Time Played: 2 hours
Ok, I'm just going to start out by saying that I'm really, really enjoying this game. I've been hearing mention of it off and on (mostly through Kotaku) but I didn't know what to expect (for awhile I wasn't sure if it was like, a hentai game), and had a hard time deciding if I should pick it up. Finally it was through a friends' recommendation and the ign review that got me to pick it up.
I think the main reason for any confusion is that this game doesn't fit neatly into any sort of category, and it's pretty hard to explain. I can't even really think of a 'this + this' type of comparison from other games I've played... In Catherine, you play as a 32 year old programmer whose girlfriend, Katherine, is pushing him towards marriage, and he's not too gung ho about it. It triggers his first nightmare - in which he must climb up a course of blocks, pushing and pulling them to create his path. After this, back in real life, he ends up having a one night stand with another woman, Catherine. Now the nightmares intensify.
Gameplay consists mainly of the block climbing sections, which are broken up into stages, with rest areas were you can buy items, talk to other sheep (forgot to mention - the dream world is filled with sheep, which seem to be other men in the same situation as you, who see you as a sheep), save and learn climbing strategies. Back in the real world, you hang out at a bar, where you can talk to people, play an arcade game which lets you practice climbing techniques, and get and reply to messages on your phone (your choices about how to reply and speak to people move a red v blue meter - and I'm assuming change what ending you get). There's a lot of cinematic watching where the story moves forward, but I always felt engaged and interested. It's primarily a story game - you want to know what's going to happen with this guy, and the "Woman's Wrath" which seems to be causing other men to go through the same dream experience as you - and maybe even dying in the real world.
What I Liked:
Presentation. This game got my attention right away with the title screen. All UI elements are awesome to look at and flow well. I love how you can save the game from your cell phone in the real world, and from the sign in book in the dream world.
Credits. Emphasizing the fact that it's a story game, it starts off with a really neat credit sequence which shows all of the voice actors. It's a nice cinematic touch that builds up a great sense of anticipation that you're about to experience something cool.
Tutorial. It's so much easier when something is set in a dream, isn't it? The tutorial is mostly done by a disembodied voice, with the main character constantly questioning what the heck is going on. I think the information was presented very clearly and was easy to understand. What's really cool is that when you are leaning from other sheep in the rest spots, they explain via text, but also show a video of the specific strategy that they're explaining. I think this was the best way to handle teaching the player.
Animation. The facial animation was really great, as it had to be considering how much of the story is conveyed in 3D cutscenes. I was particularly impressed with the mouth shapes they were able to get with 3D characters - they were able to get a lot of the types of shapes that you generally only see in anime, which was cool. Other than the face, the character full body animations were great in gameplay. In the dream world rest spots, your walk is more of a panicky stagger. You clutch a pillow to your chest. When you're doing block puzzles, you scramble from block to block, full of fear and without dignity. In the bar, you walk with your hands in your pockets, ashamed since everyone in there at this point knows that you're a cheater.
Visuals. I'm clearly a fan of anime style, and I think the characters and environments in this game are beautifully done. The dream world is interesting, particularly at the rest spots.
Showing answers online. This was a great surprise! When you move from a rest spot in the dream world to the next puzzle, you sit in a confessional and answer a single question which is meant to define your character. After you answer, you're shown how everyone else playing this game connected to XBox Live answered the same question. It's really awesome.
Arcade machine. The bar has an arcade machine called Rapunzel which is mostly identical to the dream sequences, but you don't have a time limit, so it lets you practice techniques. There is an opening story sequence, and the art for the whole game is done in a charming, simplified style.
Item system. Ahhh, a nice simple item system. You pick up items along the way through the puzzle - they do different things, like getting rid of sheep that are in your way, creating a block where you want to, or changing blocks into the basic type. When you pick up a new item, you discard your previous item. You can buy items in the rest spots, but only what the seller has on sale at that particular time.
What I Didn't Like:
Some voice acting. Look at this, I'm totally nit-picking! This just goes to show that there really wasn't a lot that I didn't like so far. A couple of the characters' voices really bothered me a lot: the afro "Golden Players" character, and Catherine. Honestly though, I think it was because this game was translated from Japanese, so it's run into the problem that dubbed anime does as well - some 'types' of voices just don't translate - such as the deep, sexy voice that I'm sure the afro woman had, and particularly the high-pitched, sweetheart schoolgirl voice that Catherine probably had. The dub tries to copy the feeling of the original voice acting - and sometimes it really doesn't work.
2D-3D transitions. I often found myself wondering why some cinematics were 2D and some were 3D... but as I'm typing it right now the answer is pretty obvious from a practical point of view. It would have been too expensive to make all of the cinematics 2D, whereas 3D is cheaper and easier to create. For more action oriented sequences, 2D makes sense, since it would require a lot more work to create so many assets and more complicated animations in 3D -- and for talking scenes which often transition directly to gameplay anyway, 3D works well. So yeah... question answered. But as a player, sometimes the transition felt really weird.
Misunderstanding broken traps. At first I thought the difficulty had just ramped up impossibly in one level, but in fact I had misread a piece of information. Some of the blocks are traps, which almost instantly shoot out needles which make you die in a bloody explosion - and at first understanding, they are instantly deadly. At one point however, they show a sheep move quickly over the trap without getting killed. Issam's instincts were good - "maybe you can do that too" - but my first reading was still 'instant death' so I refused to even try it. Then we ran into a section which seemed impossibly hard in relation to what had come before it - and we eventually (maybe after 15min of struggle?) realized that you could indeed break traps. So yeah, totally my mistake --- but I definitely got stuck for a bit.
How Do I Feel About Continuing?
I want to be playing it right now! It also definitely worked its way into my dreams last night. It leaves that Tetris-block after-image effect when you close your eyes to go to bed - you find that you're still trying to pull blocks.