Catherine

Platform: Xbox 360

Developer: Atlus

Publisher: Atlus

Released: 2011

Rating: Mature

Written by Richard Pavis

 

More than the sum of it’s parts

Catherine is a relationship horror puzzle game, and I cannot belive that those elements actually work together.  Let me make something perfectly clear, this is a japanese dating game, and a japanese puzzle game.  If either of those things do not make you jump for joy, this is not for you.  This is not a gateway drug, this is not an introduction to either genre.  Catherine may not be easy, but it is an excellent game this is a prime example of good game design, taken to it’s highest level.  This is not Skyrim, or Portal, or WoW, but it is a richly textured and finely crafted experience with multiple and very different endings.  This is not a game to ease into, but perhaps I’m not doing it justice, since I’m not a fan of any of these types of games, but this is the chocolate & peanut butter effect.

Theme, Subject, Tone and Pacing

When discussing Catherine it behooves the reviewer to separate theme and subject.  The theme is horror, and the subject is long term relationships, but this does not mean that LTR are portrayed in a negative light, or in any horrific fashion.  The theme and subject are related but not dependent.  In fact, the primary scare for Vincent, is represented by the loss of freedom and the unwelcome change from the normal.  A LTR is simply the way in which the world is changing.  Any sufficiently life changing experiences could serve to agitate Vincent in this way. He isn’t specifically afraid of relationships. He’s actualy in his own way in love with Katherine, even if he isn’t ready for marriage.

I hesitate to call the experience of Catherine cinematic, because that implies that the best this a game can be is a movie, so instead I’ll call the experience immersive.  The pacing is exquisite.  Without wishing to ruin a few of the scares, I will say that the game plays around with the idea that Vincent’s nightmares start bleeding over into the waking world.  In the small moments of safety and solitude, Vincent is instead shocked with terrifying images and sounds, which quickly disappear before they are completely understood.  Catherine is able to spool up tension, and snap it taught to punctuate a scene.  In a simple horror game, each scare is entirely divorced from each other.  Each one discreetly placed along the timeline of the game.  As you play Catherine you will quickly realize that in addition to the small scares, the game is carefully spooling up larger, more abstract psychological scares.  As Vincent starts to become self-aware in the dream, he begins to connect events in the waking world to the dream world, providing insight to the player, but leaving Vincent to forget it each time he wakes up.  However, once information starts bleeding back into the real world, Vincent starts to unravel at the seams, questioning his own sanity.  It is this slow and steady climb toward larger questions  and fewer answers that make Catherine a truly excellently paced game.

Many Puzzles, Many Solutions

In the dream the player will be presented with a tower they must climb.  On each landing the player will be able to discover new techniques in which to climb the tower.  The idea is you can use almost any technique at any point to get through the tower.    However, a boss battle almost requires you to follow one path almost exclusively, and solve it in one particular way.  There is a disconnect between the ‘Techniques’ I ‘learn’ and the dream world in which they must be implemented.  This makes it very hard to smoothly integrate these new tricks into my climbing; I end up using the same technique over and over.  Knowing only how to use a hammer, I search in vain for nails. The trouble is, if they went out of their way to force me into using those techniques along the way it would feel heavy handed and wrong.

Controls, or lack of

As a lesser annoyance, the controls in Catherine all seem to be mounted on a hair trigger.  Every action could go off at any second, and take you onto or off of a block.  Where you are positioned matters a great deal in Catherine since each one has a different perspective on control schemes.  Standing on a block and hanging on a block will have you control Vincent differently, and the controls reverse when you go behind the main tower stack. Oh, but the controls only reverse when you stop moving.  Eventually I was able to fight my way through the controls to make it through each level, but it wasn’t easy.  I’m going to assume that these controls are the norm for the genre since despite their quirks, they seem well refined.

Here, here!  It is the beating of his hideous heart!

The loading screens in Catherine are the single biggest detractor from the experience.  They are numerous, protracted, and annoying.  Laterally, they are meant to convey the passage of time as a clock ticks away the time from scene to scene.  In practice, the ticking becomes annoying very quickly, and every loading screen lasts far too long.  Moreover there is no redeeming value to them, since they contain no text or information of any kind.  The easy excuse is that they build dramatic tension.  The simple response is, well then do it without breaking the immersion.  A deliberate technique in cinema is the physically crush the film to give it an aged or frayed look.  This is deliberate action.  Loading screens are more akin to the operator changing film reels.  It is something completely outside the scope of the experience and it only serves to aggravate me while I wait for the next scene.

I understand on a conceptual level that all the data for the game has to be loaded off the disk into active memory. What I don’t understand is why it has to happen every five minutes.  Are we loading entirely separate graphics engines for each segment?  What the hell is the game loading in the background?  I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but this smacks of bad game development.  Putting all of this blame on developers isn’t quite fair though. They are pushed to use the newest and the best tools, with ever increasing amounts of graphical fidelity, and those can take some time to load.  What I will say in Catherine’s favor is that the cutscenes and the gameplay are entirely lag free.  If the price of admission to the excellent gameplay is long load times, I’ll bite, but please cut out the damn ticking.


Final Verdict – Buy It

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