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SYFY WIRE Gamegrrls

Catherine's puzzle-tastic take on choosing to have fun or settle down

By Brittany Vincent

Love isn't becoming one with another and losing yourself in the process.

It's caring for that special person and becoming intimately acquainted with a side of them the rest of the world may never see. Marriage should never have evolved into a bargaining chip, nor "proof" that you love your partner. I'm interested in pursuing it in the future, but just the same I understand individuals who aren't, folks who aren't quite ready to settle down and want to have fun. Maybe they never want to settle down, which is totally fine, too.

That’s why Atlus' Catherine has always intrigued me. It examines both sides, paints a scenario where you can choose to flirt and live on the wild side or pursue a serious, mature relationship — and lets the pieces fall where they may, without pushing you in one direction or another.

I first experienced the game when it debuted on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and immediately fell in love with its nuanced story. It was never afraid to explore two sides of the same relationship coin: deciding that you're ready for married life or "having fun" for a little while longer. It's willing to let you make your own decisions about what's right for you, and that's something I think we could all use a lot more of these days.

Catherine stars 32-year-old Vincent Brooks, who’s dating the lovely Katherine-with-a-K. She’s gorgeous, career-driven, and may be carrying Vincent’s child (or so she says). Although the game's introduction to the longtime couple is brief, it very clearly communicates two things. One: Type-A personality Katherine, influenced by friends and family, is fixed on getting a blatantly anxious Vincent to settle down. Two: Vincent appears unable to comprehend why Katherine continues to push marriage on him. Despite her consistent pressuring him to commit, however, it's never explicitly stated if marriage and a child is what she wants in her heart of hearts, or if it's simply a response to her parents' wishes.

As such, the game sets Vincent up as an unreliable, uncaring buffoon for rebuffing Katherine’s earnest advances. This all takes place before the game’s namesake, Catherine-with-a-C, is introduced — a sexy little nymph with a penchant for dirty pictures and naughty interludes who he meets in a bar one night. Obviously, as the title implies, she's Katherine's total opposite, which makes her dangerous to his fidelity in many ways. And she's gunning for Vincent's heart.

Meanwhile, Vincent’s friends are turning up dead, and as if that weren’t bad enough, he’s also been having some pretty insane nightmares. Each dream is filled with bizarre hallucinations: sheep men, a monstrous version of someone who appears to be Katherine, and blocks. Plenty of blocks. Even though you may have been reeled in with Catherine’s risqué anime art and trailers, the meat of the game, at least as showcased in the demo, is decidedly smart and fast-paced. Instead of deep RPG narratives or dungeon-raiding adventures, Catherine adopts the more novel approach of sliding block puzzles. And it's absolutely excellent.

With an ever-heightening sense of urgency, you must guide Vincent through multiple tiers of floating blocks riddled with obstacles, special items, and allegorical visuals. As Vincent ascends, you’re constantly required to rearrange said blocks as quickly as your mind can process their position.

The semi-interactive anime that unfolds during the game is refreshing, almost palate-cleansing, further penning a story where you can opt for the "wild side" or the "safe side" depending on which woman you want to end up with. Players “write” text messages by cycling through predetermined sentences and creating a cohesive thought.

Sifting through boilerplate responses reveals that you're able to express your empathy for Katherine’s frustration while still remaining firm in your unwillingness as Vincent to marry so soon. I could envision myself texting many of the same sentiments to my partner if I were around the same age, and remember feeling that way. These messages offer a way for players to become active participants in Vincent’s destiny rather than simple voyeurs.

The freedom to run away from a lover conditioned to want the “traditional” family and instead take solace in a more youthful, carefree, and sexual being can be enticing for some, reinforcing the game's idea that many often feel obligated to marry longtime companions despite their innermost desires. While there are obviously plenty of men and women who do desire the family mentality, it’s refreshing to see a game explore the issue and let players choose rather than force infidelity and “fun” above an everyday woman who wants to settle down or vice versa.

I can appreciate both women's personalities, even though they're on extreme opposite ends of the relationship spectrum. Katherine with her slut-shaming toward the younger woman and Catherine's insensitive allegations toward "the other woman" are realistic reactions, though they're not endearing in any way. Catherine treats the more mature woman as someone who is “confusing” Vincent, an adult perfectly capable of working out what he truly wants from life. When one finds out about the other, chaos ensues. But that's part of what makes this game work so well: the idea that you're forging your own path and making the decision to let Catherine tempt you or attempt to continue your relationship with Katherine. You know these types of things are going to happen, regardless of the circumstances surrounding them.

Of course, it's important to know that Catherine isn't quite what she seems. Without spoiling anything about her true nature and one of the possible endings you can reach in-game, know that there's a very dark side to her that, well, frankly, is to be expected, but still hits you like a truck depending on which ending you get.

The game is always content to take a step back and let players decide how they want to proceed, handling both women's arguments and feelings in a mature manner, rather than championing one lifestyle over the other. Catherine doesn't simply end up as another poster child for the "sexy woman is the enemy" trope, and at the same time, Katherine is never demonized for trying to mold Vincent into the stronger, more mature man she's clearly eager to transform him into.

It all boils down to one important statement: Some folks aren't ready for marriage or commitment, and they may never be. There's a different relationship that's right for everyone in all walks of life, and Catherine respects both camps with storylines that show the positives of both sides.

It'll be intriguing to see where the introduction of a third Catherine (with a Q) takes the series when Catherine: Full Body launches this February on Valentine's Day. For now, you can experience the original game yourself with the recently released Catherine Classic, which is now available on Steam.

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