Review: Catherine (Xbox 360)

Atlus sends us to explore not only block puzzles, but our consciences as well

I can't seem to think of another game where you get to play as a putz who cheats on his girlfriend because he can't decide what he wants out of life, or doesn't seem to want much of anything at all. This is pretty much instantly a reason to want to try Catherine out, if nothing else (and we did), but it soon proves a reason to get hooked, even if you're not much of a puzzle game fan.


Descending into protagonist Vincent's nightmare world where his various relationship anxieties become towering monsters bent on causing the fatal fall he won't wake up from is arguably the main point of the game, but the further I got, the closer I got to wishing the whole thing would just turn into a visual novel and let me fiddle with the romantic intrigue (Will he choose his girlfriend Katherine, or the new sexy Catherine he "accidentally" started having an affair with?) without so much block pushing (Vincent) and teeth grinding (me) in between. 



Sure, the mechanic allowing blocks to remain suspended even if they are only touching by an edge creates some compelling geometry in 3D, but I honestly despaired for a moment that things would get too cheap when booby-trapped blocks were introduced in the third world. Luckily they ended up getting smarter (and still harder) later with puzzles hinging on controlled explosions of bomb blocks. I was thankful for the subtle hint system of sharing climbing techniques with your mysteriously sheep-shaped comrades in nightmareland, but you have to be not only clever, but quick and accurate as well, lest the bottom of the stage fall off with you lagging behind on it. Highlighting the expertise required for true proficiency is Babel mode, which unlocks single and multiplayer puzzles incrementally only as you score gold prizes in the story mode levels. 


When the tragic game over words "Love is Over" aren't sending you cursing as you fall off the stage again (which, to be fair, it could've been a lot easier to do if they had used a freer movement system—I like that Vincent moves on a grid block by block; you can use the crosspad with great success), you'll be having various conversations with bar patrons in the real world, fellow climbers in the nightmare world, and of course, your gals. Depending on how you react, especially in txting C/K-atherine, Vincent skews either more responsible or more wild. Just think of every flirt with Catherine as a step towards breaking it off with the one who supposedly really mattters.



And that's one thing that sort of bugged me: Even if you decide to be a total jerk and blow off your girlfriend, the game does have a moral agenda that you are choosing to not follow. I guess it's the popular moral agenda, where you should probably not cheat on your girlfriend, but seeing Vincent care about something even after you just told him not to makes the choice feel the tiniest bit fake even though you do eventually go on to have a different ending than you might have otherwise. 


I have one other nit-picky complaint about the game and it's about navigating those "Love is over" screens (again, you can tell I die a lot). If you also die a lot, you'll notice that if you run out of retries, you get booted back to the title screen where you have to reload your game from wherever you last saved. All this does is throw a whole ton of friction between you and the level you're trying to tackle (or punish you for not saving as often as you should have been… not that that happened to me or anything). I would have liked to see instead just losing the ability to start from your checkpoint. For that matter, it would be nice if once you started a game, the main menu defaulted to "load" instead of "new" like most other games do, but even though you'll notice it every time it's not as if something so minor would detract from your enjoyment of the actual play.


Minor woes aside, the bottom line is that Catherine is a block-pushing puzzle that stands way out. The anime cut scenes are fresh and the plot definitely ends up twisting in ways I wouldn't dare hint at. Even if you feel like you never needed to push another block in your life, it's worth giving these a shove. 

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