Written by Chris Price
21 Sunday 21st August 2011

Atlus’s new puzzle-slash-relationship simulator (no wait! Come back!), Catherine, is a genuine attempt to anchor a videogame in the rough seas of male/female relationships. But whether it's the cultural gap symptomatic of a native Japanese adventure ported to US, or just squiffy scripting and production, Catherine ultimately ends up adding little more to the argument than ‘men are scared of commitment’ and women aren't quite as much.

Maybe I’m being difficult, but I feel if a game is willing to take on such a personal area of human relationships, it could at least try bringing something fresh to the table – manga certainly isn't famed for its ability to tow-the-line of reasonable thought.

Catherine employs the episodical approach of delivering you the story which bookends its infuriating puzzle sections. Structured as an episode of a polite late-night TV sci-fi show Golden Playhouse, Vincent is the 32 year old almost-hero, freewheeling his way through life with his pretty (yet unassuming) trophy girlfriend who disrupts his plans of retirement on the sofa in his pants by suggesting they tie the knot. Vincent seeks solace at the wrong end of many bottles of lager, whereupon the titular Catherine quite literally falls into his lap and sends his life spiralling into freefall.

The game's sleek voiceovers dangling the carrot of different endings pontificate the nuances of relationship and behaviour as a fairly intriguing RPG mechanic. It’s essentially a choice between being a good boyfriend and being a bad one. And did I mention that this is being played out during a spate of nocturnal deaths attributed to The Woman’s Wrath - a curse which nightly banishes unfaithful men to a purgatorial nightmare, where they climb upwards away from manifestations of their fears of commitment?

That pesky karma returns (albeit under a different name) – last seen playing a bit-part in Infamous 2, and once again reprising that role. The regular literary quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare about the pleasures and perils of marriage (“Love is being stupid together”) show that Atlus are doing their level best to keep it even.

As an RPG element goes, it certainly encourages you to think about your actions more than the interrogations in L.A. Noire (often, by turning the questions on the player, rather than the character). “They say men who cheat get cursed”, jiggles barmaid Erica at the Stray Sheep - the game hub, where you get to chat with other bar patrons and text your girlfriend to amp up your karma up or down. Still, you've got to be pretty cold-hearted to stonewall your doting girlfriend, insult the middle-aged women and encourage suicidal sheep to shuffle off their mortal coil, but it certainly adds an element of replay to such a compelling, story driven game.

The puzzle sections are a mix of dragging boxes of different types to create steps upward, invoking classic elements of the likes of Castellian, Boxxle, Boulderdash and Q-Bert. Though bastard-hard even on the simplest difficulty, it never feels unfair (even with an unruly camera and controls that decide to flip axis when you navigate behind a box). And this is the kind stuff I’d usually rather jab rusty nails into my eyes than play, so that's an impressive feat in itself. The presentation is also impeccable and displays real pride from the development team helmed by Katsura Hashino (of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne fame, as well as both school-yard demon hunting opus’ Persona 3 and 4)

The pseudo-Rapunzel story tale via adults (and by that I mean grown-up issues, rather than sloppy hentai indulgencies) is a bold move – and certainly keeps dropping original ideas in your path as you play. As a package though, Catherine is a unique little game and yes, it’s pretty subtle. Alas what starts as a surreal and genuinely quite intriguing story ebbs away to an anxious puzzle-based RPG adventure with only two real outcomes. But the animated characters really play it through, giving you a goal to each puzzle section. The titular coquette Catherine is initially nagging and saccharine sweet before the inevitable volte-face, and an excellent foil for Vincent. His script is ripe with loaded metaphors of commitment, as he becomes subjected to questions about his morality and monogamy and his own pathetic fallacy as the ‘hero’ of the piece.

Catherine’s quirky blend of emotional role-playing certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste and is unfortunately destined to be a cult-favourite. But it's surprisingly accessible for such a weird concoction of an RPG-lite puzzler. And although it might not fulfil its giddy ambition of conveying elements of human emotional intricacy, a game which can offer up a few probing questions about your own relationships without appearing forced is certainly one to take notice of.

Catherine is out now in US and Japan on Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.

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