- Platform: PlayStation 3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
- Published By: Atlus
- Developed By: Atlus Persona Team
- Genre: Puzzler-Platformer/Adventurer
- ESRB Rating: M for Mature
- Number of Players: 1
- Release Date: US-July 26, 2011; Japan-February 17, 2011
Catherine will abuse you like an effeminately-named red-headed stepchild, and you will like it.
“My” gamer generation understands “Nintendo hard.” Those who came after us into the 16-bit era have heard the legends, and maybe even seen the broken many souls and callus-covered thumbs it claimed. But seeing a hardened NES man’s eye twitch at the name Ninja Gaiden or watching this reduce a 30-year-old man to a sobbing, thumb-sucking fetal ball in a corner isn’t really understanding.
It’s a little like the cold water of reality Robin Williams threw on Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. “So if I asked you about art, you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the Pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I’ll bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling, seen that.”
Sure, you’ve probably watched LJN’s frowned-upon-by-the-Geneva-Convention Silver Surfer take the Angry Video Game Nerd and LordKat to their furthest limits of patience and sanity. To have played so very many games through the years, seen so much, and then let fortitude fuel one past some Battletoads emulator, with all the time one could ask at one’s fingertips . . . good game, sport.
We were kids, however. We’d never experienced such unrelenting punishment, never earned an ending with so much sweat. Those who came after us, you never blindly rented such a game here in the U.S., realized an hour into it just what Hell you’d wrought, and played every weekend hour like your last so that you could complete it before Monday.
If you haven’t lived that, then you’ve never really known “rage quit,” you sons of Call of Duty. You’ve never blacked out and come to with splintered gray-and-black shards in your palms, two red buttons staring blankly back from the floor. But play LIMBO and Catherine. So that way, when you one reach your hands into the busted chips and circuits that used to be your best controller, you’ll know what to do.
Accept this immediately: Catherine hates you. In all likelihood, it wants coroners prying your DualShock from your icy hands and a mortician trying to figure out how to mold your face into any countenance but the Edvard Munch scream your loved ones found on it when the smell overwhelmed them and they broke down your door. It’s a little more sinister than that, though. It’s a little like being bull-whipped by a giant kitten: you’re supposed to fall in love with it, so that you never notice that it keeps causing you pain and eventually, so that you grow to associate the searing pain with love.
All of that being said . . . wow, what an amazing game.
Poor Vincent Brooks. He just can’t win. Enough hangs heavy over his head with his five-year girlfriend Katherine coming to the conclusion that if she can no longer ignore how naked her ring-finger feels these days, she’ll have Vincent know that if he can’t commit, then misery loves company. As if that weren’t enough to loom above him, he awakes one fine morning with no clue how he got from the local bar to his bed, and why he’s all wrapped up in one white-hot nymph named . . . Catherine. He remembers just enough to recall that of all the booths in all the gin joints in all the world, she sidled with him in his.
There’s just this one last thing in his life that’s lately been growing in importance: it seems there’s this story going around, becoming ever more prolific. It’s about all the recent sudden, inexplicable deaths of otherwise healthy men. It goes that men are dreaming they’re falling. The ones that don’t wake before making an impact, never wake at all. It seems Vincent’s been having some strange dreams, himself. Great towers. Screams. All around him, sheep frantically pushing, pulling and rearranging blocks to reach the tower’s apex.
All around the tower, sheep fall and scream.
Keep telling yourself that it sounds simple. Because Mr. Anderson, you haven’t yet taken the red pill and seen just how damn deep this rabbit hole goes.
Were this an American-made game, it would probably be dismissed quickly as a kitschy, sexy “A Nightmare On Elm Street” knock-off. Had it not sprung from Japan’s domestically prolific Persona Team, I couldn’t have faulted that comparison. Fortunately, it came from where it did, and the whole story is clothed in a cloak of metaphor and existential dilemma that, when the player steps back from the story a touch, bears bigger puzzles with honest answers we can’t find anyplace else but underneath what our own decisions expose about ourselves.
By its most basic definition, Catherine would be an RPG-puzzler-platformer. But that’s like saying “a hand is an appendage” – that definition tells you what it is, but how all its parts function to balance such a well-engineered, versatile marvel is another story entirely. Dreams are inherently things of symbol and metaphor, and what we experience in Vincent’s nightmares is no different. All around him, sheep who have gone astray – not unlike how our man has “strayed” himself from his domestic safety and comfort – have fallen. And those who can’t “come to their senses” and wake before they “hit bottom,” never recover and are lost forever. Check out the game’s very first puzzle; at its end, Vincent must scramble his fastest as a great destroyed hand wielding a massive fork aims again and again to skewer him, and all while commanding him, “Take responsibility!”
At every puzzle’s apex, he’s challenged by a disembodied, unidentified voice that keeps sweetly guaranteeing Vincent’s eventual violent death. But along the way, it also keeps posing Vincent – and by extension, us all – “A or B”-style questions about the natures of love, marriage and human attraction. For each question we answer, we’re told after our answers have been compiled by the PlayStation Network how other users answered their first times through the game. Beware, also, that Vincent’s nearly every action will either set him toward a more redemptive road by the game’s end, or put him on a course toward one of a few far more tragic possible outcomes.
That extends both to what he finds within his nightmares and the decisions he makes during his waking hours. When he’s awake, the player controls his interactions at the Stray Sheep. Interaction with the Sheep’s clientele and employees is encouraged, because not only does it unwrap some shocking secrets from within the story, but how he treats others while awake can affect not only his tragedy’s eventual ending but also just how nightmarishly difficult the puzzles he must escape each night will get. He can gain abilities and learn strategies for making his way up the towering structures of Hell by chatting up bystanders both in his dreams and awake, playing the Stray Sheep’s arcade game (which has the same structure as Vincent’s nightmare levels) and even by what he decides to drink.
The game gets very dialogue heavy, and if one isn’t prepared to see watching the cut-scenes unfold as a rewarding rest after the taxing puzzles, Catherine might get old fast. Not to get reverse-nationalistic here, but it’s something about Japanese games that have always intrigued me in way American games can’t. They tax much more than the simple motor reflexes. They realize that a human being’s tools at his or her service when completing a game should number more than just read-react responses. Here, we’re invited to make Vincent’s emotional maturity and loyalty as much a factor in his life or death as how fast we can maneuver blocks up, down and sideways to ascend a structure.
But I admit, that won’t appeal to everyone as it did me. Not unlike Heavy Rain or L.A. Noire, this isn’t a game for anybody who can’t go 10 to 15 minutes not killing, shooting or assaulting someone on-screen without getting jittery. Still, that’s the RPG element for you: your time in the Sheep is how you’ll be level-grinding. That’s how you must approach this. I have at least one friend who’s played nearly every venerable RPG one could name since elementary school, and he’s still never learned this. I’ve watched him barrel through countless early areas and stages of games with a Devil-may-care attitude toward his levels. Then I’ve sat back and just said “here we go…” after about seven to 10 hours when he goes from being the hammer to being the nail.
Then again, that’s the Japanese for you: beacons of discipline.
There’s a different kind of “random encounter” than I can just about guarantee most have experienced before. While in the Sheep, Vincent will often be hit up by either Katherine or Catherine via his cell phone. Text messages can be answered via a system that customizes each response line-by-line from several possible responses. Once more, what you say affects his relationship and will start setting up what eventual climax you reach.
Put yourself squarely in Vincent’s shoes when answering. You’re invested not only emotionally in the character and his twisted tale, but also in how much you can expect the game to flog you later.
Though many just won’t have the patience Catherine demands, this has been a true stand-out experience. But this one thing can’t be overstated enough: It. Is. Brutal. What this game calls an “Easy” difficulty, could pass for the default in most other games. “Normal” is more like most games’ “Hard” or “Expert” difficulties, and I played both enough to know. The puzzles become noticeably more complex, the pace noticeably more hairy.
And I point that out as a compliment.
That was the entire genesis behind “Nintendo-hard”: Japan combating a rental market that hurt actual game purchases by designing games so unforgiving, that they couldn’t be completed with a single rental. Need more time? Buy it. Play all you need.
Frankly, that gets no complaints from me. The beauty of Catherine is that it’s a complete game, something that doesn’t come around often anymore in an age when too much good content that adds replay value ends up held back for nickel-and-dime DLC. Between the variations in what ends Vincent’s actions can earn him and three distinctive, increasingly Hellish difficulty levels with unique puzzles, there’s replay value to spare here. Could there be DLC to be had? Sure, I suppose so. However, in most games, players get conned by buying first the game, then DLC that was probably already engineered beforehand then held back out of the finished title.
Whatever Atlus would throw our way here, would just be a welcome bonus. One couldn’t ask for more than what this game gives.
There’s an argument that the Christmas season year after year becomes more and more saturated with that year’s best titles – that the wealth should be a little more spread across the 12 months. This is one time I’m actually glad a game bucked industry modus operandi. Poor Catherine would’ve been trampled this Christmas season by mobs chasing Batman: Arkham City, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception or any number of other expected blockbusters. At least by releasing toward the tail end of summer, a fantastic game that got advertising backing many localized imports usually don’t was able to enjoy even just being the highlight of a slow season.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10
*Disclosure – ATLUS provided GamerXChange with a review code of Catherine for review purposes. This code represents the final retail product.