We're finding it difficult to explain why Catherine is such a thrilling game. It's a puzzle game in essence - maybe a platform puzzle game - but it's a puzzle game in wolf's clothing, and it draws you in.
Dressed up as a B-movie horror on late-night TV channel Golden Theater, the compelling story runs thus: people are dying in their sleep, victims of nightmares where they fall from an impossible height.
Yet this is the least of the problems suffered by Vincent, our protagonist: his highly strung girlfriend, Katherine, is pregnant and wants to get married. Later, drunk and despairing, Vincent meets Catherine - a mysterious, carefree shagophile who seduces him in a heartbeat.
As the first HD game from Atlus' Persona team, all of this is presented via impossibly stylish anime cut-scenes of Final Fantasy length, but ones you actually want to watch. And as the story grows darker and Vincent's web of lies more complex, so too do his dreams.
PUZZLING OVER WOMEN
Here's where the bulk of the gameplay lies. You climb the tower of Babel, pulling and pushing cubes to create steps Vincent can scale. It's kind of a reverse version of Tetris meets classic platformer Q*bert or early PlayStation game Kurushi.
It's excellently surreal: Vincent is dressed only in his boxers, carrying a pillow and sprouting a fine pair of sheep's antlers; other climbers are fully transformed sheep based on people he's met during the day. The blocks below disappear one line at a time, keeping you moving full pelt.
Some blocks explode, have hidden spikes or are made of slippery ice; power-ups litter the way - coins, bonus blocks, retries, a lightning bolt that zaps any fellow sheep who might happen to be blocking your path.
Each level ends with a horrifying boss chasing you relentlessly through the final stage. Again, these are plucked from Vincent's traumas, but twisted into genuinely grotesque configurations: a bum-monster with batting eyes and lolling tongue that symbolises love-rat Vincent's lust-ridden guilt, a fork-wielding pair of giant hands that scream "Take responsibility!" or a vast baby whose wails send shivers down your spine.
Each will crush poor Vincent into a pile of bloody bones. Ignore the soft promises of those...eyes, Catherine is properly hard. Even Easy Mode, with its undo function and liberal retries, will eventually have you throwing the joypad in sheer frustration.
But as with all the best puzzlers, you'll pick it up and dive straight back in for one more go. Thankfully, you can switch difficulty at any time; Atlus has already patched in an easier mode, which is good news if you're useless.
SEXY NOT SEXIST
The horror of the puzzle section is balanced perfectly by a raunchy, unsettling, surprisingly feminist storyline. Between levels Vincent hangs out at the Stray Sheep bar drinking with his friends, and now it's an RPG: talk to NPCs to glean information and email with Catherine (who doesn't know Vincent is attached and occasionally sends flirty photos and Katherine (whom you must keep sweet with your replies).
Online play is limited to moral questions between tower stages, such as 'Whose responsibility is it when you cheat on someone?' with a pie chart showing how other players responded, but really Catherine is (ironically) a solo experience. And it's beautiful.
The presentation is super-slick, Studio 4C's animation is stupendous, the Japanese voice acting is perfect (the US version has good actors lined up too) and that tight script is wittily observed.
The biggest nightmare is that there's still no UK release announced for this bizarrely absorbing title; Japanese-only banter might make it a tricky import, but you could wait for the US version.
If you're looking for something to test your old-school instincts and reflexes, your love for Catherine will drive you to madness.
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Plays like a fever dream - but we'd advise waiting for the US version
- Great, mature story
- Eye-melting animated scenes
- Very difficult at times
- Online play is basic