Westerners rarely get to lay hands on Japanese romance games, and with good reason. They tend to be weird, creepy, occasionally offensive, and filled with cultural references that we simply wouldn't understand.
Catherine (Atlus) - a rare instance of one of these games making its way overseas (you can thank its gutsy publisher, Atlus) - is all of these things. And yet it still possesses an undeniable allure.
Players take on the role of Vincent, an unmotivated 32-year-old layabout in a steady relationship with a career woman named Katherine. He balks at her attempts to get him to marry her, and is terrified when she reveals she may be pregnant.
Things start getting hinky when he finds himself in an unexpected tryst with a mysterious vixen named ... Catherine. He's shocked to find her lying naked in his bed several mornings in a row, but chalks it up to his evening ritual of imbibing copious quantities of sake with his buddies at a local pub.
The lengthy narrative sequences - presented in an agreeable mixture of traditional and computer-generated anime - allow players leeway to choose who they want to chat with and how to respond to the text messages Vincent receives, but we're basically just along for the ride.
When he goes to sleep, however, things take a grave, interactive twist as his romantic troubles manifest themselves in deadly nightmare form.
His dreams are always the same. Naked, save for his pink polka-dot underwear, a pair of curling ram horns attached to his head, and a pillow clutched to his chest, Vincent must climb towers of blocks. He pushes and pulls cubes to create staircases as quickly as possible to avoid falling to his death and escape strange creatures creeping up from below. If he perishes in his dreams, he'll die in real life - as evidenced by news reports about a spate of young men found dead in their beds, corpses frozen in terror.
- Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PlayStation 3
- The good: Clever block puzzles are satisfyingly challenging. Mature story explores adult relationship issues in an original way. High quality anime narrative sequences breathe life into character interactions.
- The bad: Navigational controls in the puzzle sequences are confusing. Strong Japanese themes-including gender preconceptions that may not ring true for Western audiences-may turn off some players.
- The verdict: It starts off squarely in the court of bizarre Japanese pop culture, but Atlus' romance/puzzler may win over Westerners by dint of its grown-up story and some devilishly addictive conundrums.
These block puzzles are clever, challenging, and have surprising depth, but their link to the greater story seems tenuous. At least at first. Several metaphors emerge as the game progresses.
Vincent's fear of being controlled is represented by his partial depiction as a sheep (remember those ram horns), and his desire for freedom can be found in his struggle to reach the gleaming exit at the top of each tower. However, these deadly puzzles are also clearly punishment for his indecision regarding Katherine. The monsters - including a five-storey baby with bulging veins that can crush Vincent to a bloody pulp - symbolize more immediate concerns, including his fear of fatherhood.
It's not exactly Shakespeare, but in the world of video games this strange investigation into the romantic dynamic qualifies as deep philosophy.
Sadly, the experience is marred slightly by less than optimal controls. Plus, some Westerners will surely crinkle their brows at the game's discussion of certain social taboos, including infantilism fetishes (adults acting like babies in the sack).
Still, it's far more accessible than one might imagine. Japanese relationship sims may not become the next Pokemon craze, but games like this one may just start an unlikely romance or two between this niche genre and more adventurous players.
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