Catherine Xbox 360, Playstation 3 (reviewed) The game was purchased by the reviewer himself.
I have stated many times before that I consider Persona 4 to be one of my all-time favorite Japanese Roleplaying Games, but I never heard about the game before until 2011 when every reviewer taking on Catherine mentioned it was from the same developer. Oddly enough I never got around to actually playing Catherine itself, so I decided to remedy that. Naturally, considering the box art features sheep crawling out of a woman’s cleavage, I opted to buy this one online…
The game stars a middle-aged programmer called Vincent Brooks, a rather laid back guy that lives in a small apartment and goes out to get drunk basically every night. He works as a programmer after having recently changed jobs and is in a relationship with a beautiful girl called Katherine, who is almost his polar opposite. Katherine is very in control and organized, somewhat impatient and stern, but also caring and friendly.
The player controls Vincent who becomes worried when Katherine begins to pressure him with the intention of advancing their relationship. Of course, Vincent does what every reasonable man does and goes drinking at night to complain about it to his three friends. After his friends leave early, however, a beautiful girl called Catherine (notice the C) walks in and begins to seduce him. Long story short, Vincent promptly screws up and becomes trapped between the two girls. That is when Vincent learns there is a curse: each night, men who cheat on their beloved are thrown into a nightmarish gauntlet where they must struggle to survive. Those who fall in the dream will never wake up again…
As the player, you guide Vincent through questions that affect a meter that balances between Order and Chaos, or Katherine and Catherine to be more literal. Your standing on this meter alters several story events and ultimately decides what ending you get, of which there are several. After each gameplay section you return to the bar where you can interact with the other patrons, which again changes your standing on the meter. There are a lot of colorful people to meet here, such a guilt-ridden reporter, a vengeful cop, and Vincent’s long-time friends. Through interacting with them you learn more about their stories and during the nightmares you can find them at checkpoints where they will share useful strategies. Failing to interact with them too many times will cause them to eventually perish, preventing you from learning more about and from them.
In this regard, the game might be a little too cruel. The story segments at the bar runs on an invisible timer that advances with every action you take. Patrons come and go at varying times each day, so if you don’t know the right order to do things in you risk losing valuable allies. One time I sat down between two patrons and spoke with the guy on the left. Immediately after that, the guy on the right stood up and left, so several hours of gameplay later he turned up dead because I missed that one chance to talk with him.
There are legitimate reasons to pursue either girl and the story features plenty of bumps that make Vincent’s situation increasingly more awkward. The overall story begins to ramp up quite well nearing the end, though I will say I found many of the endings, and the reveal of the villain behind the nightmares, to be a bit lacking, even if it was still a fun ride overall.
Gameplay and story are almost entirely separated from each other in Catherine. As mentioned above, each night Vincent has a nightmare in which you have to tackle a series of levels that are broken up with checkpoints where you can chat with other survivors. Each level is a tower of blocks and the game is actually about puzzles. You need to ascend these towers by pulling and pushing the blocks around to create staircases, as Vincent can only climb one block at a time.
The mechanics of Catherine are remarkably solid. There is a lot to this game, but it’s explained in bite-sized chunks that you can immediately apply in gameplay, allowing you to quickly adapt to new rules as they are introduced. Most interesting of all, for example, is the “edge” mechanic that means blocks will remain floating in mid-air, so long as the edge touches any other block. It’s a gravity-defying bit of logic, yet the way the game introduces it makes it immediately understandable. Each new floor introduces some wacky new block, like a trampoline that launches you upwards 5 blocks, yet is useless if you have nothing to grab unto, or a monster block with a tongue that will cause Vincent to fall if the player tries to hang on the side of the block.
It can be really hard though. Even on easy the difficulty is considerable with many levels forcing the player to really focus and analyze their environment. It’s also quite easy to mess up a level by removing too many blocks, causing later segments to fall apart. That’s what kept me from playing the game before: I do not have the kind of foresight to plan this far ahead, to see how moving one element will affect everything around it. I made it through alright in the end, but a quick venture into hard mode had me stumped at the tutorial.
The game also features several enemies, which starts off with other survivors trying to climb faster than you and ramps up from there. Later on you have to deal with monstrous entities that all abide by their own rules, just like the various blocks. These can’t really harm you directly, but if they come into contact with you they will knock you down and in a lot of cases there is no way to get back up the same way twice. There are lots of power-ups you can buy with coins found in the levels or just find lying around to make it easier to deal with these enemies and it’s possible to kill them with tricks and traps that would also kill you.
Each night ends with a boss-fight in which Vincent has to flee up the tower while a monster chases him. All the monsters are horrors representing his inner fears, with most of them having disgusting sexual themes. Really though, it’s not much different from usual gameplay, during which the bottom of the tower just drops away, forcing you to keep advancing. These bosses do throw in special abilities to mess with you, but it’s rarely a big deal. At the end of each stage you are also awarded a trophy based on how many coins you picked up and if you were able to keep up a combo, which you do by consistently advancing higher. They don’t do much aside from challenging you to go back and beat your own records.
The animation for this game was provided by Studio 4°C, an animation house known primarily for the Berserk remake movies, Detroid Metal City, and Halo Legends. They are an experimental bunch, though personally I feel their anime successes are too few and far between. Catherine looks perfectly fine though, with the most commendable element being its excellent character design. Everybody is visually distinct and, being a game about middle-aged people, there are no overused anime tropes the characters were based on. Vincent too is quite enjoyable and his expressions are spot-on.
Cutscenes look notably worse if you pay attention to details. A few key scenes looked really off with goofy proportions or undetailed designs that are placed too much in focus. To counter that, the nightmare worlds look excellent with lots of moving bits in the background and funny details. In the early levels I was particularly fond of seeing fellow survivors climbing around in the background.
A recurring visual element of Catherine are sheep. The bar you go to is called the Stray Sheep, for example, and during nightmares everybody appears as sheep, with Vincent’s friends retaining clothes and hair-styles to make them identifiable. I find this pretty funny and it’s referenced in the story a lot, so it makes a lot of sense in-universe. Even the final boss makes clever use of sheep.
Voice acting and music is also top notch with the music being put in the trustworthy hands of Shoji Meguro, who handles the audio for most of Atlus’ projects. The game kicks off with a nifty little hip-hop song and the rest of the tracks are quite calm and melancholic, matching the game’s atmosphere quite neatly compared to Shoji’s more upbeat and springy music used in the Persona series. I opted to play the game in English myself and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the dub. Every character sounds quite natural in their role and the names were already English, so there is no weird pronunciations to worry about. Persona fans will also recognize some of the voices, since VA stars like Yuri Lowenthal and Erin Fitzgerald reprise roles in this game as well. It’s pretty weird how the mysterious voice sounds so akin to Yosuke.
Extras and completion
During your many visits to the Stray Sheep bar you can hit up the arcade cabinet to play Rapunzel, a mini-game very akin to the nightmare levels. The game features 60+ levels in which a prince must climb a tower of blocks to reach Rapunzel’s hair. Unlike the nightmare stages these do not force you to go at a set pace. Instead, you have a much smaller level with more difficult puzzles and limited continues, so during a story playthrough you only have so many chances to get through all of it. The mini-game also has its own secret ending to achieve, but I got tired of playing through it rather quickly, especially since you have to play quite a lot of it each night to finish it up in time.
The game also contains mutliplayer modes in both the cooperative and competitive variety. I can’t say much about these because I wasn’t comfortable with calling any of my friends over to help me play a game like this, nor do I trust my skills enough to tackle these solo.
Finally, there are achievements and trophies to be gathered for completing the game’s various modes. There are the usual ones for beating the game on easy, normal, and hard, as well as for beating individual stages and gathering all the gold trophies on hard mode. Additionally there are achievements for keeping the side-characters alive till the end and seeing all of the game’s different endings, giving you plenty of reason to come back and try the game again since there is no practical way to fit all of that in one playthrough. You can also collect trivia about various alcoholic beverages by drinking all of them each day at the bar, which are pretty fun and also reward you with another set of achievements.
Catherine is definitely a game with a niche appeal and one that many people won’t be comfortable with. It’s sexual themes and grueling puzzles are not for everyone and that’s a shame because there is a quality puzzle game to be found here. Catherine‘s well-polished mechanics are fun to play around with and the story is all-around quite enjoyable for older gamers. So if you’re actually as old as the ESRB wants you to be for this game and you like a neat, animated style, then I can definitely recommend tracking a copy of this game down. Try to make it a digital copy if you can…