Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Sam's Sort-of Reviews: Catherine (PS3/Xbox 360)

I've been having trouble thinking of which games I'd like to write about. I was anxiously awaiting word back from Killscreen Daily, a video game publication, about whether or not they would accept my pitches for articles for their next issue, but I recently received word that my pitches were rejected. Better luck next time, I suppose? In the meantime, my sister and I just finished our first playthrough of Atlus's new game, Catherine, and I thought I'd add even more support to the critical acclaim that it has already gotten. I'll mostly be talking about the music and the choices made by composer Shoji Meguro, but first, some background information.

Those expecting a hentai game when they bought Catherine were sorely mistaken.

Catherine is a game about love, or, more accurately, a game about the struggle between freedom and commitment. Vincent Brooks has been in a serious relationship with his girlfriend, Katherine McBride, for five years (and yes, that's with a "K." More to come on this). If her last name didn't make it painfully obvious, she wants to finally marry Vincent so they can settle down together; Vincent, however, is apprehensive about this change and wishes for things to stay the same between the two of them. In the midst of this conflict, Vincent meets Catherine, a young, bubbly blond who believes that a life that isn't lived to its fullest is not worth living. After they fool around a bit, Vincent's begins to have terrible nightmares where he has to climb up a tower before it crumbles beneath him. The thing is, if he dies in the dream, then he'll die in real life. Many men have reported having strange dreams, and mysterious deaths keep cropping up, but each man forgets about the dream when he awakens.

Also, you're a sheep. Surrounded by other sheep.

Atlus lays the symbolism on thick in this game. Besides one love interest's absurdly obvious last name, there is quite a bit of religious symbolism: every night, Vincent frequents a bar called The Stray Sheep; the nightmare world uses church bells to signal safe landings; and on each landing is a sign pointing upwards to "freedom" and a confessional that you use to get to the next level. The gameplay is action/puzzle-based, consisting of Vincent pushing and pulling blocks in order to climb this crumbling tower, and this can, once again, be used as a metaphor for Vincent overcoming his challenges to come to a decision (or, rather, one of the characters blatantly pontificates on this explanation at the end of the game). The effort toward deeper meaning is fantastic, but Atlus should have a little more faith in their fans' intelligence instead of suffocating them with their interpretation of each symbol.

That said, the story is incredibly mature and very well-told. This struggle isn't about saving the world or finding the princess; it's about an everyman's inability to let his life stagnate and the conflict that arises when he tries to stand still. Each character that you meet, even the nameless NPCs on the landings, has a distinct personality and set of emotions. There are several patrons at The Stray Sheep whom you can help with their problems, and an arcade game, a seemingly innocuous sidequest, actually reveals more about the plot. Each piece fits together perfectly. The best thing about Catherine is that every character displays his or her own imperfect humanity.

Katherine can have her fierce moments, but mostly she's just reeeeeeally naggy.

As for the music, Shoji Meguro shows off his composing prowess yet again with his unique fusion style. For instance, this is the music that plays during the title screen:

"It's a Golden Show" - Catherine
The title screen shows Katherine sitting atop a pile of blocks to which boxer-clad Vincent is bound. He turns to the screen and desperately yells, "C/Katherine!" Other than that, there's not much to it. It's a little creepy, and those who proceed straight through won't hear much more than the first eerie minute of the song. It certainly fits the atmosphere created by the scenery, so it would be a reasonable assumption to think that the music in this instance is used only to set the tone for the rest of the game. However, when the slow chording eventually evolves into a disco-esque tune with heavy funk guitar, rock organ, and a driving drum beat. Why such a 70's feel to a game set squarely in the present day?

There is a framing narrative to Catherine consisting of a lady named Trisha (also known as "Midnight Venus") hosting a television show called "The Golden Playhouse." It is within this show that the main plot of Catherine takes place (which just adds another layer of intrigue: who is this mysterious lady? Are the events in Vincent's life less significant because of the added narrative layer?), and given Trisha's eclectic sense of style, it explains why the game (or, rather, the TV show) would have such a funky theme song.

One of Meguro's greatest talents is combining drums and electronic DJ rhythms with piano and strings to create a blend of contemporary and orchestral music. A large portion of Meguro's music relies heavily on piano, but he builds onto the piano basis with strings, guitar, drums, etc. This creates a fullness to the sound, and it gives the music more energy than it would with his piano lines alone. One example, called "Stray Sheep," is played during several of the cutscenes (but not at the bar, oddly enough):

"Stray Sheep" - Catherine

It opens with a piano melody with only soft percussion behind it. Around the 30-second mark, the drumming picks up a bit, and soft string underscoring begins. At about 1-minute, the violin adds occasional stings while the full string section provides a stronger underscoring in the B section. At around 1:35, the track reverts to its original instrumentation of soft drums and piano before evolving further into something much more menacing, dark, and discordant than the previous melody. The transition to this melody takes place over a mere few measures, but it's enough to drastically alter one's interpretation of the scene. This is the kind of brilliance that Meguro is known for in his other works.

Even more impressive, though, is Meguro's arranging prowess for Catherine. The music during the action sequences consists of pieces by Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and similar era composers. As Meguro states in the Catherine art book included in pre-orders of the game, he chose these orchestral pieces "for their unexpectedness." To have an original composition would take away the unexpectedness of this type of music in such a situation, and if the composition were too famous, it would have drawn attention away from the rest of the game. Therefore, he decided to use "songs that were only 'kind of familiar.'" He did a fantastic job at this; a few of the songs are at least somewhat recognizable, but none of them have permeated mass media to the point that they would be instantly recognizable to many people. One of the most recognizable of these pieces is a combination of the second and third movements of "The William Tell Overture": "The Storm" and "The Ranz Des Vaches."

"The William Tell Overture: Part 2 (The Storm) and Part 3 (The Ranz Des Vaches)" - Gioachino Antonio Rossini (as arranged by Shoji Meguro)

Meguro adds his signature rock feel to this re-imagining of this classic. The fact that this theme is more recognizable than many of the others he included boosts the "unexpectedness" factor, as does the inclusion of a short clip of "The Ranz Des Vaches" (you're dodging death on a crumbling tower to the accompaniment of a joyful flute?). My favorite of these arrangements, though, is of Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude":

"Revolutionary Etude" - Frederic Chopin (as arranged by Shoji Meguro)

This piece, originally written by Chopin at the start of the November Uprising in Poland, is only used on the very last stage against the final boss. Not only does the piece itself convey the urgency of climbing the tower, but the historical context behind the piece also adds another layer of significance to Vincent's struggle. Of course, the addition of a rapidly pulsing drumbeat only adds to the anxiety of the final boss shooting giant lasers from his eyes. I believe it's fitting that the music heard in Vincent's dream is both familiar and unfamiliar; it draws a parallel between our world and the game world, and it makes sense that these songs could lodge themselves in Vincent's unconscious mind, only to be heard (but not quite recognized) in his dreams. Even this act of soundtrack selection opens the game up to further interpretation: is this supposed to indicate something about Vincent's character? He's never seen listening to orchestral music during the game, so where did these songs come from? If the music is supposed to parallel the events of the day before each nightmare, how did these pieces come to mind?

All in all, Catherine is one of the most interesting games I've played in a very long while. The soundtrack is unique (although not entirely unfamiliar), the story is relatable and mature, the art is gorgeous, and the characterization is fantastic. The game is not for the feint of heart-- it can get frustratingly difficult very quickly, especially in Hard mode-- and those who don't even remotely enjoy puzzles may want to find their kicks somewhere else. But if you don't fall into either of categories, I suggest picking up this game as soon as you can and giving it a shot. You won't be disappointed... to steal a saying from a certain someone.

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