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Catherine (PlayStation 3) artwork

Catherine (PlayStation 3) review

"In the evenings, after spending entirely too much time drinking with his buddies at a bar called the Stray Sheep and talking about nightmares that leave his mind when he awakens in the morning, Vincent goes home and goes to bed and dreams that he is climbing a seemingly endless tower of blocks while many others around him—all of them appearing as sheep—do the same thing. If Vincent can only reach the cathedral on the eighth floor, a mysterious stranger in a confessional booth promises him, the recurring nightmares will cease."

Katherine with a ‘K’ is examining her life and wondering why she has been dating a man for five years now when the very thought of marriage causes him to break out into a cold sweat and stammer like a fourth-grader with his hand caught in the cookie jar. Her long-time boyfriend Vincent is the protagonist in Catherine, a video game from Atlus that exists primarily to tell the story of one man’s attempt to grapple with his evolving relationship with Katherine after he meets someone new and surprising: Catherine with a ‘C.’

Catherine asset

Catherine with a ‘C’ is everything that the ‘K’ variation is not: cute as a button, busty, energetic, optimistic and delightfully uncomplicated. She knows what she wants and she’s just adventurous enough to get it, whether that effort requires outlandish dress (it’s like she wears a teddy anywhere she goes) or careful use of a t-shirt as her sole attire (when she’s not dressed in the aforementioned teddy to go out in polite society). She is the girl of Vincent’s dreams and her arrival now, at this critical juncture in his life, is a nightmare.

In fact, Catherine’s inconveniently-timed arrival is a nightmare that is giving Vincent nightmares. Restless nights are a bigger issue than you might suppose, too. News reports are tracking a series of unexplained and unsettling deaths. Recently healthy men are being found dead in their beds, emaciated corpses with hands held toward the sky like claws holding on tightly to nothing. Word is that the recently departed are men who were cursed by a witch, that they died from killing falls suffered in their dreams.

In the evenings, after spending entirely too much time drinking with his buddies at a bar called the Stray Sheep and talking about nightmares that leave his mind when he awakens in the morning, Vincent goes home and goes to bed and dreams that he is climbing a seemingly endless tower of blocks while many others around him--all of them appearing as sheep--do the same thing. If Vincent can only reach the cathedral on the eighth floor, a mysterious stranger in a confessional booth promises him, the recurring nightmares will cease.

Catherine asset

There’s no choice but to trust that mysterious stranger. Once Vincent drifts off to sleep each evening, he invariably finds himself standing at the start of a red-carpeted hallway. After following the corridor to the door that waits at the end, he emerges onto a row of massive blocks and from there he starts climbing one level after another as slowly the levels of stone beneath him shudder and then fall into a gaping abyss that will swallow Vincent whole if he lets it. There is no option. He must keep climbing to stay alive. That means pushing and pulling blocks, hanging precariously from them as he shuffles about, avoiding other sheep and (with increasing frequency) using his head to work out the solution to puzzles while a bell tolls ominously and his fragile world falls apart around him.

Catherine is a game that oozes atmosphere and inspires discomfort as it pushes you through an adventure unlike any you’ve ever experienced on your television set. As Vincent, you interact with the world around you in three ways. When you’re talking to Katherine or Catherine, the game does your stammering for you and then later, when you have collected your wits, you can compose text messages on your cell phone and try to feel like you’re actually in control of what happens with the women in your life. When you’re talking to your pals at the bar or to strangers who you will come to know over the course of the game, you have more conventional dialog options and you can decide to head home if it suits you. Only when you’re lost in nightmares do you seem to have true control, and even then you’re only in charge of which blocks you push and pull. That’s hardly satisfying; no matter what you might choose to do, those blocks you placed so carefully will stop mattering in a moment or two.

If Vincent were a strong hero with nerve, he wouldn’t be cuckolded and frightened of his uncertain future and his well-meaning girlfriend and he would take charge of his own destiny rather than letting life simply happen to him. Yet without that weak character, Catherine wouldn’t have a story to tell. Although that fact explains some of the game’s biggest issues, though, it can’t fix them. The experience can at times be unsatisfying because even when you’re given the illusion of control, you don’t actually have any. That even extends to the useless questions that Vincent answers to affect his alignment (for lack of a better term) throughout the game. Whether the needle is entirely in the red--which is clearly bad and means that Vincent is following a path that he really shouldn’t--or in the blue or somewhere in between, Vincent will make the same decisions and say things that represent only a minor variation on the same theme. He can be either a total tool or a prince as he interacts with Katherine and she will regard him in much the same way, so it’s hard to say why the meter even exists.

Catherine asset

As for the puzzle-fueled nightmares, they start out interesting but by the end of the game you’ll probably be sick of them. Pushing blocks around and staying ahead of a fall to your death is initially a rush, but eventually the thought of a fall to your doom is annoying instead of terrifying. By the time you reach the final chapter, you’re still using many of the same techniques and facing the same threats--albeit in significantly exaggerated and more frequent form--that you were when you scuttled across the first cold stone floor. Blocks become slick when you walk on them, or they grow tongues and teeth, but they’re still blocks and you’re still pushing or pulling them.

Catherine is also more difficult than it really should be. You can choose “Easy” mode if you’re playing the game more for its interesting story than for the puzzle action, but even that setting offers no guarantee that you’ll get through the game without encountering loads of frustration (or that you’ll get through it at all). The controls don’t help, either. If you find yourself hurrying, odds are good that you’ll push a block when you meant to pull it, or that you’ll drop over the back side of a block and it’ll take you three or four tries to climb back up and face the direction you wanted to face because the camera won’t pan far enough, or because the control scheme has been suddenly reversed. Luckily, you can press a button to undo your last move and you can keep pressing it to rethink as many as five mistakes, but there still will be instances where you realize you’ve frantically backed yourself into a corner.

Catherine may be a frustrating and repetitive game. It may wrestle control away from you in too heavy-handed a fashion, as well. Yet when you reach the final few hours of play and you’re cheering for Vincent to do the right thing by Katherine with a ‘K’ and Catherine with a ‘C,’ you realize suddenly that you’ve been experiencing something truly unique in the world of games and--in spite of some very real flaws--something you will remember fondly for a long time to come. Isn’t that what you’ve always dreamed of?

Rating: 7/10

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Staff review by Jason Venter (July 31, 2011)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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