Ever seen a title screen that didn’t have the title of the game on it? That’s called foreshadowing.
Have you ever felt like you just wanted out? Like…like you were trapped in your own skin?
There are times late at night when I sit here in front of the screen wondering what it’s all about. It usually takes the form of staring at a blank page after playing a two dollar game, thinking “now what the hell am I going to do with this?” I read somewhere that Michaelangelo did the same thing with a 12 ton block of marble that eventually became the Pieta. And I’m pretty sure he thought the exact same thing to himself. In Italian. And yes, I am equating the two pursuits as perfect cultural equivalents.
So I got this game called Katharsis. Last time I checked, there were no reviews on Steam. Or anywhere. That’s fine, since I don’t read the reviews. However, I have the feeling that I am the only one who has ever played this game, except that there is a single YouTube video of a person playing the first five minutes. Other than that, I am unsure of whether or not this game actually exists.
So, for who knows how long, I sat and stared at a blank page, wondering how to review it. See, it’s not the pervasive, 3rd grade Engrish sprinkled throughout the game. Nor is it the heavy-handed moralizing of it. No, that’s not it.
But there is definitely something off about Katharsis.
Katharsis is billed as a first-person exploration game with many endings. Many endings that, when stitched together, form a big moral baseball that I assume I am supposed to throw into my junk drawer and only see again the next time I move. So I guess I’ll be seeing the moral baseball in December, at which time, I’ll put it into a box and then into storage, where it will spread its juvenile gospel to my letter openers, earplugs, blank index cards, dried-out map marking pens, half-empty tins of mints, old vape tanks I don’t use anymore, numerous picked-over bags of rubber bands, sheets of little felt stickers for Ikea furniture, and business cards for places that have long since shuttered their doors.
At first glance, Katharsis seems to be not unlike a lot of its peers in the genre. Cute, a little inventive, and not terribly difficult. Katharsis shows up in the trappings of its brethren, but takes an insidious turn about 30 minutes into play.
On its most basic level, Katharsis is a game about a person (I’m assuming its a person) who wants milk.
There you go. Easy right? Well, it seems easy until you actually start looking for it.
What is obsession? That’s what the programmers say, not me. But what is obsession? Let’s suppose you want some milk, like your nameless, faceless, gutless avatar in this game. You will search for it…in the room that immediately surrounds you, apparently, because we usually keep milk in a classroom.
When we do not find the milk, obsession takes us to the hallway- the impossibly long hallway that takes almost an entire minute (an ETERNITY in cheap gaming). When you reach the end, your break time is over. Time to head back to the classroom and sit at your desk. Now what?This sounds scattered because it is. Katharsis is to blame.
Katharsis is a game of relentless pursuit. Of milk.
What happens if you don’t find it?
Now. It’s settled. No, wait. It isn’t!
The game starts again. You want some milk.
You search for milk. This time, you buck societal infringements on your primordial thirst for milk and you just keep going until you get to the break room, and when you finally get the milk it is spoiled.
You get a moral message. Something simple. Something like this:
Then, in a stunning twist, the game starts again. See, you’re obsessed with milk. Get it? Even though you just found it, you still want it. So you keep pushing. Or, the game keeps putting you back where you just were. Then you start again. Still obsessed. Obsessed with milk.
Aaaaand I’ll stop right there. A game like Katharsis is difficult to review because there is little to discuss without ruining it for you. It is clearly meant to be played a single time. See, it does not have multiple endings- that’s a misnomer. It is a single game that merely places you in the starting condition multiple times, and then alters your reality slightly to coerce you into making different decisions. That’s fine. Lots of games do that. However, I cannot fathom that this game would have any replayability because it is essentially a track shooter with precious little shooting. Once you have extracted everything you can from it, you can discard it and never think about it again.
Control-wise, it is simple. WASD and forget it, with some use of the “E” key to manipulate the dozen or so interactive set pieces. There is a use for a mouse button, which is to shoot your “democracy tool” in the most exciting part of the game…which you have no choice but to enter and become a part of the message.
In that search for milk, you take a test, admit that you obey the government, and then you go to war, shooting cardboard cutouts with a blocky M249 until you are injured because…because oil, I guess. After that, you end up in a hospital of increasingly inscrutable corridors, with your only direction being some instructions:
Put? Put what? Put where? Oh, put it down immediately because it makes no sense. That’s right.
And a “map”, or what I assume is the map because its the only other thing in the room:
For your situational awareness, that image is untouched. That is the exact level of fidelity that this apparently critical piece of information has in the game world.
Now, I only assume that that’s the map because it is the only thing in the room that could possibly be conceived as one. You can’t flip the instructions over, so your eye follows the arrow to what looks like a deranged seeing eye chart that is so low res and poorly lit that it is just as easily assumed to be a decoration meant to be ignored. Again, you are left scrounging for that one single thing that will get you to the next screen.
Take the next sequence as an example.
At one point you find yourself in a library with a computer. Slide the diskette in the drive and it will give you access to “School OS” in all its black and green glory.
Dog goes woof woof? No problem.
Now, when I first got to this screen, I refused to “press any key to agree”. Turns out you can’t avoid it. You MUST press the key in order to move on. Which brings you to:
Again, you MUST take the diploma. If you don’t take it, nothing happens. You are stuck in an escape room with a single task required to get back out into the muggy Austin air with all the other hipsters.
Aaaaand that’s the big issue with this game. There is only one way to do anything. It exists entirely to communicate the creator’s jejune philosophy, revealed bit by bit by following a trail of menial tasks-based bread crumbs. While the phrase “dreams have a shelf life” elicited a distinct “Huh.” From me, the rest of it is so hammy and restrictive that any enjoyment is just sucked out of the experience. I understand that it is likely this way to lead the user through a series of specific experiences, but there is definitely something to be said about the role of the user in the experiential journey. After all, it is the player who benefits from the game and receives whatever message the creators want to give, so having at least token freedom to explore provides the sensation that the player led himself to these conclusions. That is the essence of good storytelling.
Not to mention that the entire hospital sequence seems to be completely impossible.
I know you’re probably thinking “Duh, you big idiot. It’s a puzzle game. There is only one way to solve a puzzle.” Yeah, then if it’s a puzzle game, why don’t they couch it as one? I’ve never opened up a jigsaw puzzle and found an otherwise empty box with a note inside telling me how to live my life, so let’s just move on.
The philosophy is fine. I did find myself dwelling deep within an existential quandary when I completed the first round. Like a good little Army man, I turned right around and walked the half mile back down the hall to the classroom when the bell rang. When the game ended and I did not have my milk, I was overcome with a sense of “Wow. I’m a toolbag.” Well, that was the point. It challenges the player’s perception of himself (or HERself). In that regard, Katharsis is quite effective. There are a few sections like this, and it alters reality (hallway length, etc) each time to get you to act a certain way, leading you to a little bit of knowledge about yourself. Usually, it is uncomfortable knowledge.
Where it fails is when it attempts to exact a specific political or moral worldview, such as the opinions about war or conflict in general. Such assertions are non-universalist and break the plane between game-facilitated self-discovery and plain old nagging. And who needs more nagging in this life?
Not this guy.
That’s right. I didn’t finish it. Not even close. I understand that some out there may guffaw at the fact that I didn’t master this one in a single short play through, but if you know how to do it, I BEG you to please email me at Budiak@dynamitegun.com and tell me how you did it. Otherwise, there’s just no meat on the bone for me. My only regret? I didn’t get the milk.
There is some merit here. The music is quite soothing, if rarely utilized. Most of the game is spent in silence, which does tend to give your low-poly environment a bit of a surreal aesthetic. Music only appears on the title screen- the rest of the game has a stark contrast of uneven footfalls and doors opening, with nothing laid down behind it to have any effect on the player’s mood or motivation.
There are also some jarring transitions that belie the game’s utter simplicity. Such as the title cards that spring up and hit you in the face with five fingers of harsh reality, or the morphing of the environment seamlessly when your back is turned.
You see, you waited too long to drink the milk. Shelf life? Am I getting through to anyone? Am I just milk here? I feel like I’m taking MILK PILLS! MILK!
*Now, this was an exceedingly difficult decision. While the game itself has some overwhelming flaws and I didn’t even finish it, I do think that there is some real merit here. It’s got moxy. It doesn’t have an incredibly deep story, but hell, most games don’t. It does have some good surrealist overtones and the messages it delivers are (generally) worth a “huh!” followed by an curious head tilt, finishing off with an approving facial expression and a nod. Despite the fact that I couldn’t figure out how to get past a certain sequence, I can’t hold that against it, because sometimes games like this just elude me. Give it a shot. It’s heavy handed and technically lacking in some key areas, but you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.