Monday, August 1, 2011

REVIEW - Catherine.

Above you'll find one of the tamer pieces of promotional art for the latest title from Atlus's Persona Team. It's not for kids. It's bold. It's got some madness going on, and it's very aware that it's offering a great deal of sex appeal. I would find it downright offensive if it were coming from anyone else - but I don't think anyone else would have the balls to do it (nor should they).

Atlus's psychologically mature, profoundly weird RPGs made gamers sit up and take notice with Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, but only began flirting with mainstream success with 2006's Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 which, in a few short years, has already seen enough re-releases and ports to make Ocarina of Time blush. Their titles feature themes and imagery that would provide right-wing pundits with early coronaries, and gamers with rich, meaty psychological adventure and exploration the likes of which you'll find nowhere else.

If you take a moment, you can see Catherine not for what it is, but what it will become. From the presentation to the way you navigate conversation in your local watering hole, the game is a clear reflection of the developer's storytelling and stylistic history, with subtle concessions to how western RPGs handle narrative presentation.

This is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Atlus Persona Team stretching their back, cracking their knuckles and discovering how their style gels with the current gen - but in the attempt to work out all that out, they also ended up delivering something very special.

Atlus have come to play with us in HD, and Catherine is another weird, wonderful, freakish mutant beast from the celebrated developer.

Meet Vincent. Vincent is a slightly-spineless but decent-enough guy in a five-year relationship with the intelligent, driven and somewhat controlling Katherine, who's hinting about marriage. He's whispering into that phone because he doesn't want Katherine to know that yesterday he woke up next to Catherine, a sexy-playful blond bombshell with rather stupid, but thematically apt hair.

Over the course of the next hellish, sleepless week, Vincent must choose between them - a choice you make during several dozen conversations that exhibit your moral compass wavering towards one or the other.

Catherine and Katherine don't necessarily represent right and wrong per say, but chaos and order. Catherine is freedom, Katherine is security. Catherine is dangerous and Katherine comfortable.

Catherine asks some very real questions about what you value in relationships, and perhaps reveals some surprising answers. For example - here's a question for you - which of these two pictures turns you on? Honestly.

To my straight female/gay male readers: I'm sorry, but I don't have a similar image for you. For the same effect, picture a dude with ripped abs and pecs, oiled up and wearing firefighter's pants next to a man washing dishes at home.

The game asks which you value more, between sexuality and intimacy. The difference between that exciting hottie making eyes at you at the bar, and the familiar arms that snake around your midsection for a gentle embrace as you make dinner. One requires a measure of self-sacrifice, one asks only that you forfeit a principle or three. Control or chaos? Sex or love?

You - and Vincent - must choose. As in life, it's an intimidating choice - and Vincent hates committing to anything.

Catherine's slowly-building narrative is a dark, colorful, often-funny yarn from a team that built their reputation on such high-concept fare, with the choices you make leading to wildly different endings - and neither of the principal three 'true' endings feel dissatisfying (unlike the recent Persona games, which feature only one true ending each, and a lot of disappointing false ones).

Its characters are archtypical - and so, instantly understandable - but rounded enough to involve the player in its world. By the time I was on the cusp of the game's climax, I looked at the clock and understood it was definitely time to go to sleep - then I kept right on playing for another five hours because I just had to see how things turned out for Vincent, Katherine and Catherine. I was not disappointed.

It was during this headlong rush towards the game's apogee that I realized I had rather fallen in love with the game's entire second half - the real meat-and-potatoes of this frothy, sparkling and heady entree - its platform-puzzler action gameplay.

The night before he meets Catherine, Vincent has a nightmare. With nothing but a pillow and a pair of polka-dot boxers, he must climb an impassable tower of movable blocks with freakish rules and physics not of this world, chased from below by an unseen horror. When he finally wakes from the nightmare he is physically exhausted, terrified, and has pissed his bed.

Gently taught to the player and layered with a Valve-like understanding of mechanical introduction, Catherine's platform-puzzle gameplay is at first quaint before it reveals itself to be a snarling, carnivorous beast - but never impossible. It will often seem impossible at first - beginning with the feeling that you actually have this block-climbing thing down just before they drop a whole new problem on you, and a sense of terrified, numb impotence sets in.

Always throwing down against a reasoned gauntlet of challenge, the player and Vincent are constantly making fast decisions that may either allow them to move forward or condemn them to a vertigo-inducing fall from grace.

The title's core gameplay - representing Vincent's desire to flee from responsibility and the sense that his life is falling apart beneath his feet - demands that he's constantly making choices; an act that so terrifies him in his waking life.

Isn't that just succulent?

Elsewhere, the game's use of symbolism is not so elegant. After Katherine surprises him with news of a pregnancy, for example, he is chased up the following evening's wall by a foul and feral leviathan of an infant. Yes, yes - he's scared of the responsibilities of fatherhood - we get it.

The game's often-obvious symbolism notwithstanding, the puzzle-platforming is still a clever, thrilling and deeply satisfying turn. Its style, horror and greased-lightning pace perfectly dovetails with Vincent's waking narrative, and it allows for the much-needed excitement and release of pulse-pounding gameplay in a title that is otherwise completely bound by a careful, deliberately-paced narrative.

By the time I was nearing the end of the game, the nightmare sequences were both intimidating, fear-inducing monsters of challenge and deeply pleasurable, elegant, meditative exercises. As I wrote this review, I kept hoping I'd come up with a better analogy, but this is the best I've got - everything prior to the end of the game is a montage in which Rocky punches beef carcasses and chugs raw eggs, and the last few stairs are Appollo Creed.

You are Rocky Balboa. You have punched all the cows as drunk all the eggs - and you are ready. You have learned all the tricks and mastered the techniques. When you step into that final ring, yanking, hanging from and pushing blocks has become a second-nature, lightning-fast martial art.

You are Luke Skywalker. You are Daniel-san, poised on one leg and ready to strike - and when Vincent looks up at the next wall and cries "I'm gonna' climb the shit out of you!", you find you feel precisely the same.

As a bullet-point list of qualities, Catherine succeeds on nearly all fronts. It's a striking, beautiful and stylish game with excellent writing, voice work and music. It's a story-driven experience that wisely takes its time and thoughtfully hooks the player at a weird, primal level while challenging us with some fantastically-designed puzzle-platforming.

Those are good reasons to like a game, but - like a partner worth washing dishes for - one doesn't love it just because it's smart and beautiful and has a lovely singing voice. You love it because it's so damned special.

Catherine is worth the wait. There's nothing else quite like it - and there may never be again.

  • unique, bold style
  • excellent soundtrack
  • a smart, sultry, scary and sometimes silly story, expertly-told
  • the wall-climbing gameplay is a ton of challenging, exciting zen-gaming fun
  • chatting with your friends at the bar as you explore the story actually does feel as comfortable and charming as hanging out with your pals, having a few drinks
  • great sense of skill progression - you feel like a block-climbing badass by the end
  • Atlus's wonderful localization and voice work
  • I love how the map of the Nightmare tower is like an old Capcom game
  • multiple, drastically different endings
  • a ridiculous challenge on harder difficulties
  • pauseable cutscenes
  • a very special game

  • the character animation is sometimes not up to modern standards - reminding one of Atlus's PS2 RPGs (repeated dialogue animation, for example)
  • occasionally inelegant symbolism
  • it's so damned different, it's almost impossible to know who will find it involving and addicting, and who will be disappointed that you never get to shoot a gun and see Katherine naked

Weird, wild, wise and wonderful. Persona Team may have been just playing around, but they hit their practice swing out of the park.


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