Catherine and Impossible Games

Kotaku has a post up on Atlus’s new game Catherine, which is apparently so hard that even Japanese fans of Atlus games are complaining about the difficulty.

This is the nation that brought us Ikaruga. I love Ikaruga (post imminent on this gem), but I’ve put in something like 92 hours, and I’ve beaten the game three times. I know that I shouldn’t complain (and I ain’t complaining that much, as I clearly loved the game enough to spend 92 hours on it) and that for many people, getting past the first stage of the game is an accomplishment in and of itself, but let’s look at it another way: I have logged similar time in only a few video games. Dawn of War the first and second, Star Craft II, the Morrowind iteration of Elder Scrolls, Final Fantasy XIII, and Diablo 2 (hundreds of hours on that one). Note: I’m not including MMORPGs in this list as they are less a game than a gaming marathon, so comparisons of time spent thereon wouldn’t be all too enlightening or useful.

Catherine reminded me that I am not particularly good at games. I think I have a kindred spirit here in Jerry Holkins/Tycho Brahe at Penny-Arcade. I love games, but I lack the time and energy to devote to mastering most games as I once could have done. Part of me, the fully adult and self-aware part, would concede that even if I could spend unlimited time on a game, I still wouldn’t. The deep, driving need to drain every last bit from any given game is more or less absent. This is isn’t a matter of being jaded, but of my shifting taste in games. I don’t want to inhabit a game, and drape its skin over mine; I want to play it enough to understand it, to get what seem to be the best elements, and move on.

There was a time when mastering a game really only took the ability to fully grasp the basic mechanics at work, to get your thumbs or mouse finger to play along, and to come up with a bit of perspicacity. Other games, especially more modern games, require a level of work and learning.

To give a recent example, competence at the multiplayer portion of Dawn of War II requires a fair bit of learning. You learn the maps (good cover positions, bad ones, good places to push, bad corridors for the same, etc); you learn the capabilities of the other race’s armies contra your own (which is a different proposition than learning your army’s tactics of choice against another). There is very little actual reading up a new player can do outside of the realm of the very basic “how does this unit work” sort of question and answer sessions, which is something an experimentally-minded player might learn from a couple of custom games against a computer proxy. None of this is really work in the game world sense. You aren’t really grinding anything or earning anything. Nothing of merit is being leveled up.

World of Warcraft necessitates that you work. You grind to endgame (a grind greatly ameliorated these days) and then grind for gear so that you can be on the cutting edge of raiding, which is yet another grind. Each of these grinds does require the player be capable of keeping progressively more balls in the air and in this way WoW and other MMORPGs have taken what was a very small niche that DoTA carved from the edifice that circumscribes acceptable sorts of gameplay – wherein the best player is the one able to maintain a high level of awareness and corresponding responsiveness throughout short bursts of high-stress play sessions – and greatly widened it. Outside of the area of RPGs, an obvious corollary would be team-based FPS multiplayer games.

I’ve played Catherine and it’s a fantastic game. Atlus does an amazing job of making games that work as a game, a metagame, and as a sort of experiment at the basic level of mechanics. This new game is yet another example of their mastery of these particular demesnes. If and when the demo becomes available again, I heartily recommend you download it and play it. The little bit I did get to play has got me slavering for more, even if I will never be able to beat it, difficulty patches from Atlus or otherwise. It’s a bit of a departure for Atlus, though, whose games, with the exception of the wonderful, grueling Prinny games (I’ve not really had a chance to sink my teeth into the second one, I admit, but I’m told it’s “worth playing”), are all about the grind-ier side of game play. Rarely are reflexes important in an Atlus game, and the emphasis tends to be on unforgiving, turn-based strategically-oriented combat, dark storylines and a number of complex, interesting metagames. In Catherine, however, we seem to jump from storyline to a strange combination of Tetris and Jenga. I’ve seen the connection made to an old Playstation game, Intelligent Qube, but I think that that’s a tenuous one. Or at least, if there is a connection, intended or otherwise, I don’t think anyone can accuse the one game of cribbing directly from the other:

If there is a metagame at all here, I don’t really see it. Even the first Prinny game had the time of day element involved. This seems to be purely about the puzzle game and the storyline. Which is fine, but this game is so dramatically removed from what we’re used to from the Atlus Persona team that I’m worried that difficulty patches aside the game is just too strange to find much of an audience here in the U.S. (or in the rest of the west). Which is a shame, as the game is pretty fantastic.

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