Ever since games introduced the concept of infinite continues and liberal/kind/generous checkpoint placement, it isn’t too often that outside of Ninja Gaiden or Contra that we hear complaints that video games are perhaps too difficult. When Demons’ Souls came out a couple of years ago, its high difficultly was considered a breath of fresh air in a medium that had spent the last decade coddling gamers with comfortable security and easy victories. However, we often forget that there was a reason that classic SNES or Genesis games had a difficulty for being overly difficult which is that they often relied on cheap and/or random elements that were often beyond the player’s control and placed his fate in chance. I just finished playing Atlus’s Catherine, a puzzle-platformer that on many levels I loved because of the emphasis it placed on mature and adult (by that I mean real-life situations like love and relationships not necessarily sex) themes and its beautiful art style, but I also often found myself inconsolably outraged at the game’s occasionally cheap and extraordinary difficult that significantly marred an otherwise wonderful product.

Catherine  is the story of Vincent Brooks and the (literally) dangerous quagmire that is his love life. Vincent is the prototypical slacker who glides along his comfortable existence at a dead-end job and in a relationship with his girlfriend Katherine that has no momentum. He spends his nights drinking with his best friends at his bar and not taking any active role in shaping his destiny. Suddenly, Vincent begins to have nightmares that involve talking sheep (who seem to think that he is the sheep) where a malevolent force is leading him up a seemingly infinite tower where he must solve brain-bending block-based puzzles in order to wake up, for if he dies in the dream, he will die in real life. As if fatal dreams weren’t enough, Vincent’s life becomes even more complicated when he inexplicably wakes up in bed one morning with a strange woman named Catherine who is the polar opposite of his frigid and nagging girlfriend, Katherine. Catherine is chaos embodied and now in addition to surviving his dreams, Vincent is forced to keep the two women in his life apart as he must make decisions about what matters the most to him.

Gameplay in Catherine is split into two parts. The real meat of the game are the nightmare sections where you guide Vincent up the seemingly endless tower and solve increasingly difficult block-based puzzles in order to advance as well as interacting with the fellow denizens of the nightmare world in the “safe spots” between sections. The other half of the game and the part that I enjoyed the most is a social simulation where you guide Vincent’s choices and actions during the time you spend drinking at the bar with your friends. Your choices here place Vincent’s morality on a continuum between law and order and these have impacts not only on how other people fare inside of the nightmares but on which of the several different endings of the game that you will ultimately receive. You also make choices regarding Vincent’s moral continuum after every stage inside the nightmare where you answer philosophical questions that help to further flesh out Vincent’s outlook on life.

Not since Heavy Rain, have I played a game that deals so spectacularly with such mature subject matter. As I played the game, the choices that I made shaped the narrative to be a sort of coming of age tale about a man who is stuck in emotional arrested development and who slowly matures and learns about what matters most and starts to grab ahold of his own life rather than let it pass by before him as a passive observer in his own destiny. Themes like love and infidelity are so universal and powerful that I’m always shocked when they don’t have a larger place in the video game medium. Despite initial reports that this was supposed to be a heavily erotic and sexualized game, even the sex in the game is mature in that it is placed in the perspective of infidelity and is never graphic in nature. Honestly, the game’s story is by far the biggest draw of the whole game and it’s exactly what I’ve come to expect from Atlus. It makes me literally salivate at the thought of the next numbered entry in the Persona series.

Besides the incredibly addictive nature of its dungeon-crawler meets monster trainer meets social simulator gameplay, one of the biggest draws of Atlus’ flagship Persona series has been its distinct anime-esque art style. Catherine is Atlus’s first foray in current-gen systems and their potential for this art style, and I can gladly report that it was a striking success. Not since the PS2 and Rogue Galaxy have I played a game that so thoroughly convinced me that I was actually playing an anime, and Catherine is leagues prettier than Rogue Galaxy ever was. This generation of consoles has really made me a firm believer that video game developers should go for expressive and stylistic artwork in their games rather than hyper-realistic graphics as games that are hyper-realistic for their time age horribly the second the next best thing comes out but art like Okami or Braid is timeless. Catherine gets to join those ranks.

It’s really such a shame that all of the things that I love about the game and that make it exceptional are weighed down so terribly by actual gameplay that is reminiscent of the worst aspects of old school video games. In theory, I love the block puzzle system and it forces me to think in ways that most games will never ask. However, later stages are plagued by a random nature that despite all of your best planning will often lead to your death or inability to solve the puzzle through no real fault of your own. It’s also entirely possible to reach a checkpoint in the game that will eventually make you realize that you have to restart the whole area as you worked yourself into an unsolvable hole before you touched the checkpoint marker. I love puzzle games and the sense of satisfaction I received from solving the “fair” puzzles in the game was immense. However, I got no pleasure from spending an hour on one section of a level only to finally succeed because the random gods were suddenly kind to me. This game is inaccessibly difficult even on the Easy difficult and it only becomes more horrendous in its nasty desire to kill the player as you push the difficulty level higher.

How can you tell if you should play Catherine? Have you ever found yourself in a heated argument about whether or not games can be “art”? If so, then this is one of those games that easily falls on the art side of the debate. Do you have a deep-rooted love for puzzle games? Once again, this is a great puzzle game when its fair. Do you have the patience to sit through many, many deaths or failures before you finally solve the puzzle? This is the most important question. I had the patience, although barely. There was a point (when I had literally broken the game at a checkpoint) where I was ready to quit but I persevered. Fortunately, I was able to fix the error and ultimately beat the game. I actually beat the level that had stumped me for hours on my first try when I reset the game which is hilarious in retrospect. Anyways, this was a good game that had the potential to be a classic. It’s just a shame that the difficulty was so through the roof that only those with puzzle skills and a lot of patience should put themselves through playing it.

Final Score: B+