Sunday, September 18, 2011

Catherine the Great

Atlus’s newest puzzle-platformer adventure game had gamers pining just to play the demo. Players take control of the protagonist Vincent, a regular-Joe kind of guy who reminds one of Wesley from Wanted or “The Narrator” from Fight Club. He is a man who is coming to the part of his life where he must choose what he really wants and settle down with those ideas. Vincent has been steadily seeing the seductive and smart Katherine for years since reconnecting at a high school reunion. The plot develops when Vincent, unnerved by Katherine’s advances toward marriage and children, visits his favorite local bar and gets drunk with his friends. A chance meeting with the alluring, yet adorable Catherine leads to a black-out night that opens up to a white-out morning with Vincent waking up next to the beautiful blonde.

The drunken affair sends Vincent spiraling into a nightmare of chaos in which he must choose how to resolve the situation and how he ultimately will decide what course his life will take simply by choosing which letter to begin “atherine” with.

Catherine features an interesting combination of gameplay that includes platform action-puzzles in which Vincent must make his way up a tower of blocks before time runs out or the “boss” of the night has caught up to him. The other ingredient is the dialogue which takes place during the day while Vincent’s nightmares take place during the night when the player sends him home. Although the dialogue is diverse in the fact that players can choose certain options, gamers should not go down the same path I did and expect Mass Effect type consequences. As amazing as Catherine was, I was completely let down by the fact that the dialogue options that players chose did not truly influence the end of the game.

Throughout Vincent’s ordeal, a morality bar appears that is left blank and up to the player to decide what it actually stands for (right or wrong, stability or chaos, etc.). There are two main parts to controlling the bar—the major component is how players answer a series of questions that are asked at the end of each nightmare level and the minor factor is the dialogue. In fact, a lot of the time I could not tell just by reading the answer choices which way I would set the bar during conversation based on what I chose. This can be perceived as unique in its own way because of the mystery aspect, but a pain in the ass for anyone who is trying just to play through the game again to get a different ending.

Many reviewers have raged over the nightmare puzzles in their entirety, either unsure of their point in general or frustrated with their difficulty level. Personally I dreaded every night that I would send Vincent home after the first few levels. However, I would also begin each night with the determination to get through to the next day. Vincent was my bro and by God I was going to get him through this. I learned to appreciate the difficulty of the puzzles because they kept me completely enthralled in the dialogue and story. I also believe that puzzles were a good choice on Atlus’s part as a metaphor for the confusion that Vincent experiences during the day.

After being trained to expect masterfully optional storylines thanks to companies like Bioware and the new player-chooses trend, Catherine was a let-down in the fact that players are funneled along very set paths that lead to the alternate endings. While I knew the dialogue did not play too majorly into my ending, I still embraced it happily and fell in love with each individual character. Catherine is truly a breath of fresh air and deserves (and will receive) more than one play through on my part.