Although some companies have lost the plot a bit when it comes to JRPGs, Atlus is one that has firmly stuck to their guns, producing highly successful titles including Trauma Team series and Persona. "Catherine" is Atlus' first step into the current generation of consoles and as of right now, one of the only ones of its kind.
The thing that initially snagged my interest about Catherine was the story. At its core, it's your average JRPG. The story follows the thirty-something Vincent who is faced with a very grown-up situation. He's forced to choose between his current girlfriend, who suggests they marry, and a strange seductive young woman, who suggests they date. The plot thickens and thickens as Vincent's mind sways back and forth. The story actually leaves you very intrigued, especially if you're either in a relationship or have had relationships in the past.
The message of the story is very open, which allows for a different kind of experience than your average JRPG will offer. Most JRPGs expect the main character to save the world, whereas Catherine simply expects you to control Vincent. You can either save his relationship with Katherine, or completely annihilate it by continuing your exploration of lust with Catherine. It really leaves everything entirely up to you. Even when sometimes you may think your choices are the right ones, the game can surprise you and say that what you chose was wrong. Catherine's story design might be enough to stump players who complain about JRPGs' linear storylines.
As you make your way through the story, discovering that people have been dying thanks to mysterious nightmares, you yourself begin to have nightmares and are forced to help guide Vincent through the horrific experiences by solving puzzles and climbing huge towers of blocks. It's a complete remix to the JRPG equation. While many JRPGs focus on the usual turn-based battle system, Catherine instead wants you to move blocks and boy are these blocks a pain in the arse. Trust me, this game is not for the faint of heart and you might rage quite a bit.
First there's the regular blocks in the first stage which are dandy. Every now and then you might move a block in the wrong area, but nothing to catastrophic. But then you're introduced to ice blocks and bomb blocks, suddenly you find yourself at the edge of your seat fuming with anger because you slid too far or a freaking sheep knocked you off your block. Luckily, Catherine is very generous with her pillows (or lives for those of you who still remember the olden days). For every one you pick up, you're given two. So if you get stuck in a location that has a pillow you can collect along the way, you'll find that every time you die, you're actually gaining pillows. At stage 6, I had 50 pillows stocked up. Albeit it's a pretty cheap way to play, but it definitely ensures less rage along the way.
Then there are the boss levels and they are as difficult as they are frightening. Getting chased by a woman with a fork is not really how I'd like to spend my Saturday night and I'd probably freak out if I had a nightmare much like Vincent's. The whole thing about these boss stages is that you have to apply all the techniques you've learned and make your way up the tower as efficiently as you can while dodging the boss' special attack. It's a nice way to mix up the gameplay a bit, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't dread them every stage. Most of the time, this is where the game shows some of its rough edges. Sometimes you'll find yourself hanging on the edge of a block trying to move to another block on the other side, and your directional buttons will then 180 causing Vincent to do a lovely little dance in the fetal position between blocks. There's also some points where Vincent will choose to move the block you didn't want him to move forcing you to retry the whole level. It gets a bit frustrating, but as said before, with how many pillows they give you, it's easy to let the little gameplay hiccups go.
I really enjoyed the amount of things you could do in the game. While at the Stray Sheep Bar alone, you could talk to anyone you wanted, drink alcohol, play an arcade game, text people, and so on. The texts as well were really well designed in the game. You could choose how to respond to certain characters. Generally it gives you about three options to choose from per sentence and these texts also factored into the game's outcome. Being caring to Katherine and telling Catherine off for texting you were amongst my favorite things to do.
Catherine also offers for a ton of replayability. Whether you want to replay levels or play in the arena or maybe even start up a new story from scratch, there's never a dull moment. The multiple endings also encourage you to try out different things with Catherine. Perhaps one game you try to be as honest as you can, then the next you try to be the complete opposite.
I think Catherine is a really good step for Atlus and I honestly thoroughly enjoyed the experience. JRPG fans would definitely feel at home with the characters as long as they can deal with the heavy sexual context. It's also a story that'll stick with you in your future relationships. You just have to choose which you would rather; Katherine or Catherine?