It’s been a year since Atlus released their controversial game, Catherine. While only being available in Japan at the time, the story and difficulty level of Catherine gained a lot of attention quickly and a localization effort was made to bring the title to Western audiences. American regions were blessed a few months later, with the US release in July. Now, 12 months after the original, the game is finally available for European audiences. Publisher Deep Silver made the smart move of picking this up and releasing it to the Euro crowd, so let’s see how the game pans out after 1 year. Consider this a reevaluation.
It’s a strange combination to have a duality of part social simulator and part puzzle game, but at least it’s original and Catherine makes it work. The story, mainly followed in the daytime social cycle, stars a man named Vincent and his crisis with commitment issues. During the day, he juggles his love life and talks with his friends, hangs at the bar and sends texts; while of course drinking heavily. As protagonists go, Vincent seems some of the least likeable characters, with his questionable, pubescent behavior and low-level morals. But in the end it’s the player’s choice whether to steer the course of Freedom or Order in a choice-based meter. Answering questions and texts will affect how Vincent feels about things and this will in turn shape the story progression.
At night, Vincent’s troubles manifest themselves in nightmares that create the puzzle portion of the game. In his dream state, he must manipulate a set of different blocks in order overcome his adversity and climb towards freedom. This isn’t a leisurely stroll though, as the floor gives way underneath him and he might even be chased by actual demons that brandish a deadly arsenal. Throughout levels, there are ways to slow down and rest up on platforms where he can converse with sheep that seem to be in the same predicament. But at the end of levels, he’ll need to go into a confessional and the nightmare will start all over again. There is no rest for the wicked.
Just death-defying nightmares, that's all, Catherine baby.
Catherine doesn’t deceive the audience; the game is primarily about the story and the simple block puzzles are a mere framing device for the allegories needed within. But that doesn’t mean that Vincent can simply push a few cubes around and call it a day; on the contrary. The challenge level, set in 3 degrees, is quite steep and will require both swift wit and a good perception in order to overcome the tricky combinations. Luckily, the resting platforms during each level offer some help to learn new techniques and a way to purchase some helpful items that can be used in the trials. Yet, even with the helping hand, the game will feel more frustrating than rewarding and can even feel needlessly unfair during select times. The reward will come from wanting to know what happens next in the life of Vincent, which once again separates the importance of gameplay and story.
This game is an atmosphere. Its unique social aspect and choice element gets offset by lengthy cutscenes and conversations in either full anime animation or design. The difference between heavy cel-shaded, 3D designs and painted stills creates a visual appeal that makes characters and interest points pop out from the screen. In addition, the smooth textures and animations further enhance the anime style that transitions throughout the game. Catherine also expertly spreads touches of music at key points, which vary from updated classical music or jazzy tunes where best applicable. Lastly, the voice cast is tremendous and doesn’t hold any punches in conversations. These energetic youths talk like youth does; curse words and all. Anything story-related in this story is nearly flawless, even if the order and freedom division might seem arbitrary at some points; it serves its purpose in the end. However, the non-playable parts can become a bit lengthy for those eager to progress with the game and even skipping chapters during replays, for additional endings, can take some time.
Gameplay also suffers from a few additional quirks, such as some control issues that will occasionally make Vincent slip up in his non-apologetic environment. Additionally, whenever he falls behind blocks, the view gets obscured, which can get truly aggravating in these already tense situations. Luckily, suspense, urgency and a clever use of space usually overtakes any indiscretion. The drive to overcome obstacles and progress in the story will serve as the main motivation, even after plentiful rage quitting. It’s that small voice in the back of the head, wondering what happened next, which will propel players to turn on the console once more and check out what Vincent is up to.
In the end, players will want to finish the game, because Catherine bogards additional content in the form of a very entertaining competitive feature. It’s a shame players are forced into this decision, because the two player mode does create many additional hours of gameplay competition with a friend, even in its limited state. In this mode, players go head to head in order to reach the top first or destroy the opponent sheep in best out of 3 matches. In a similar way, more content is taken hostage in the form of loose challenges that players can unlock, but only by getting the difficult golden ratings in the story. The game does thrive on the challenge, but showing at least an increment of leniency would’ve benefited it at this particular point.
Catherine isn’t a game for just anyone, as its gameplay is rough, limited and the story is the main focus. Still, a brilliant execution to an equally marvelous concept creates a game unique in its kind, with rousing puzzles and compelling interaction that urge players to go on. Determined players get rewarded in the end with a grand finale and additional gameplay content, but most of all, with the satisfaction of having persisted. This is an experience unlike anything else available at this time and the craftsmanship of Atlus makes it a satisfying venture worthy of any person wanting to play it through. Also, it’s pretty damned sexy.