All I can say after beating Catherine and having it consume two weeks of my life is, well…I really wish I had bought the special edition now. Those boxers would have been great…

What is Catherine? It’s a puzzle/RPG/dating sim with a romantical (crazy!?)/horror/mystery plot. Does that sound like any game you’ve ever played before?! No, I don’t think so. The originality of it alone draws me to it. It certainly doesn’t hurt that the talent behind this game is astounding:

1) Catherine is created by the Shin Megami Tensei /Persona team; so the chances of this game being bad (well unless you don’t like those games…) was non-existent. It’s kind of hard to believe that this is this team’s first ever “next-gen” game. This is a very well-made piece of work. Excellent animation, fantastic dub (even the snootiest sub-only fans have to agree that this is outstanding), great music, crazy plot, huge replay value, co-op, and brutal difficulty make this one of the best games I’ve played in years.

This game is harder than Demon’s Souls. By far. This is the kind of game that proves if you’re a real gamer or not. But like Demon’s Souls, there is nothing cheap here (well, for the most part), and you can really feel yourself getting better at it simply by practicing and learning from your mistakes (I’ll talk about the puzzles in a little bit).

Although it is nothing like they’ve ever made before, you can see a *lot* of elements from the SMT/Persona games, but at the end of the day, this is a puzzle game. It’s not an RPG. It’s at its core a puzzle game. This is where you lose some people. People buying this game need to realize this…because knowing who’s making it can bias your expectations!

2) Shoji Meguro does the music. That alone is normally worth the purchase if you’re a lover of videogame music (I am!). Although I feel the music was subpar compared to his past work (he’s done some amazing stuff), it’s still very good. He’s a master of mixing great rock and catchy pop tunes in a wonderfully blended existence. Big fan of his work. He does some interesting stuff here, mostly remixing classical pieces with some light rock. It’s an interesting experiment, it’s just that nothing is overwhelmingly “wow”.

Although this is a nice song, it’s a song that plays in “Babel” mode. Also known as one of the hardest things ever made by anyone:

3) It’s published by Atlus! Atlus is by far the best publisher in videogames right now. It’s not even a contest. They put love into their games. The voice-acting, the translation, the packaging, are all amazing! It’s really the only the company I respect anymore. Square lost their magic when they merged with Enix and have never recovered to their past glory. Capcom is doing some very odd things right now and trying to squeeze every last dime out of their customers. Nintendo is building their business model on the past, not taking any chances, and hoping no-one notices. American developers are boring (for the most part…). Yes, Atlus is the company I can say, “I KNOW this is going to be a good game”. They have NEVER let me down.

Anyway, let’s talk about the puzzles. The game can be described as a bottom-up 3D block puzzle game where you need to push / pull blocks in a fashion that will allow you to “climb up” to higher levels without subsequently destroying foundations to be able to reach the next level. That’s pretty much the game in a sentence. Throw in obstacles such as spike hazards, wandering enemies who will block your path (or attack you), and “bosses” and you’ve got yourself a pretty difficult endeavor ahead of you.

Here is the best example I can find that displays: what the game is like, how hard it is, how crazy it is. In this movie, you are fighting a “boss”. You are being attacked by a large butt with eyes on it and a tongue coming out of…well…let’s not think about that. This particular boss attacks you with hearts that you have to dodge, otherwise you’ll be confused and run in the opposite direction (this guy is good, that doesn’t happen). Stage 3-3 best exemplifies the entire game:

Now try doing what is done here 27 times (27 levels in the game). In the end you are climbing up a wall, being attacked by monsters, all while trying to keep a combo alive, and not falling prey to trap blocks (ice, spikes, bombs, monsters, black holes)…yeah, it can get pretty hard. Oh, did I mention that if you’re not fast enough the floor will crumble and you’ll fall to your doom?

Oh, I guess I should have probably mentioned that first. Normal mode at least let’s you undo your actions, gives you a break with items, checkpoints, and slower combo loss and floor degradation. Try switching to hard mode and you lose most of that. This is easily one of the hardest games to Platinum trophy (or achievements or whatever…), and I love it!

Finally, here’s a “trailer” for the story. If you’re not convinced to play the game already, I guess you can watch this, not really many spoilers here, but…I’m not a big fan of trailers. I detest even minor spoilers…so I will leave that up to the reader.

When you’re done with the main game, you are treated to an especially brutal aforementioned “Babel” mode, where your objective is to climb seemingly endless levels of blocks to reach glory. There is also an arcade game called Rapunzel which is made up of 128 levels of pure strategic wall climbing. There is no time limit, but instead “move” limits (can’t make but a certain number of actions to reach the top). All are very difficult. All are very fun (well, calling Babel fun is a bit of a stretch; let’s just say it’s challenging).

Once you beat the game, you also unlock a co-op mode where you play stages based on the main story with a friend in a competitive fashion. Your objective is to kill your partner or get to the top first (it always ends up in someone dying 90% of the time though =E). This mode is fun, but very short-lived, there’s not a lot of meat to it. The lack of an ability to play with random people online kind of make this mode feel tacked on. Finally, you can play “Babel” with a friend and post your scores to online leaderboards. So there is still some decent co-op modes in this game; although it will need to be with a local friend.

So, if you’re knowledgable on your puzzle games, you will see that Catherine has quietly masked a “traditional puzzle game experience” into a story-driven animated adventure.

* Arcade mode = Main story; climb to the top without dying or running out of time
* Puzzle mode = Rapunzel; climb to the top in a limited number of moves
* Challenge mode = Endless random block falling; climb to the top with no items, help, or any reasonable expectation you will be able to beat the last two challenges. I think only 200+ people in the entire world have been the last level.
* Versus mode = Play with a friend in either “Arcade mode” or “Challenge mode”

Seriously, the puzzle genre hasn’t involved too much in its core. Every great puzzle game has the modes I’ve described above. The cool thing is that Catherine does it in such a way that you hardly even notice! It’s a nice spin on your traditional puzzle game.

Since this somehow turned into a review, let’s give it a grade:

Final score: 8.5 / 10
Atlus and weird Japanese puzzle game lovers: 9.5 / 10

The difficulty is far too brutal for any possibility of a casual gamer beating this; that’s why I’ve given it an 8.5. My own personal opinion is much, much higher of course. There is a “very easy” mode that can be used, if you are just interested in the story, but where’s the fun in that…

In the end, it’s fun, it’s hard, it’s beautiful, it’s long. And that’s all everybody wants right?

Edit: Beat the game and got a Platinum trophy. Brutal! But a fantastic experience, highly recommended.

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