- The Washington Times - Friday, August 5, 2011

The complicating horrors of love and lust come to light in Catherine (Atlus, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated: Mature, $59.98), a third-person game mixing role-play and puzzles.

I’m sure many of the male demographic will find an uncomfortable familiarity in this story, as they become part of the world of Vincent.

The 32-year-old, lazy systems engineer is in a long-term, stable relationship with a beautiful girlfriend named Katherine but finds himself consumed by an affair with the mysterious Catherine.

His life becomes a complex game of emotional and physical survival where decisions made during his waking hours play out in a potentially deadly nightmare scenario in his dreams.

Specifically, going to sleep is the most dangerous time for young Vincent as his subconscious punishes him for his sins during the day in a way Freddie Krueger would find quite amusing.

Dressed in boxers and wearing ram’s horns, he is stuck in a gothic, frightening world dictated by scaling staircases made up of movable blocks.

The player must maneuver Vincent to climb these shifting structures to get to the top as quickly as possible while he avoids creatures and sheep men — that’s right, pushy, whiny and talkative sheep men.

Our developers’ level of clever here is off the charts.

The player can pull or push blocks around, have Vincent hang by his fingers to sneak around steps and suspend a block in midair as it touches another block’s edge.

While climbing, he must also avoid traps such as cracked blocks that collapse and even blocks that shoot spikes. He’ll also find Mystic Pillows (used to retry a level if he fails) and coins to buy helpful items along his route.

Did I mention, the staircase slowly disintegrates while Vincent is climbing? It makes speed of the essence. Also, massive monsters such as a pair of giant hands wielding a fork to skewer the young lad or a demon baby ready to crush with his chubby fingers are in pursuit and ready to kill him in a gory fashion.

By the way, “fail” is a key word to remember as the pressure to conquer these torture chambers combined with incredible difficulty in some levels will induce sweating and occasional weeping.

Between puzzle levels, Vincent hangs out with the sheep men, discussing strategies, calming some of the poor suckers down or buying a helper (such as a bible to banish enemies on the blocks) for his next challenge.

To get to his next trial he enters a confessional booth where he answers a morality question (Xbox Live users will see poll results from other players) and gets shot up to the next staircase.

If Vincent survives his night, he enters the role-play portion of the game and is usually found hanging out with his drinking buddies at the Stray Sheep.

There he can talk to other bar and staff patrons, play an arcade game called Rapunzel (a retro masterpiece based on his nightmares), have a drink (that boosts his speed in the puzzles) or use his phone to text his true loves.

Interacting with characters, texting and his answers in the confessional (Does life begin or end with marriage?) also influence a morality meter that will change the storyline and compound his dilemma with the two ladies.

The player will find the designs of artist Shigenori Soejima and Studio4℃ incredible as the team interweaves beautiful cell-shaded action (a technique resembling hand-drawn animation) with cartoon-cut scenes in the finest anime styles.

Simply put, the women are gorgeous, especially the blonde, blue-eyed bombshell Catherine, an often scantily clad temptress with doe-like eyes and a mesmerizing flutter of eyelashes.

Those who richly succeed in the puzzles and collect gold statues unlock a four-level multiplayer mode for a pair of climbers to compete or work together to scale the staircases.

Catherine, with its innovative blend of genres and anchored by those darn difficult puzzles, is one of the most bizarre, if not addictive, games of the year.

I’ll certainly never count sheep when trying to fall asleep again.

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