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Score: 92%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: Atlus
Developer: Atlus
Media: Blu-ray/1
Players: 1 - 2
Genre: Puzzle

Graphics & Sound:
For a game I spent a lot of time avoiding before E3, post-E3 I've written and talked a lot about Catherine. Like the game's blonde love interest, once you've had a taste of what the game offers, it is really hard to stay away. For all the frustrations it introduces, it finds a way to reel you back in every time.

When I decide to rock a videogame soundtrack during my morning commute, you know the game has an exceptional soundtrack. I was able to score a soundtrack CD (and art book) with the game, and it is a great listen. The cool thing about Catherine's soundtrack is it is composed of tracks that, at first glance, you wouldn't mesh well with the game. Given the game's visuals, you would expect something trendier and a bit twisted. Instead you get the likes of Holst, Chopin, Beethoven and Handel. Each absolutely works with the gameplay, adding a big, grand feel to events.

Catherine is composed of both animated, 2D scenes and 3D rendered sequences. There's an obvious jump between the styles, but it is impressive how little of the game's style is lost in the transitions. Even if you normally don't go for "anime" styled game art, it is still enjoyable.

Catherine follows the trials and tribulations of Vincent, a 30 year-old programmer who is comfortable with the status quo. He's in a stable job, has a group of friends who dutifully meet him at the local pub every night and a solid relationship of several years with Katherine. Vincent's steady living is disrupted when Katherine begins asking questions. She wants to move to the next level, engulfing Vincent in a sea of doubt.

With Katherine, Vincent is able to at least tread water. He can keep her at bay with text messages (which you will compose at certain points in the game) and has his pub to retreat to when it gets rough. During one of these drunken retreats, Vincent meets Catherine and the two hook up, immediately pulling Vincent into the darkest depths of doubt and guilt. To make matters worse, Vincent's situation begins to manifest itself in his dreams. Each night, he's forced to climb a tower as he's chased by his problems. If he makes it to the top, he gets to live for another day. If not, he's dead.

Catherine takes place over a series of nights as you try to work your way through Vincent's situation. Although the story doesn't change based on your decisions (there are, however, multiple endings), you are still able to navigate through conversations, choosing how Vincent chooses to respond to his growing pressures. You'll choose responses to conversations with Vincent's friends, text messages to both girls, or decide to waste your time between dreams at the bottom of a pint glass.

At night, you'll control Vincent's ascent up block towers. These puzzle sections, which are a sort of odd mix of Q-Bert and Jenga, form the core gameplay. Each is built around the simple mechanic of pushing/ pulling blocks and climbing, but with the added fun of a timer. Every couple of seconds, a section of the tower falls off, forcing you to keep moving up.

Puzzle segments also show up during multiplayer matches. Both co-op and competitive versions are available, each offering a different dynamic. In co-op, you want to help each other out, while in competitive you want to co-operate, but only as long as it helps you out (and screws over your partner).

Vincent's climb up each nightmare-induced tower is a tough one. Catherine boasts numerous difficulty settings, but even on the easiest, it will make you scream. Although an overall fun game, the challenge level will push you to your limits, if not beyond. I would be lying if I said there weren't times where I put the controller down, intent on never picking up the game again.

Were it not for the interesting story however, which deserves major points for covering topics games usually avoid touching, I probably wouldn't have found the motivation necessary to keep going. Completing a tower after numerous tries comes with an exhilarating sense of excitement. However, most of the time, the excitement was related more to relief and accomplishment. Even though I'd just completed the tower, I knew I was going to have to go back and tackle an even harder tower. It is similar to the feeling that creeps in on a Sunday night when you hate your job.

Between nightmares, you can spend time playing the "Rapunzel" arcade game in the pub. The game uses the same mechanics as the nightmare sequences, only without the timer. It is a great way to get a feel for tackling certain situations or just for sharpening your skills. Between tower segments, you'll also meet Sheep-men (or are they rams? I can never decide...) who offer hints, strategies and even helpful power-ups.

Game Mechanics:
Catherine's puzzle mechanics are deceptively simple. All you're ever really doing at any given time is pushing or pulling blocks into place and climbing to the next floor of blocks. As long as a block is touching the edge of another block, it will remain afloat. It's an easy concept, yet something you'll end up forgetting since it doesn't exactly jive with normal "logic." Eventually you'll encounter new blocks types: some are made of ice and propel Vincent into an uncontrollable slide, while others crumble beneath your feet. Each new block - or combination of blocks - takes the simple push-pull-climb mechanic and turns it into something wonderfully new, though incredibly frustrating.

Again, the story segments bookending each nightmare aren't incredibly active - at least in the "Choose Your Own Adventure" sort of way games are trending towards. The story is linear, though you are offered just enough room to wander through each segment. If there's one giant feather Catherine can stick in its hat and proudly show off, it is creating a story and world I wanted to explore. First off, the concept is unique and original. You're not out to save the cheerleader or the world; instead you're dealing with more common issues faced by people everyday. I wouldn't call Catherine a life or dating sim, but it there is still something really engaging about working through Vincent's personal crisis.

Your time in the bar is limited, so you can't do everything. What you choose to do with that time has an impact. If you decide to talk with people, you'll earn opportunities to alter a meter gauging your alignment to "Order" and "Chaos." This isn't a morality meter; instead it shows whether you are cool with sticking to order, or do you want to disrupt it and go your own way. Though your choices don't change the story, they will influence your ending. You can also decide to spend time drinking, giving you a slight boost when climbing towers.

As frustrating as Catherine is, it is something everyone should at least check out. The demo is a great place to start, though even that doesn't offer a full scope of what the game has to offer. You'll cry, whine and yell your way through each tower, yet still enjoy yourself.

-Starscream, GameVortex Communications
AKA Ricky Tucker

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