Yesterday afternoon I sat down with the English demo of Catherine, and it was quite a different experience from when I played the Japanese demo several months back. Not only could I understand the story part of the game, but for some reason this version seemed more difficult, I’m not going to lie.
The first thing you’re presented with in the demo is a pretty thorough tutorial stage – or, at least, what I thought at first was thorough. It gives you a nice inkling of the urgency you’re presented with on each and every puzzle stage of the game. Vincent, in his heart-covered boxers, is presented with a tall “staircase” – for lack of a better word – to climb. But, alas, he can’t just climb up, he has to shift blocks around to create a way to get to the top. While doing this, there are a load of “power ups”, including money, extra continues and “build-a-cube” items.
When I played the Japanese demo, I had no idea what these things meant, nor did I have the luxury of knowing exactly what to do, because I couldn’t understand the tutorials. It turns out, there was no need to, because even without the tutorials, the basics of the game are very self-explanatory. But, don’t let the ease of this first demo level fool you. At this point you have no idea what’s to come…
After that demo area, you’re presented with some story segments. The animation, again, is very well done. The characters are believable, and I got the impression that they were deep and more than just two-dimensional filler, even from the demo. It turns out Vincent’s girlfriend, Katherine, is dropping hints about marriage and making this relationship more permanent. Vincent is a bit timid, not wanting to break out of his comfort zone, so he kind of shrugs off the whole conversation.
We’re also finally introduced to the violent deaths that have been befalling young men in their sleep, as well as the Stray Sheep Bar, your “home base” throughout the game. At the bar, Vincent meets Catherine for the first time.
The next puzzle segment of the game seems to come after more of the story, because Vincent now knows who Catherine is and, it seems, suspects her of being the cause of his nightmares. It would have been nice if this story segment was tossed in the demo, because it made it feel a bit disjointed. Needless to say, this level annoyed the crap out of me. I can tell this is going to be one of those games. You know, those type of games where you want to use your old, crusty controllers because you just know you’re going to break one out of frustration. Yep, that type of game.
I had to continue about twenty times (or more?) to figure this thing out. That’s borderline unacceptable, in my book. Although, I will say that I think part of the issue is you have to learn exactly what you can and can’t do, as well as how blocks work. Thinking several steps ahead is going to be mandatory, because without that foresight, you’re doomed to failure.
In this stage, you’re chased up the staircase by a pair of hands wielding a giant fork. This fork will stab you into a bloody pulp if you aren’t fast enough. Every so often, the hand whips the blocks below you, turning a bunch of the easy-moving blocks into more solid, slow-moving blocks. This, in and of itself, is highly annoying, as it takes three times as long to move one of these blocks. There is, thankfully, a checkpoint about half way up. This stage also introduces a “power up”, in the form of an extra block. You can create a block wherever you wish.
I thought this little power-up would come in handy, but the run I did that finally cleared the stage for me didn’t require its use at all. I just wasn’t used to thinking a dozen steps ahead. If you’ve played other puzzle games like Portal 2, and are good at it, you shouldn’t have a problem here, because the same kind of mentality is needed.
I honestly wasn’t blown away by the puzzle stages. Yes, they are unique, yes they do feel deep and polished, with a lot of intricacies. However, if they are seriously based this heavily on trial and error it is going to get real old real fast. I’m not against trial and error gameplay, but I can only take so much. Once you get past a certain point, it just becomes ridiculous. I hope this title doesn’t devolve into something like that.
The control of Vincent is also part of the problem. You can use either the analog stick or the D-pad of the controller to move him, however I found it almost a necessity to use the D-pad, because it allowed for more precice movement. The game has a tendency to go one step too far each time, meaning you may pull or push a block farther than you wanted, send Vincent flailing over the edge or spend valuable time backtracking. Also, because of the camera angle on these stages, it’s hard to tell which directional button to push to move in which direction. From Vincent’s perspective, you would be moving left, so you hit left on the D-pad. Or, do you hit up, since that’s the direction he needs to move from your perspective? It’s hard to tell. And, because the camera does move at various points, it does get a bit confusing.
Finally, let’s talk about the audio. A lot of people have been complaining about the English localization and voice acting. I’m going to tell you it isn’t bad at all. Granted, the narrator/tutorial dude’s voice is pretty bad, but the parts that really count – the voice acting of the main characters – is great. So, I’m not sure why everyone’s so stuck on this aspect.
There was one thing that was pretty jarring, though. The audio has some mad volume issues switching from full-on anime cut scenes, to in-game cut scenes, that’s for sure. It was so bad I had to turn the volume down during the anime scenes, and back up again once we got to the game engine rendered scenes. It was kind of ridiculous, and if I have to play the whole game like that, I’m not going to be a happy camper.
Needless to say, Catherine holds a lot of promise, I saw it from the start. I really just hope it’s executed with reasonableness and quality. Naturally, the quality in the animation and production design is there, but what about the gameplay? That seems rather iffy to me at the moment. But, then again, I’ve just played the demo and have yet to get my hands on the full game. One thing is for sure – it will be hard for anyone to resist the allure of Catherine because of its unique flavor. The game has people talking, that’s for sure, and now even moreso as specifics of the title come to light for Western audiences.