Sunday, July 21, 2013

Catherine Game Review

Every summer during down times between first quarter releases and holiday releases, I tend to find myself catching up on older games and I also tend to have a theme for the summer. One year it was zombie games, another year it was survival horror games, last year it was PS1 games. This year the theme seems to be very Japanesey games. I guess it sort of started with Project X Zone and now I find myself catching up on a game that caught my eye in 2011 but I just never got around to playing until now. That game would be Catherine. I can honestly say that I have never played a game quite like this before. The closest things I can think of that it reminds me of are Cubert, Nightmare on Elm Street, and an episode of the Twilight Zone. That’s a crazy combination right there. Having played this, I’m kind of regretting not getting to it sooner as it has a surprisingly damn good and relatable story. So let’s jump into the nightmarish world of Catherine.

STORY:  You play as Vincent Brooks, a 32-year old, neurotic computer programmer. He has started to have strange nightmares in which he is forced to climb a tower with herds of sheep. The nightmare leaves him very drained during the day in which he finds himself having some issues with his long time girlfriend Katherine, staying out late drinking with his friends, and hears bizarre rumors about young men being found dead in their sleep. After another night of heavy drinking and more nightmares, Vincent wakes up to discover another girl in bed with him. It would appear he is cheating on his girlfriend with a young and sexy woman named Catherine. But many things do not add up as he has no memory of going home with her or anything else. Racked with guilt, Vincent learns that all the men that have been dying had similar nightmares before their deaths and were all cheating. As Vincent’s nightmares continue, this mysterious girl won’t leave him alone and continues to tempt him. But there is more something going on here than men being unable to stay loyal to their partners, something supernatural.

Catherine has a surprisingly good story going for it and one I’ve never seen done in a video game. It has a surprising mix of comedy, drama, horror, and suspense along with several plot twists along the way. The story was a lot more than I expected it to be. It is also surprisingly relatable to anyone who has ever found themselves in a troubled relationship and also has quite a bit of commentary on relationships and life in general; making many aspects of the game feel very smart. The cast of characters is what makes it work. Vincent, despite appearing to be a cheating asshole, is actually a very sympathetic character as his world comes spiraling out of control and struggles to come to terms with his inner demons. Katherine and Catherine are both well portrayed as representing a stable life or a more carefree and exciting life. Vincent’s friends and acquaintances are interesting and feel like people you might know in real life, making them slightly stereotypical but enjoyable none the less.  Catherine is around 14 hours for the main story mode, making it a bit longer than I expected. However, it does have 8 different endings depending on the choices you make during the game giving it a lot of replay value if you enjoyed the story.   

GAMEPLAY:  This is where things get dicey for Catherine while, at the same time, being the most unique part of the game. The meat of the gameplay happens during the nightmare sections where Vincent must climb walls of blocks to make it to the top of each section before the blocks fall away and he falls to his death. These are logic puzzles in which you must figure out the best way to arrange the blocks in the quickest and most efficient way possible before time runs out. This game has become notorious for its level of difficulty. Even Japanese gamers were complaining about how hard this game is and this led Atlus release a patch that added a Very Easy mode. Right off the bat, the game throws you off the deep end with the first level, not really telling you any techniques or methods for climbing the blocks. I think I died about 5 times during the first level alone. It can be extremely unforgiving considering that it is very possible find yourself in situations that leave you stuck with no way to complete the stage and be forced to kill yourself. It is even possible to cause the goal of the level to fall into the void, leaving you screwed. The easiest setting has an undo button for your previous move but even then, sometimes the best thing to do is just die and start over. But keep in mind, there are limited continues.  There are items to pick up during levels that are helpful but they are rare so used them only when you absolutely need to.

While the tower levels are very difficult, they are also very learnable. After 2 or 3 levels, you should be able to get the hang of many basic aspects to the game. Most levels can be completely in one or two ways and once you master those, you can beat it without a problem each time. But as the game gets more difficult, you will find some puzzles that you will find yourself dying over and over again on and must also contend with various trap blocks.  Breaking up the stages are platform areas where after each climb you can save your game and talk to others who are going through these nightmares as well. You can help them out some by giving them confidence to keep climbing and/or share climbing techniques with others. Before moving onto the next level, Vincent must answer a question in a confessional from a mysterious man. The questions are about relationships and how one leads their life. These questions, along with other decisions, will impact the game’s story. At the end of each of the night’s nightmares is a boss level. This is where I expect controllers to be thrown. Vincent will be faced with some horrific nightmare beast in which he must climb the tower of blocks while dodging attacks from these monsters. You will need to be able to think fast and solve these puzzles as quickly as possible as some of the attacks the monsters launch are instant death. I found the 5th level boss to the absolute hardest boss in the game.

It’s during these boss levels where I found some issues with the controls. They can be really finicky if you’re trying to move too quickly. I found Vincent making some moves I didn’t mean for him to or hanging off something I didn’t want him to or falling off something unexpectedly. On most of the normal levels, you have time to think carefully about your next move and execute it calmly but during the boss battles, your brain has to work faster and the controls can’t always keep up. Also the camera becomes an issue at times. It’s possible for Vincent to hang and shimmy around blocks and go behind the wall of blocks, however, you cannot fully turn the camera around the wall to see Vincent, and so if you manage to get behind the wall, you will be blind. This is also one of those games where the direction controls reverse depending on where the camera is (which I hate) and when Vincent is hanging off the back of a block. This can lead to some frustration especially during boss battles. Despite the extreme difficulties of these levels, it is impossible to deny to triumphant feel you get when you complete these levels.

Outside of the nightmare levels, the only other place of gameplay is the bar that Vincent and his friends visit nightly. Things are much more relaxed here. You can walk around, talk with people, drink, listen to music, and even play an arcade game where you can improve your skills and it might even hold some other secrets. Vincent can also use his cell phone to receive and send texts and save the game. Catherine might even send him some naughtypictures he can view in the bathroom…….. heeeeeeeh… Anyway, it is important to drink and talk to the people at the bar as they will help shed clues as to what is going on as well as have some impact on the outcome of the story. These segments are surprisingly good at creating a sense of dread and suspense knowing that when you leave, you’ll be faced with a new and more challenging nightmare. The game does also have a co-op mode outside of the main game though I haven’t had a chance to play it but it seems like it would be a lot of fun. This mode is only unlocked after beating the game though.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND: Visually this game is dripping style with the sort of falling dream serving as a motif. The 2D animated cut scenes are done by Studio 4°C  who is known for animated movies and TV shows such as Steamboy, First Squad, The Animatrix, Batman: Gotham Knight, and the ThunderCats reboot to name a few. They are very well done and could have made for an anime spin off or short if they wanted. The rest of the cut scenes are in game rendered and have a cell shaded look to them. It fits perfectly along with the 2D cut scenes. The character models are a little bit hit and miss. Vincent is very well animated both in 3D and 2D and looks like a scruffy Spike Spiegel. His facial expressions are hilarious. A lot of work went into Catherine as well but other characters end up looking like dolls while others you never exactly get a good look at. The nightmare monsters look terrifyingly awesome though.

Catherine has an interesting soundtrack. Outside of the nightmare world, it’s very smooth and relaxing light jazz type music and some tracks from another Atlus game (Persona 4) snuck in. You can switch the songs at the jukebox in the bar. During the nightmare levels, we are treated to some remixed classical music such as Symphony No. 5 in C Minor by Beethoven, William Tell Overture Part 2 ‘The Storm’ by Gioachino Rossini, Revoulutionary Etude by Frederic Chopin, and many more. It makes for an interesting contrast between the real world and the action on the screen.  The game has very good voice acting and has some of the best voice actors in the business. Troy Baker, who just keeps appearing in games I’ve been playing recently (Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us, Samurai Heroes), plays Vincent perfectly.  Catherine is played by Laura Bailey, making her sound cute, seductive, and even creepy at times. Michelle Ruff plays the other Katherine and does a good job of making her be a mature and intelligent woman, the stable life that Vincent should be going for. Several other notable voice actors make up the cast and I’m sure if you watch a lot of anime, you’ll probably recognize some voices. One problem I did have with the dialogue was the audio level. The voices just seemed too quiet at times and there was no way to adjust the voice volume in the options. Maybe it’s just my copy of the game or sound system? I’m not sure. Also, the lip synch wasn’t always the best during the 3D rendered cut scenes but dubbing computer animated lip flaps is harder than traditionally animated lip flaps so I give it pass.

Overall, Catherine is a very unique game with a very good story and lots of replay value that is something I will honestly recommend to most people. It can be very difficult though so if you’re not a fan of games that are frustratingly hard, then you might want to stay away to keep your blood pressure down. If you enjoy a good challenge and have not played this, then this is your new summit to climb. Since it’s been out for a couple years now, you can easily find it for $11-15 or maybe even less online. Thanks for reading! Look for my next write up where I take a look at two classic licensed games based on the Ghost in the Shell franchise. Also if you have any suggestions for any Japanese games I should look into this summer, let me know.


-Great story with lots of replay
-Unique puzzle solving gameplay
-Very stylistic and excellent voice work

-Very challenging gameplay
-Controls can be finicky
-Adjustable audio would have been nice  

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Project X Zone (3DS) Game Review

Project X Zone is a notable title because it is possibly one of the biggest game crossovers ever. It was a collaboration between Bandai Namco, Capcom, and Sega. I only just found about this game last week while looking around on the 3DS virtual store. I saw Megaman X on the cover and immediately checked it out and downloaded the demo. When I asked people about it, they had either never heard of it or thought it was a fighting game since they are the most common crossover titles. Once I started playing the demo I quickly learned this was not a fighting game but rather a tactical strategy RPG. While RPGs have been big in the US for over the past decade, Japanese strategy RPGs have not really been that big. Which is why it is rather surprising that this game saw an international release at all. After the playing the demo, I was hooked and went out to Gamestop and picked up a copy and was able to get the limited edition, which came with an art book, mini-poster, and soundtrack. Playing through the actual game has been full of ups and downs for me and sadly, it ends with a down. This has been an odd experience as many things that I usually find to be positives in games these days are negatives in this game. But it’s not all bad. Let’s take a closer look.

STORY: Mii Koryuji, a fiery young girl of the Koryuji clan in Japan, has hired the help of the suave detective Kogoro Tenzai to help investigate the disappearance of a mysterious rock known as the Portal Stone that has been guarded by her family for ages. They are unable to find anything till some strange creatures appear in their garden. They battle them off only to have a portal from in the garden’s fountain and send them into another time and place. Similar portals start opening up in other worlds, dimensions, and time periods sucking some of our favorite game characters head long into meeting each other. As they gradually team up and try to discover why this is happening, they learn many of their arch villains have a hand in this escalating mystery.

From there, the story is like trying to explain quantum physics in 30 seconds… in fact; some of it is quantum physics. As in any crossover story, it has a crazy plot in order to get all of these characters together but that is the main attraction to this game. It is a who’s who from the Namco, Capcom, Sega universes. You’ll play as and see characters from Street Fighter, Tekken, Darkstalkers, Dead Rising, God Eater, Endless Frontier, Sakura Wars, Resonance of Fate, .Hack, Devil May Cry, Xenosaga, Megaman X, Virtua Fighter, Resident Evil, Valkyria Chronicles, Tales of Vesperia, and many more plus cameos and references to other characters and franchises.  Sadly, it’s only humanoid characters that make the cut. No Sonic the Hedgehog or Pac-Man, though it is disappointing to not see Bayonetta in the lineup since she’s technically under the Sega label.

The majority of the story is given through conversations between the characters as they go from world to world trying to figure out what is going on. What’s great about the story is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously all the time. In fact, many of the characters point out just how ridiculous this plot is. There are a lot of tongue-in-cheek in jokes that fans of these game series will probably grab and find hilarious. One example is Chris Redfield making a joke out of the infamous ‘Jill Sandwich’ line from the Resident Evil remake, to which Jill replies with ‘Oh, cram it!’ There is another line that makes reference to Rainbow Road from Mario Kart. In another line, Ken from Street Fighter sarcastically points out that Seth from S.I.N. is trust worthy and ‘not RIDICULOUSLY OBVIOUSLY EVIL or anything.’ The dialogue is surprisingly witty and well translated. By the way, I hope you enjoy reading because you’ll be doing a lot of it in this game. Don’t think that the game’s self-referential humor is the only good thing about the story. There are some surprisingly epic parts and powerful moments in the game.

That said, we come to one of the game’s biggest faults: this is a very long game, a little TOO long. This is odd since I usually complain about games these days being too short. Project X Zone has over 40 chapters and from start to finish it rubs between 55 to over 60 hours. Maybe I’m just too conditioned to the average 6 to 10 hour length you see in most games these days? But this game’s length does lead to two big problems: First problem is that many of these chapters really just feel like filler and takes forever for anything of true significance to happen. They seriously could have cut some of these chapters out of the game and it wouldn’t have affected the story at all. More than once I thought I was nearing the end of the game when it turned out I was far from it and it just kept going. Each chapter lasts from 20 minutes to 2 hours depending how the battles play out. By the way, if you’re expecting to see X and Zero, you’ll have to wait till about 20 hours into the game before seeing them. The other big problem with the game’s length I will cover in gameplay.

GAMEPLAY: The gameplay of Project X Zone starts out stupid easy but as the difficulty ramps up it becomes very strategic and addicting. The actually gameplay can be broken up into two sections: board movement and combat. You move your teams around the board like a grid. Each team has different walking ranges and attack ranges. To engage enemies you simply walk up to them and attack, however, it is smart to try and position yourself with another nearby team so they can help in the fight. Some boards have items and breakable objects around that you can collect but that’s the extent of exploration in this game. Remember, this is a tactical RPG, not an adventure RPG. On the board overview you can pull up items which will be your life blood in this game, view enemy stats and your own, whoever’s team you have selected set of skills, and quick save. Be aware that this game does not have autosave. You can save between chapters and quick save whenever it is your turn. If you’re the cautious type of player, you’ll probably be saving each turn you get. But if you’re careless this can lead to a sudden game over and there are no continues. Whatever your last save point was, that is where you’ll pick back up. You have set requirements for winning and failing during each chapter. This usually requires defeating all the enemies or a boss but sometimes requires you to complete a certain task before a certain number turn is reached. The requirements for failure are something you should pay attention to as sometimes it will require you to keep a certain team alive. If they die, it’s game over so keep that in mind.

Combat can be both really simple and very strategic. When you enter the fight screen you have a limited amount of times you can strike your enemy. This is represented by a red segmented bar under the blue XP power gauge. It starts at 2 but eventually becomes 6 segments as you level up. The attacks are listed on the bottom screen and preformed with simple combinations of the A button and D pad plus Y being your ultimate attack move which is a necessity for taking out bosses. You use your XP gauge for ultimate attacks, special skills on the overview screen, and how to handle attacking enemies on the over screen. You can fill it up from fighting or by using special items. Each team gets a solo member who can be called in with the L button and if you’re positioned near another team, you can call them in as support with the R button. The key is to maximize the amount of damage to an enemy by the end of a turn. This does require timing as enemies will bounce and fly around as you beat the crap out of them and this can lead to misses if you’re not timing your attacks well. And that’s about it for the gameplay. Like I said, it starts out very easy and repetitive but as the difficulty increases; it becomes much more strategic, addicting, and fun. Pulling off these coordinated attacks becomes extremely satisfying.  

However, this is where the game’s length becomes a boon to the gameplay. There just isn’t enough variation in the gameplay to warrant such a long game length. If there was actual exploring to be done in this game, it would be a different story but there isn’t. You also find yourself fighting the same bosses and enemies over and over and over again. The boss fights are not easy either. They will require you to attack with multiple teams, multiple times using their ultimate attack powers. It gets annoying having the face the same bad guy repeatedly even after you ‘officially’ killed them. The challenge is balanced well throughout the game up until the last boss when things become insanely and almost unfairly hard as he can take out multiple teams with one hit and throws every boss in the game at you at the same time. Have mercy, Japan! It feels like a grind making it to the end and like I said, it really didn’t need to be this long or have all these chapters. The cartridge space could have been better used for unlockables and/or a multiplayer type mode which is something I never thought I’d say. There is zero content outside of the main game and it is sorely missing extra content and hurt by a gameplay time that over stays it’s welcome.

GRAPHICS AND SOUND: For those who grew up during the 16-bit age, you will probably find the sprites used in the game to be awesome. They are animated very well, especially when attacking which leads to a flurry of action on the screen with lots of flashes of light and explosions in an anime style like assault on your enemies. The ultimate attack animations are a lot of fun to watch as your characters unleash punishing and well animated attacks on your foes. The enemies are also nicely designed though are less animated. Many of them come from various games from the franchises featured in this game. The opening cut scene appears to have been animated by Gainax and has a very Gurren Lagann feel to it.  The cell drawn stills of characters that appear during dialogue scenes are very well drawn and give the characters lots of personality with different stills for different emotions. However, I will point out that this is a lot fan service in this game with many of the female characters showing off cleavage or their butts in some way in these stills. Granted, many of them were already full of fan service with the way they dress in the games they come from but the artists went out of the way to get boob and ass shots for some of these girls. Stay classy, Japan.

The music in the game is just awesome. It has a lot of covers of themes from various games featured as well as some great original music that makes this game feel like an RPG classic from the SNES days and gives it a lot of charm. The Devil May Cry, Street Fighter, and Megaman X tunes always get me pumped for battle but the song Stairs of Time from .Hack takes the cake for best song on the soundtrack. It is absolutely gorgeous. All of the voicing in the game is in Japanese which leads me to think that releasing this game to an international market was an 11th hour decision and there was no time to find English voice actors which is fine. The Japanese voice actors do a good job and I only assume they have their respective talents reprising their roles.

Overall, Project X Zone is an interesting game with some big flaws that some might be easier for some to over look while others might get easily get bored with in within a few hours. For me, the game does a have a lot of charm to it and some might find the charm as well, especially if they are big fans of the franchises featured in this game and are fans of old school J-RPGs. If it wasn’t for the game’s extremely long length and lack of any real game variation, it would be getting a much higher score from me. If you’re curious about this game, I highly recommend playing the demos on the 3DS shop and if you still like it, go for it. I don’t recommend paying full price for this though. I got it for $17 but that was after a few trade ins. Thanks for reading! Look out for my upcoming summer review of Catherine. Also, unless I find it for a super low price or someone donates it to me; I will not be reviewing Deadpool. You’ll have to look elsewhere for a Deadpool review.   

OVERALL: 5.5/10

-Strategic and addictive gameplay
-Beautiful art and soundtrack
-Really cool seeing all these characters together

-Lacks gameplay variation to support the game’s length
-Sorely missing a multiplayer or extra content
-Last boss is almost unfairly hard