a giant monstrosity grabs at your heels. Your girlfriend in zombie form, towering over you, stabbing at you with a kitchen knife. A piss the bed nightmare if there ever was one.

Saying that structure drives its message home gracefully , though, would probably be giving it too much credit. Between dream land and slamming cups of sake down at the bar, approaching the ending of Catherine seems to simply move towards the thinly veiled question of blonde or brunette? And while there are numerous endings to the game, they are simply light hearted shots of fanservice and comedy.

Instead, the experience is, really, just a good bro talk. That maybe it’s easy to act the white knight when you’re never given the opportunity to be anything else. And how overcoming fears, more than the topic of dealing with relationships, is the real issue here. Vincent is 32 years old, and he’s terrified. Not of women or marriage, but of leaving a part of him behind and becoming an adult, a relatable and prevalent phase among men today. It’s something to think about after completing Catherine, something to think about with blocks.


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Featured community review by bbbmoney (August 21, 2012)

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zippdementia posted August 21, 2012:

Awesome review, Holdthephone. I've read a lot of reviews for this game and yours is the only one that found a nice balance between explaining the puzzles and the premise, and you do it in half the space as most. I'm impressed. Also, summing Catherine up as a "bro talk" goes completely along with everything I've surmised about the experience.
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bbbmoney posted August 21, 2012:

Thanks, it was an oddly structured game to write about. And I wish I had seen this beforehand:
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zippdementia posted August 21, 2012:

That was incredibly engaging. I didn't know you could do head-to-head on Catherine.

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