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    Catherine review: Love is far from over

    Jordan Mallory

    The words "relationship simulator" and "puzzle game" generally aren't the most common of bedfellows when it comes to genre classifications. Even less common is the idea of making a game focused on infidelity and its consequences into a tried-and-true archetype for success. Catherine is all of these things and, somehow, Atlus has managed to extrapolate everything that makes romance enthralling and compelling and successfully build a puzzle game around it.

    Gallery: Catherine (5/5/2011) | 8 Photos

    32-year-old software engineer Vincent Brooks has been dating his girlfriend Katherine for five years, and he's grown accustomed to living a quiet, routine life. Katherine has been dropping hints at marriage, which terrifies him almost as much as the nightmares he's been having.

    Soon, news spreads of mysterious "weakening deaths" that have afflicted men in Vincent's age bracket, and rumors say that each victim had awful nightmares just before they died. Late one night, Vincent meets blonde-haired, blue-eyed Catherine at his local dive bar, Stray Sheep. The next morning, Vincent wakes up to find a nude Catherine in his bed, with no recollection of the night before.

    The majority of Vincent's in-game time is either spent at the bar with his friends, or asleep, desperately trying to escape the horrors that chase him by climbing to the top of a booby-trapped tower of gravity-defying cubes. As he climbs, lower rows of cubes drop into oblivion, and you can guess what happens if he doesn't climb fast enough.

    When the nightmare ends, Vincent can send (or not send) text messages from the bar, which influences his feelings about C/Katherine, which in turn changes his decisions and reactions during the title's gorgeously animated cutscenes. The game's Nightmare segments act as both puzzle and parable, providing the majority of Catherine's content while simultaneously serving as an allegory for the surreal melodrama that unfolds during the day.

    It sounds chaotic and disjointed, but Catherine is a delicately choreographed, subtly nuanced dance of lust and seduction; a thoroughly entertaining and surprisingly deep psychological experience. The possibilities may not be as intricate and sprawling as your Mass Effects or your Dragon Ages, but they don't need to be. Vincent is less of an extension of yourself and more of a friend; you want what's best for him, and it's nice when he feels the same way as you do about things, but your primary role is as guide and observer. This semi-hands-off approach to interactive storytelling makes Vincent feel like an actual character, and Catherine's success as an intriguing interpersonal drama is owed entirely to Vincent's uncontrollable personality flaws.

    When Catherine stops being a soap opera, it turns out to be an excellent game as well, despite an initially steep learning curve. The base mechanic of cube movement takes some trial and error to wrap your head around; expect to run out of continues several times during the second night. Eventually, the cubes' behavior begins to make sense, and the puzzle's internal logic reveals itself.

    You're never entirely done honing your climbing skills, however. Each night, radically new and different types of cubes are added to the mix, which force you to solve puzzles in entirely differently ways from the night before. The game is continually changing, right up until the end, and the player is never given the chance to become complacent or comfortable. As soon as one challenge has been overcome, a new one appears; Vincent must constantly adapt and learn in order to survive.

    Initially, this was frustrating. The greatest pleasure in a puzzle game comes from truly mastering its mechanics, and Catherine never gives you the opportunity. As the credits rolled, however, I had an epiphany. Looking back on the game as a whole, I understood how much sense that design choice made when considered in context with the game's conclusion, and how deeply orchestrated every aspect of the experience had been.

    Catherine, then, isn't a one night stand. Though it may seem standoffish and esoteric at first, patience and perseverance will reveal the charming eccentricities and personality quirks that make it so special. Like any relationship worth having, Catherine takes effort, but the end result is worth it.

    This review is based on a retail copy of Catherine for Xbox 360 provided by Atlus.

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