"Catherine" is an unusual experiment in gaming. It's a sexy yet moralistic horror-romance. You portray a 32-year-old loser named Vincent. He's good-looking; popular; and has a hot girlfriend and a steady job.
Yet he's a loser, because he's a mopey, apprehensive navel-gazer who does nothing but drink in a bar with hipster scum, and he lies and cheats on both his (possibly pregnant) girlfriend and his lover on the side.
Half of the game is an anime movie with playable parts in which your character chats with these women, desperately lying to each. Mostly, you just view film scenes as Vincent frets and fibs.
Both women are horrible. The nagging, overbearing girlfriend says stuff like, "You always throw your money away." The unbelievably jealous mistress snipes, "I'll die or I'll kill you."
During these playable anime sections, you also hang out in a bar with buddies, listening to women-hating tirades. You also listen to a sad guy who says he killed his wife. Charming.
Seriously, this game could have been named "Misogynists & Man Eaters."
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The other half of "Catherine" takes place when Vincent is asleep. In nightmares, you (Vincent) climb a very, very tall series of blocks. It's like a giant Jenga game, but with blocks made of ice and spikes, and they blow up.
The Jenga-ish puzzles become unfathomably difficult. Sheep try to push you off blocks. You have to figure out which blocks to push and pull, to form staircases. And giant villains, such as a gigantic baby, attack you.
This is a karma game. When you answer certain questions, posed to you by characters and the narrator, your answers peg you as evil or nice.
These questions lead to silly results. I was asked if I envy actors in sex scenes. I answered, "yes." Sure, why not? For that answer, the game judged me as a bad person. Really.
On the one hand, "Catherine" is a very creative gaming experience, with more storylines and interesting dialogue than most games. And the Jenga-like stuff is above-average.
On the other hand, there are two fatal flaws. First: Because the game is so hard, the controls must be perfect, but they aren't for me. They get sloppy on me and kill me, though I'm moving my hand controller properly.
Second: I feel like the faster I solve puzzles, the faster villains attack me. Am I being penalized for being good at the game?
"Catherine" could have been a fascinating psychological study of lust, if it didn't present such a clichd treatment of human interactions. But at least it's a lovingly drawn game. The illustrations are worth checking out.
It's a good rental. I wouldn't buy it.
Certainly, the slimy characters are quite difficult to like, although that's the point: If you relate to scum, you must ask yourself, "How closely do I resemble them?" I don't relate to them at all, therefore I detest their stupid heads.
("Catherine" by Atlus retails for $60 for PS 3, Xbox 360 - Plays OK. Looks great. Insanely challenging. Rated "M" for blood, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language, use of alcohol, violence. Two and one-half stars out of four.)
Doug Elfman is an award-winning entertainment columnist who lives in Las Vegas. He blogs at www.lvrj.com/columnists/Doug_Elfman.html.