Monday, April 22, 2013

One Hour Playthrough: Catherine

I'm going through my large game collection, playing all of my games one at a time for one hour at a time.

Game: Catherine
Developer: Atlus Personea Team
Publisher: Atlus
Published in: 2011
Genre: Horror/Puzzle
Rating: M

I picked up Catherine because I was intrigued by the promise of an "adult (not porn) themed" horror game. Catherine's developers say the game is about relationships and how scary they can be. Thanks to either the marketing team or some other knucklehead, the game's cover doesn't say "horror". Unless you find plunging into the bosom of a gigantic blonde terrifying. Inside I find another gorgeous full-color manual that I will not read for this review.

I fire up the game which starts with a squishy sound and the Altus logo dripping blood. OK horror game. Then a flowery Dolby logo - uh, not horror game? - and finally a sheep-man falling out of the sky to bloodily splat onto a stone platform. OK, horror game. The man from the cover (the hero Vincent) is barb-wired to a platform, calling out to an ambivalent woman (Catherine) - Catherine has an animated attract mode which features many shots of the main character screaming in horror in between shots him with young women. OK, so maybe this will be scary.

A sexy blonde (from the cover) drops down and I'm given the option of three different modes: Golden Theater (the main game), Babel (I assume a puzzle-only mode) and Configuration. The male narrator is a bit cheesy. This game is definately giving mixed messages. Am I supposed to be scared or not? Then I'm given three difficulty levels - interesting how the easy mode emphasizing it being for players that are only interested in the story. When I make my selection, I am told to "grab a snack" and enjoy the strange tale of Catherine. Grab a snack?! How long am I going to be watching the opening cutscene?

What follows is the opening to "Golden Playhouse" (A "Playhouse 90" reference? Way to keep topical, developer!) which established that a) we're watching a TV show? and b) introduces the concept that if you fall and die in your dreams, you die. We meet our hero, Vincent, a nice guy who is going to run into some trouble. Then the TV show's "credits" run but they're the name of the characters in the game, not the game's creators. I'll give Catherine this, they're going through a lot of effort to sell the idea that this is a TV show (A few of the game's principals - director, music, designer) get credit. I can only hope everyone else who worked on this game will get their credit in the end.

Can you withstand the horror of... pushing blocks?
Vincent arrives in the first level - he has to climb a collasping tower of blocks, pushing and pulling blocks into place to reach a door at the top. A narrator and second character (who sounds like they're going through the same experience as we are) gives us instructions. Well created instructional images show the player how to manipulate the blocks are also provided. A bonus is provided for how many levels are still left when you exit at the top of the blocks.

Vincent awakes from this "bad dream" (Hey, I didn't too bad, I scored a "bronze" award) in an animated cutscene. Next another cutscene - this time a "puppet show" style cutscene between Catherine and Vincent discussing their long-term (and stagnant) relationship. The game allows the player to move the camera around in these scenes, but there's really nothing new for to see, no new information is revealed.

I hope you like cutscenes. Lots of cutscenes.

This format continues in a scene between Vincent and his other friends where they discuss the mysterious death of (friend?) Paul, the bad dreams and Vincent's relationship. A ticking clock fast-forwards, introducing the player to the cell phone mechanic - where the player can leave one of three (presumably the "good, bad and noncommital") answers to other characters. When the player gives one of these answers, a "good/bad" (designated by a good or evil cherub) meter is shown. Personally, I don't like these immediate moral judgements in games. I would have rather tried to blunder through the character's relationship rather than meter-jockeying for the best result.

Oh by the way, you know how it's really fun to get texts and e-mail in real life? Well now you can have that fun in a game. Except if you text the wrong answer to your girlfriend, your good/bad meter can go up or down. The game promises "lots of this". Good thing I'm only playing for an hour.

A new mysterious blond shows up and we are abruptly taken into a nightmare (another level - the prison of despair) with more complex types of blocks and configurations. Once the puzzle is complete, Vincent finds himself in a strange landing populated by other talking sheep. He looks like a sheep to them and they look like sheep to him. If Vincent can reach the church, he can survive (again with these not-so-subtle metaphors) - after talking to the sheep (who teach him techniques about climbing) Vincent enters the confessional where he has to take a junior highschool quiz about marriage. I guess there's a benefit to telling young gamers about the dangers? seriousness? of marriage, but with a M rated game, how many young unmarried gamers are going to be playing a puzzle game about the scariness of marriage? My guess = none. The game reveals what other players voted after the fact ala the Walking Dead.

I wonder what the correct answer could be? Is my wife in the room? Just kidding honey!

I reached the hour point just as I was working my way up another puzzle and dying quite a bit. When the player runs out of continues, poor cold dead Vincent is found in his bed.

Love is a bitch, indeed.

What I would do differently: The TV show within the story strikes me as a bit odd. Kind of like how Assassin's Creed isn't really about an asssassin from the middle east but rather about a white kid getting his mind zapped in the future. I feel like someone was nervous about the game's content and suggested the tv show context. Then again, it's a Japanese game. They do crazy stuff like this all the time. However, getting rid of the TV show context would remove at least five to ten minutes of cutscenes - not a bad thing. The controls on the other hand can be moderately squirrelly. I fell to my death many times over thanks to it. The player needs to "snap" to the grid more like another great block pushing playstation game IQ: Intelligent Qube. I chalk that up to the nice player character animation - sadly, precision controls and good animation do not mix. Finally, difficulty. Let the player win a few rounds. Even if it is "normal" difficulty, I wouldn't expect to start failing so much until the fifth or sixth round. By that point the player is invested in the game and won't be so ready to quit.

So, would I keep playing? I don't know. I mean, the animation in Catherine is great and the story could be intriguing but the puzzle gameplay is pretty hard (I lost all 8 of my retries on the third level) - maybe I could switch to "easy mode" but my gamer's ego won't allow for it. So I guess Catherine goes back on the shelf.

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