An image from the video game 'Catherine.'
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Video-game genres have their purist fans. I know gamers who play nothing but shooters, or role-playing adventures, or racing games. But most players prefer a more varied diet, and developers have been eager to erase the boundaries. Shooting games, for example, keep incorporating elements from other categories: Ratchet & Clank is a platform shooter, Mass Effect is a role-playing shooter, Child of Eden is a musical shooter.
All those combinations worked, but genre-bending can get weird. Take Catherine (Atlus, for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, $59.99), which mixes a sort of dating simulation and a puzzle game with a splash of survival horror. It doesn't fully succeed, but it's completely original.
Let's start with the story. You control Vincent, a 31-year-old slacker who's muddling through a relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Katherine (with a K). She's beautiful, smart, and ambitious, but she's getting a little impatient waiting for Vincent to grow up.
Along comes Catherine (with a C), a bubbly girly-girl who's wearing little more than lingerie when she wanders into the bar where Vincent and his friends hang out. Vincent and Catherine end up in bed together, and the drama unfolds from there. Will Vincent confess his infidelity? Will he tell Katherine to beat it and shack up with the more vivacious Catherine? And what's the story behind an epidemic of young men dying in their sleep?
That's where the puzzles come in. Every night, Vincent has a dream in which he's forced to climb a towering wall while being pursued by a monster from his subconscious: a furious Katherine, perhaps, or a ravenous, caterwauling baby. The objective is to keep moving up, so you have to pull bricks from the wall to create staircases that Vincent can climb. If you dawdle, whatever platform he's standing on will eventually collapse.
Even on the easiest setting, the wall puzzles are uncommonly challenging. There are usually several approaches you can take, but it can be difficult to choose a strategy when the clock is ticking. I would have enjoyed Catherine more without the added time pressure, and there's only one level, late in the game, that I thought was truly clever.
In between the nightmare levels, you learn more about Vincent's relationships with Katherine and Catherine through long, noninteractive animated sequences. You also spend time at the bar, the Stray Sheep, where you can chat with your pals, other patrons or the mysterious bartender. Turns out some of the other guys are having the same dream -- and they have the same voices as the talking sheep you meet in the dream world.
It's an absorbing story, although your own actions, whether awake or asleep, seem to have little effect on its outcome. Instead, much depends on how you respond to text messages from the two women, or to questions asked in the nightmare world's confessional. The options aren't the usual good vs. evil; they lean more toward order vs. chaos, stability vs. excitement.
I wish the two elements of Catherine, the drama and the puzzles, were better integrated. The anime sequences sometimes drag on so long that you forget about the puzzles -- and then the puzzle levels become so wearying that you just want to get back to the story.
Still, I was intrigued enough by Vincent's torment that I was driven to plow my way through to the end. And I admire Atlus for developing and publishing such a risky game. It's a bumpy ride, but Catherine takes you on a journey unlike any you've ever experienced.