Also available on: Xbox 360
Developer: Atlus Persona Team
Publisher: Deep Silver
Catherine is the latest game from the company behind the oddball RPG series Persona. Offbeat and unconventional, Catherine is a genuinely unique title, quite unlike anything else available today. It contains platform elements, puzzle stages and life-simulation sections, all topped off with a healthy dose of psychological horror. It also features a stylish and highly sexualised anime art style, a mammoth murderous baby, oh, and dozens of talking sheep! We told you it was strange.
The storyline is like a cross between EastEnders and Japanese horror film The Ring. Players take control of Vincent, a nice enough guy, who enjoys nothing more than drinks with friends and occasionally hanging out with his girlfriend. Unfortunately, the aforementioned other half Katherine (with a K) is starting to talk about marriage, settling down and having babies - you know, the stuff that guys dread. After one particularly heavy night of drinking, Vincent wakes up next to the carefree and kooky Catherine (with a C). Racked with guilt and uncertain about the future, Vincent's life begins to spiral out of control.
It's about this time that the nightmares begin, which forms the basis of Catherine's core gameplay experience. Daily nightmare levels require players to make it to the top of multiple tower stages by moving blocks to form stairways and platforms. With the floor crumbling beneath Vincent, it's a race against the clock - or gravity, to be more precise - to figure out which blocks go where and what items to use. As you progress, new block types, enemies and obstacles appear, making the task increasingly more difficult.
Thankfully, the puzzle sections (which are linked to a centennial curse placed on cheaters by a love-scorned witch!) are utterly addictive, despite the odd issue here and there. For the most part, the developers get the timings just right, eliminating blocks at a steady pace, while giving the player just enough time to pause and ponder.
Repetition is also cleverly avoided thanks to the steady introduction of new blocks types and obstacles. One early stage, for example, features booby-trapped blocks, which impale the player on contact, while a later stage introduces ice blocks, which see Vincent slide off edges unless there's something solid there to stop him. Players must learn an array of climbing techniques and tricks if they're to stand a chance of survival, which can be picked up on the go or learned from sheep in between levels.
Unfortunately, however, the game falls apart ever so slightly during boss battles. Boss stages work the same as regular levels, only Vincent is chased by a monstrous enemy, capable of squashing him or knocking him to hell with a series of unique special moves. While we're far from against the inclusion of these stages, especially considering each monster's genuinely unsettling appearance, they do expose a few weaknesses in the gameplay.
The camera, for instance, which is limited at the best of times, is poorly positioned during chase sequences, leading to many a cheap and frustrating death. The difficulty is also out of sync with the rest of the game, which further adds to the frustration. It's also particularly annoying when you run out of continues and must trawl through countless menu and loading screens, only to return to the exact same point.
When Vincent isn't pushing blocks and running from giant monsters, he's awake in the real world, interacting with the two women in his life or drinking with friends. Vincent's day-to-day activities take the form of lengthy, well-scripted and wonderfully drawn anime cutscenes, as well as playable sections in his local hangout the Stray Sheep.
While in the bar, Vincent receives texts from his two love interests, can chat with his buddies and other patrons, all the while drinking himself silly - and learn a few interesting alcohol-related facts along the way. Although we would have liked a few additional locations to explore, players have complete freedom to do as they please (which includes leaving), ideal if you want to crack on with more puzzles.
Although far less sophisticated than the likes of Mass Effect, the game also features a morality gauge, which is tied into conversation responses and answers to texts and questions. Send Catherine a flirty text, for example, and she'll probably show up at the bar, which gives players the chance to find out a little more about her, at the expense of an increasingly alienated Katherine.
These choices ultimately affect which of the eight endings you experience, something that gives the game enormous replay value. The ability to play puzzle stages on higher difficulty levels and compete for high scores also ensures that the second or third playthrough isn't a waste of time. The script, meanwhile, is excellent, and the characters are well fleshed-out and interesting, making multiple playthroughs all the more appealing.
Make no mistake about it, Catherine is a niche title and probably won't be to everybody's taste, but it's also one of the most captivating and absorbing games we've played in quite some time. It features a wonderful cast of characters, an engaging plot and tons of replayability. The puzzle sections, meanwhile, are thoroughly enjoyable and addictive, despite the odd indiscretion. If you fancy cheating on Call Of Duty or going behind the back of Battlefield, you won't go far wrong with the carnal delights of Catherine.
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