Thursday, February 2, 2012

Top 10 of '11 - #9: Catherine

I love never knowing what to expect out of a title. I intentionally avoid trailers for upcoming films I might be interested in just so I can know as little about them as possible; there are simply too many telling signs in previews for my liking that can untie a story's knot. When I first heard the concept of Catherine, a very Japanese import that hit American store shelves from Atlus, I immediately ceased reading much about the story so that I may savor it for myself. I’m glad I did.

At some point in a long-term relationship, you begin to seriously contemplate all of the words you threw around at the inception of the budding romance. Do you really, actually want to get married? At what point does “I want children someday” become “I want children this year”? Somewhere along the line comes time for an evaluation of all the fly-by-night statements you’ve made about who you want to become one day. Some openly accept it as a passage of growing up, while growing up terrifies some of us. Awkward tension arises from our own uncertainty, which we project on our closest confidant, and sometimes we need an outlet outside of them. In a moment of weakness, just as Catherine’s protagonist, Vincent, soon learns, we cheat to escape the growing realization that maybe what we have been living is a lie.

In a nutshell, the above paragraph is the premise for Catherine. Vincent is a nice enough guy who is too centered on his own needs to adequately provide for his long-term partner, Katherine. Katherine is ready to settle down and get married, as to where Vincent feels that to be married is to accept death. Enter Catherine, an early-twentysomething with a penchant for a man in a bind. When Vincent awakens the day after meeting her only to find Catherine sleeping beside him and no recollection of what happened, the game’s story effectively begins.

Speaking of sleep, it soon becomes the enemy of Vincent, as the other 60% of the game – the actual gameplay rather than interactive cut-scenes and socializing – takes hold of Vincent every night. While the social experiments are a lot of fun, the main portion of Catherine will revolve around these puzzles, where you must manipulate a tower comprised of blocks in order to ascend to the top where an escape is imminent. Varying creatures await at the bottom of the pit should you fall, ranging from rancid babies to decaying demons in wedding dresses – some of which are actually rather frightening to behold. This is not the bread and butter to Catherine, but it's a fun puzzle set-up with a variety of block types to spice things up right as they begin to lose your interest.

The great thing about Catherine (the game – not the seductive character) is its ability to develop according to the player’s response to the actions. Being a red-blooded male, it’s tough to tell Catherine not to send scantily-clad photographs to Vincent’s smartphone, but it’s the right thing to do if you feel Vincent should man up and confront Katherine about his issues. The game allows you to dictate how their relationship will pan out. If you feel as though Katherine is suffocating poor Vincent with her demands, you can snark back at her and run into the arms of the bodacious babe, Catherine. If you feel as though Vincent is an immature brat, make him feel like crap and treat Katherine as nice as the game will allow.

On the puzzle side of things, the folks you meet and interact with around the bar where Vincent continually hangs out will appear periodically during his night terrors, and if they succumb to the tower, they never wake up. Catherine plays out like a quirky horror movie, if you’ve ever heard of such a thing. As puzzles intensify, you are taught new tricks to continually advance through the game and your grasp of exactly how to ascend the tower will mature to the point of near-perfection. You will be dreaming of sheep ascending blocks above derriere demons in no time.

The Japanese are known for their story-heavy titles in the gaming industry, from the Metal Gear Solids of the world to Final Fantasy, but rarely has a game been such a sprawling narrative as Catherine. Upon booting the game up, you’re slowly and carefully taken down a dreadful road littered with mistakes and pop quizzes on morality along the way, and it always seems that all eyes are upon you. The game that’s being played in Catherine is you, not the other way around, as it will openly judge your decisions and provide you with a look at what Vincent’s life will be like due to the choices you’ve made.

Catherine is certainly unique: It offers puzzle-lovers to have their fill while those in it for the story (such as myself) can expand their minds to encompass the art of slinging blocks to and fro. And lest we forget the best part in deciding the fate of our protagonist! Variety is the spice of life, as they say. Give it a try, if only to look inside yourself for once.

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