Review: Catherine

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Price: 44.99
Format: Xbox 360 (tested), PS3
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Deep Silver

Atlus games, responsible for the Megami Tensei series among others, have a reputation for trying something different. Their latest title certainly has a unique concept – opening with our protagonist Vincent in bed with a smoking hot blonde who is evidently not his long-term girlfriend, it then encourages us to choose a path through the game which may or may not involve chasing this femme fatale at the expense of our possibly pregnant partner.

Moral choices abound in this cheat-‘em-up, but it’s not all about Springer or Kyle-style scrapping over paternity tests, thankfully.

Gameplay is neatly divided into two sections. First up, the plot-filled cartoon sections where you sit in bars, drinking, talking and texting friends like all good teenagers do. Vincent’s friends Jonny, Orlando and Tony hang out at the Stray Sheep Inn and gab about the rumours of locals dying in their sleep…

Secondly, set in the dead of night, Vincent must traverse a plethora of slumber-themed platforming sections. You see, like others in his town, Vince has been having nightmares where he is endlessly falling, and afraid of hitting the ground before he wakes up, he must constantly scale and move blocks around and climb them in order to escape the oncoming blackness.

These nightmares seem to be scripted by a design team who’ve watched a more than a few David Lynch films, and occasionally the platform sequences resemble something the legendary director might have dreamt himself after a long session on Q-Bert.

Collecting pillows for extra continues and feathers for points, these puzzle sections can build to a fiendish frenzy of block manipulation, and quick work is amply rewarded when you get to the next part of the storyline. But fall off the bottom and plummet into the black, and, as the continue screen says, ‘Love is over’.

The duality of the day and night sequences extends further to the confusing plot in which, as outlined above, you wake up in bed with Catherine – no, not your girlfriend Katherine, a different, opposite female almost – and then must make your choices, leading towards one of 9 different endings, with a variety of outcomes and by now, learning that one includes space travel, should hardly come as a surprise.

The puzzle elements can be a bit frustrating at times – the randomness of the situations and layouts can make it very difficult in the later stages of the game to contend with the heavy blocks, ice blocks, boss fights, and the most irritating of all, the exploding blocks.

It’s climb or die, and sometimes the only thing that keeps you going is the chance to further the plot in the next daytime section. Of course, this is often how games with two parts pan out, but happily Catherine just about manages to find the right balance between the two.

After a hard nights’ puzzling you can even kick back at the Stray Sheep’s virtual jukebox before indulging in some arcade gaming within the game itself – always a welcome distraction from the possibility of falling back into a puzzle nightmare where zombie babies and dismembered hands snap away at your heels.

The game’s soundtrack is excellent too as  a whole host of well known, but slightly altered, classical music stirs vague childhood memories of Holst, Dvorak and other University-Challenge-music-round-question luminaries bring out a suitably uneasy edge to proceedings.

Definitely designed with adult gamers in mind, chances are Catherine doesn’t comfortably fit into any genre you will have seen before. It’s the kind of game that years ago would never have made it over to European shores – thankfully the gradual broadening of tastes means we don’t miss out on this idiosyncratic Japanese gem.

A beguiling mix of platforming, puzzling and horror that frequently surprises, Catherine is also available in a deluxe edition with a pair of Vincent’s underpants, a pillow case, all packaged in a pizza box from the Stray Sheep. I’m not even joking either – this really is Quirky (and note the capital ‘Q’).

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