Mixing elements of soap operas, anime, dating sims and puzzle games, Catherine is a bizarre amalgamation that never ceases to fascinate. No one element outshines the others; the anime style cutscenes are your reward for making it through the puzzles of the nightmare levels, and the socializing with other characters fuels your interest in the unfolding plot. It’s an ingenious balance of frenzied game mechanics and laid-back consideration that will leave you emotionally exhausted, but satisfied. Which is appropriate for a game that’s mostly about sex, really.

The trouble begins one night in the bar when Vincent is approached by the scorchingly hot Catherine, who pretty much throws herself at his pants. Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be a bad thing, but Vincent is already dating Katherine, who’s been not-so-subtly hinting that it’s about time they got married. Vincent’s infidelity is particularly poorly timed, as adulterous men have been dying mysterious deaths all over town. The rumor going around town is that if you die in your dreams, you die for real, and all of the philandering fellas had been suffering from strange nightmares – nightmares that Vincent has begun having himself.

The nightmares are where Catherine‘s actual gameplay begins. Each night, Vincent must climb a tower by maneuvering blocks into helpful positions. You can’t jump, and you can only climb one block high, so the secret to survival is to move things around to create bridges and staircases. The tower is slowly dropping away as time ticks on, which adds a bit of pressure to the climb, but the bottom drops out slowly enough that you should have more than enough time to consider your strategy. You’ll need it. They start off simply enough, but the puzzles of Catherine rapidly become fiendishly difficult, adding in spiky traps, ice blocks, black holes, bombs, and “mystery blocks” that don’t reveal their true nature until you step on them. Fortunately, your fellow adulterers are on hand to help; between levels, you visit a landing where you can learn new climbing techniques and chat with others who are trapped in the nightmare with you.

The puzzles are real brain-twisters, but the true frustration doesn’t come until you encounter one of Catherine‘s disturbing bosses, which not only chase you up the tower, but use various powers to make your journey more difficult. Based on Vincent’s personal fears and doubts, some just straight-up shoot at you, others merely change the blocks in your path to something less helpful, but their pursuit forces you up at a breakneck pace that doesn’t leave much time for thoughtful contemplation. Checkpoints along the route prevent you from having to repeat the entire level over and over again, but expect to die a lot during the boss sequences. A lot. The bosses are exponentially more difficult – and therefore more frustrating – than the rest of the game, but the satisfaction of polishing them off is palpable.

Once you’ve bested the boss, your reward is a dose of anime that advances the plot and a trip to the Stray Sheep, the bar where Vincent hangs out with his buddies every night. Take the time to chat up the patrons and you’ll quickly recognize some of the sheep that hang out on the landings. If you spend enough time with them, you may be able to save them from the nightmares, but you can also ignore them if you’d rather just play the arcade game in the corner or drink yourself into a stupor. Both Katherine and Catherine will text you while you’re at the bar, and how you choose to respond to them will affect a running meter reflecting what kind of man Vincent is. The meter isn’t as simple as good/evil , it’s more like “swinging bachelor” vs “stand-up guy.” Sending Catherine saucy texts will send your needle towards the red, while thanking Katherine for being concerned that you’re stressed out will nudge it towards the blue. The meter doesn’t affect gameplay, just how Vincent reacts to situations in the story, and ultimately what ending you get.

It’s a clever way to encourage replay, a problematic subject for Catherine. Once you’ve solved a puzzle, it loses most of its challenge. You can always try for a better score, and getting Gold on every level will push your skills to the max, but for many players, one time through will undoubtedly be enough. That doesn’t mean their stay with Catherine will be brief, however; depending on your particular skill, getting through the main story plus all of the special Babel challenges can easily take 20-30 hours. Just getting into Babel might be a challenge for you; its levels are unlocked progressively as you earn Gold trophies in the story mode of the game, an accomplishment many players will never achieve. It’s a shame that Babel – which offers randomly generated puzzles for both single player and co-op modes – isn’t more readily accessible.

I’m normally in favor of players lowering a game’s difficulty to Easy should they just want to experience the story, but in this rare instance, I’m going to advise against it. The difference between Easy and Normal is pretty immense, and if the Nightmares are a cakewalk, you’ll get less from Vincent’s journey than you would if you had to struggle more. I literally screamed in frustration as I tackled a boss for the umpteenth time, but my suffering made me empathize with Vincent far more than I might have otherwise. He’s a shnook and a fool and he wouldn’t be in this mess if he could just be a man and make a damn decision, but even he doesn’t deserve to be tortured every night.

Bottom Line: Catherine is oftentimes agonizing, but like the blonde vixen that bewitches Vincent, it keeps you wanting more, just the same. The story, helped along by beautiful animation and first class voice acting, never stops being interesting. The puzzles test your mettle with genuinely clever design.

Recommendation: Catherine gets everything right. Unless you absolutely can’t stand puzzles – or don’t want to answer awkward questions from your significant other – grab this game as fast as you can.

[rating=4.5]

This review was based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Catherine

Genre: Family/Puzzle

Developer: Atlus

Publisher: Atlus

Platform(s): PS3, Xbox 360

Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US),

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