Tag Archive: puzzle


Catherine – Richard’s Perspective

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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Catherine
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Released: 2011
Rating: Mature

Written by Victoria Zukas

To say that Catherine is unique is an understatement. Catherine is a puzzle game who’s focus is on the drama of a long term relationship. The name of the game comes from one of the main characters. Vincent is under pressure for commitment from his girlfriend Katherine, when he meets another girl named Catherine. Catherine practically throws herself at him at the local bar, and the next morning Vincent wakes up with no memory of what happened and a gorgeous naked girl next to him. He then spends the rest of his nights climbing a tower of blocks as punishment for cheating on Katherine.

I came into the game with very little experience with puzzle games and I was able to get through and enjoy Catherine. Notice how I said “get through”? The gameplay in Catherine was designed for puzzle game fans and people who love a challenge. I played on Easy mode and I never made it through any given level on the first try. In fact it usually took five or six tries per level. This game’s “Easy” is what other games call “Normal”. Thankfully there are mid level check points and if you completely mess up you can restart from your last check point at anytime.

The same team that made the Persona games made Catherine, and it shows in the art style and story. I can’t think of anyone other then the Persona Team that would attempt a game like Catherine and pull it off so well. Usually I save statements like this for last, but it really needs to be said. Buy this game. No really – buy this now; new if you can afford it. In an industry where companies will make the same game over and over (I’m looking at you and your sports series EA) it’s refreshing to see someone go out on a limb and make something wacky and different. This is made even better by the fact that it’s a great game. You actually care about Vincent and what he’s going through. All of the supporting characters are characters instead of caricatures. Hard core puzzle game fans will find the challenge they want, while new players to the genre will still be able to enjoy the game. The visuals are beautiful. It’s clear that care was taken to made sure no graphical bugs got through and the aesthetic works well for the atmosphere they are trying to create. The game goes for an anime approach with it’s art style, using full out hand drawn animation for it’s major cut scenes. I really can’t praise Catherine enough.

However, no game, no matter how good, is without it’s faults. The loading times tend to be long and jar you out of the experience. Also, when you’re not pushing blocks around there isn’t much to do. The game is divided into two sections, the first being the puzzle sections and the second being time spent at the bar. The gameplay in the first half is great, while the gameplay in the second is non-existent. You basically walk around the bar, talking to people and sending text messages. I’m not joking; you save via your cell phone and you will get messages from both Catherine and Katherine via text. This creates an obvious divide between gameplay and story. It’s like the game is saying “Yay you beat that level. Now we’ll show you a cut scene and let you walk around a bit so you can get an idea what the heck is going on.” A little more weaving of gameplay and story would have been nice, especially towards the end when the game dumps a mountain of cutscene on you right before the last set of levels. I don’t want to spoil anything, but trust me when I say the last hour or so comes out of the blue.

One point I haven’t made up my mind on is Catherine’s use of a moral choice system. During the game, in both sections of gameplay, Vincent is asked questions. Depending on how the player answers is which way the meter goes, which in turn changes the ending. On the plus side, the meter isn’t good vs evil like in most moral choice systems. One side represents stability and Katherine and the other freedom and Catherine. On the negative side, the system is so transparent that after awhile that I stopped picking what I would have picked and instead starting picking based on which girl I wanted Vincent to wind up with. When you start gaming the game on your first play-through something is wrong.

Despite the faults mentioned above Catherine is a fantastic game, and one I highly recommend. If nothing else, buy it so Atlus can keep making new and interesting games. We need more wackiness like Catherine out there.

Final Verdict – Buy It

L.A. Noire Richard’s Playthrough

L.A. Noire
Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Team Bondi
Publisher: Rockstar
Released: 2011
Rating: Mature

Written by Richard Pavis

Theme

Team Bondi has really pegged noir down to a T.  They got the setting, clothes, cars, speech, and pacing all down.  Noir is one style that hasn’t been horrifically overdone lately, so it’s refreshing to see it not just done, but done well.  I could go on and on, taking each element and explaining why it reinforces the setting and theme, or I could step back and say that L.A. Noire is itself a master class on the subject of noir.  So take out your textbooks and turn to page one, let’s see what Team Bondi has accomplished.

Sense of Style

Every case has a unique name, from the big splash for a main case, to the tasteful corner card for the street crimes.  There’s a good mix of interesting street crimes to deal with while exploring the city, and discovering prominent landmarks… or you could just have your partner drive all the time and skip all that.  The game developer in me likes that you can go straight to the main case at all times, but it makes me feel like the street cases are entirely superfluous.

Tutorial

Yup, there’s a tutorial, no you won’t notice it; yes that’s the point.  The game skillfully weaves tutorial elements into the first few cases, and drops tooltips as each new game element presents itself.  In theory all the cases on the Patrol desk are ‘tutorials’ but in practice you’ll still be getting tooltips about finding cover and switching weapons as far as the Homicide desk.  That’s what makes the tutorial so effective, it never overtly disrupts gameplay to explain gameplay.

Speaking of gameplay: There’s too much game in my movie.

Now wait a minute, isn’t that the whole point of this game?  To be played?  In which case, why will the game allow me to skip certain action sequences, but not puzzles?  Is it perhaps that this is some beautiful love child of adventure games and interactive fiction?  When will I find a declarative sentence?

The story is captivating sure, but it feels like a mean uncle is keeping the best part until you’ve done your homework.  I suppose the problem could be avoided if the gameplay was seamless, but I feel like even the smallest error would be magnified in a game this polished.  That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I truly found myself lost in the world, then immediately snapped out of it by the gameplay.  Awful driving, weird facial features, and the ability to find clues before you should all add up to wrecking the immersion.

Continuity of clues

Speaking of gameplay issues, let’s talk about the hit boxes for a second.  You are required to twist and bend many items in front of your character’s face to hone in certain details on the item.  A fine idea to be sure.  The worst example of this is the bloody knife in an early case.  Apparently finding the bloody knife isn’t enough; no you must focus on the maker’s mark before your character suddenly realizes that he is holding a bloody knife after all.  To throw a continuity error on top of the pile, if you find the knife before examining the body, you’l know exactly why they guy died.  After one look at the body your character will say “Hm, it looks like he got hit from behind, and dragged across the ground.”  When you mention the chest wound to the coroner, he’ll recommend you look for a ‘prominent hood ornament’.  This doesn’t add up for me.

Also: I know that you should preserve the sanctity of the crime scene, but it is a bit odd to watch your character delicatly fold up a receipt and put it back in the trunk of a car.

3 Tools

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a lie.  The only question is do you have the evidence to back it up?  Even if you think you do, the game’s logic maybe different from yours.  ‘Doubt’ often is far, far more forceful than I would be.  When I intend to register some doubts as to the veracity of a witness’ story, I find myself instead threatening them with a short meeting of my foot and their face.  And on a purely menu design angle, why do they assign each action to a different button?  I’m not really doing much else at the same time, and it could be accomplished with a sequential menu.  Maybe I’m nitpicking, but I found myself looking at the controller to remind myself exactly where each button was so I wouldn’t accidentally shout at some poor rape victim.  Good immersion makes you forget the controller is in your hand.

Alright, I’m probably being too hard on the game, it succeeds in a number of areas that have been classically hard for games.  It includes a titanic amount of facial and vocal talent, all of which has to be recorded multiple different ways for branching conversations,  but I keep finding myself wanting more action, and more game, rather than feeling like I’m coming up short if I do anything other than perfect.  Even still, it is by all means an enjoyable experience, and one worthy of recommending.

Verdict: Buy It

Small Things:

*) So, when you run up the the ledge, you get an ‘I’m not falling off’ animation. it’s nice.

*) So, I opened my notebook as my partner was walking by and I found my partners shadow crossing my view.  This means that a single live cam is responsible for most of the in game footage.  I thought that when you open your notebook it goes to a micro world prepped for that shot.  Proves me wrong.  Also, when you catch a bit of your notebook on a wide shot, it will always have the relevant information up.

Having just walked into a bar to question a suspect, your partner decided to sit at the bar while you do work.

Partner: “I’ll stay here. I’m a little parched, pour me three fingers of rye.”

*pause*

Bartender: “Are you going to pay for that officer?”  *pause*  “It’s on the house.”

Partner: “That’s the spirit, pour me another.”

So, In one quick moment we are introduced to not only graft, but drinking on the job…  Role models, every one of em’.

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