10/04/2013

Catching up: Catherine - the nerdy guide to relationships?

It is very rare for me to find a game that I will have such mixed feelings towards. In case of Catherine, these feelings are also incredibly extremely. What you are about to witness is as much of a love song as it is a hate rant. The text contains some spoilers - you've been warned.

Let's start with the good sides. The gameplay is simply delicious! I only play puzzle games on my phone and if I were to choose a game type for one of my main gaming platforms, puzzler would be one of the last choices. Still, the way Catherine handles its puzzles is exceptional. Fast-paced, highly competitive, diverse climbing mechanics with variety of block types provides a very entertaining challenge. And when I write challenge, I mean I have platinum trophies in both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls and I still wouldn't dare to play Catherine on hard difficulty. There's 28 stages in the main game, 64 stages in Rapunzel retro mini-game with same mechanics, just a bit different rules + Babel + Colosseum, a local competitive multiplayer. That's a lot for a simple small game Catherine seems to be. 

Level design itself is impressive. If someone told me to design a level for platformer or a shooter, I would at least have a faint idea where to start. With Catherine, I would pass right away. Respect to all these guys who fried their brains with maths of this block-building. Even bigger respect to designers that came up with all these cool techniques that NPC's in the game teach you (I would have never invented half of them on my own).


The narrative of the gameplay shines as well. Whenever gameplay tells us the story, it just can't get get better. Climbing a tower, pushing blocks like a slave in Ancient Egypt, avoiding traps and falls, dealing with various environment elements and being constantly aware of your surroundings - and all of that as a metaphor of being in a relationship! Cherries on top are these small moments where designers use clever tricks to let you feel the social aspects of the games theme. For example you can only check out a dirty picture on your phone when on a toilet, which makes you feel like a sneaky bastard :) A nice touch is also the online feature showing statistics, how other players answered the questions.

Then comes the story itself. The main theme of the game is relationships, fidelity and growing up. Pretty unusual for a video game, huh? Unfortunately, as much as I was excited to find out how they approached it, I got solely disappointed. There's just so many sins Catherine's storytelling commits, it's almost unbelievable.

First of all, the setup. We have a classic shōnen manga situation - a guy who seems average in every possible way, yet somehow two girls want to be with him so badly that he can't decide which one to choose. It reminds me of an old Jim Carrey stand-up:

Start at 2:38 :)

This might work for teenagers that feel like most average of the average and dream of girls being interested in them. When used as an assembly for a mature analysis of cheating in a relationship, it falls flat very quickly. To top that off, none of these girls is really to die for. From the very start Katherine is depicted as an annoying control freak that most of the guys would dump after a few months, a year tops if sex was good. Bimboey Catherine on the other side very quickly shows she's nuts and I myself would be running from a girl like her faster than from a rhino. After first few nights, I just wanted to have an option to get as far away from both of them as possible. But no - no matter what you do, Vincent (the main character) behaves like an indecisive teenager, but without the charm of Keichii Morisato or Tenchi Masaki. But wait, it gets worse.



In the center of the story there's this meter that shows where your actions and choices take you on a good - bad scale. Seriously, every single dilemma in the game is judged as simply right or wrong. All the subtleties and complexities of human relationships got downgraded to just "good" or "bad". If I wanted a bite of such oversimplification I'd just go to church instead of playing a game. 

After most of the stages you get to answer questions that are supposed to judge your attitude towards relationships. Of course, they are also judged in this ridiculous right and wrong scale which leads to all sorts of even more absurd revelations. To give you a taste:

Q: Do you prefer an older or younger partner? - selecting "younger" automatically drives you towards the "bad cheater" scenario. WTF?

Q: Have you been told your romantic standards were too high? - according to the game designers, affirmative answer doesn't mean you will die alone looking for "the one". It means you are a good, faithful partner.

Q: Are you more of a Sadist or a Masochist? - apparently, cutting yourself means you are a reliable, stable lover. Sharpen your razor blades, guys!


Seriously, if someone ever got the crazy idea of getting dating advice from this game, he would end up as a repressed weirdo who, if lucky enough to get a woman by sheer luck, would be unable to communicate with her, building up his and her sexual frustration. There's just one conclusion I am able to draw here. When I was teaching teenagers creative writing, one of the first advices was "don't touch topics you have no idea about - it will show in what you write". Dear Atlus writers - it really shows you have no clue about men-women relationships. Actually, there is barely a moment in the game that could show you know how an average 32 year old man behaves. 

But yeah - you guessed it. It gets even worse! The narrator in the game, together with sms-based tutorials tell you at least three times how the choices you make in the game matter. How the answers to the questions change your good vs. evil meter and how it affects the story. Well - bullshit! No matter what you do and what messages you write, the plot stays the same for the whole game up until the ending that has a number of different versions. Due to the first 95% of the story remaining untouched, half of these endings doesn't even make sense. You can be leeching dirty pictures from the bimbo Catherine and send the worst possible messages to the bitchy Katherine. Either way, Vincent will suddenly (really, he does that out of the blue) realize Katherine is the love of his life and he wants to save his relationship. I played the game twice because I thought the choices I make will really make some difference in the story but my advice to you guys - unless you want to check out other difficulties, just watch the other endings on YouTube.


Does it still get any worse? YES! The game is rated M and obviously trying to market itself to the young adult audiences. It also clearly tries to touch the topic in a more dramatic, mature way. One could think that they believe in the cognitive abilities of the players who finish the game. Unfortunately, right at the end, a busty red-afro-head appears, like she did in the start, and trying to imitate Elvira, she... explains everything! She tells the player what climbing the towers was a metaphor for! Treating the player like a complete idiot, she explains something that was obvious by the third night at latest.

The developers delivered an immaturely told story of 30+ people acting like characters from High School Musical. Simplified relationships to a flat right-wrong scale. Showed how they didn't care about your choices and just force-fed you the same story no matter what you do. And after that, they still dared to lecture you on one of the most obvious metaphors of the decade. That... was weak.

No, it doesn't get worse than that anymore, luckily. The story is a complete waste of a good theme and instead of letting the player explore the various aspects of relationships and fidelity, it takes you back to the third grade and simplifies the whole message to:




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