When gamers, especially JRPG fans, hear the name Atlus they recognize it as the developer and publisher behind classics such as the Shin Megami Tensei and Trauma Team franchises among the other various titles that the company has picked up from third-party developers. So Atlus's latest title, Catherine, may come as a shock considering its surprising puzzle-centric elements. Even gamers who don't follow the company have heard about the game thanks to its erotic undertones due to the racy and vivid artwork that came out shortly after the game's reveal. For being a first for the company in more ways that one gamers everywhere have been wanting to learn more about the title. We had the chance to sit in a live demonstration of the game with Atlus's Manager of PR and Sales Aram Jabbari to get a closer look at the title before its release later this month.
Catherine's plot revolves around its central character, Vincent. Unlike many of the people featured in Atlus's other titles Vincent is just your normal, typical everyday type of guy who has a job and a girlfriend, Katherine, who he's been with for five years by the time the game's story begins. Naturally she's wanting to take things to the next level and is asking him to commit to her but Vincent isn't ready just yet for that level of commitment.
It may not sound that interesting just yet, but there's a twist. After a cutscene with Vincent talking with his male buddies at the local bar, Stray Sheep, he ends up in a nightmarish dream world where his only option is to climb up to safety utilizing the various blocks that lie in his path. This is where the game's puzzle aspects come into play as Vincent can push blocks to create new paths --- or box himself into a corner --- which create "edges" by linking the sides of blocks with adjacent blocks. While the premise seems simple enough at first, some of the later levels we got a quick glimpse at near the end of the demo were extremely devilish in their design and even gave the Atlus staff who were on hand for the demonstration some trouble.
To make matters worse, in some stages there will be sheep (everyone in the nightmare world sees each other as a sheep) that will be trying to escape the puzzles alongside you and will even push you off if you get in their way --- of course, you can return the favor if you so please. Some stages also feature boss characters --- the one shown in the demo destroyed multiple rows at a time beneath Vincent's feet without hesitation as Aram braved the climb upwards.
Of course not everyone has the immense experience required for the game's more hardcore difficulties, so Atlus has been kind enough to add in the rebalanced difficulty settings that were available in the Japanese version as a free downloadable patch on the disc which adds a easier difficulty setting as well as tweaking some of the more overly difficulty sections of the game that were trouble for even the most devoted fans of the title. Also helping to clear the game's multiple stages is the inclusion of items, which range from pillows (gives extra retries if you die), energy drinks (lets you bypass part of the stage), blocks (lets you create blocks out of thin air to help with some of the trickier puzzles) and even a bell (turns all blocks around you into normal, lovable blocks).
Like was stated before, the story of the game takes place in Vincent's world. After beating the initial tutorial level we find out that Vincent met a girl named Catherine at the bar and ended up taking her home to his room for the night. Faced with the issue of reconciling his decision and thinking about how to handle his now-complicated situation he heads back to the bar. This is where some of the social aspects Atlus is known for comes into play.
One such activity is the ability to carry out conversations via text messages, which led to the following amusing conversation:
Like I said before, I'm having dinner with some old friends. It's surprising"¦ Most of them are already married, and almost half of them have kids. They're all showing off pictures of their families and it makes me feel left out.
Maybe it's time for us to get out of our comfort zone too.
Like in most of Atlus's games the player can choose what response they want to give, which in Aram's case was the following:
Can't be bothered now.
My brain is full of stuff.
INSUFFICIENT BRAIN POWER TO CONTINUE CONVERSATION
Outside of the text messages, Catherine also allows you to talk with the fellow people at the bar, which is where Vincent learns that some of his friends have been having the same weird dreams and have learned through the news that people who die in these dreams die in real life. With the stakes now raised Vincent is forced to deal with his own internal issues, which the player gets a chance to determine after each stage in which Vincent is forced to choose between two choices, both of which will swing his "morality" meter in one direction or the other. One neat feature of this system is the ability for console owners who have their systems connected to the Internet to be able to see what other players chose in their own playthroughs (for those playing offline, Atlus stated to us that the data will come from polling carried out in Japan).
While primarily a single-player affair, Catherine does feature some local multiplayer modes, one of which is partially open at the beginning of the game, Babel, and the other unlocked after the game is completed, Coliseum. Babel plays exactly like the nightmare towers in the story mode but has the two players (one playing as Vincent and the other as Katherine) working together to clear the tower. But if one player gets stuck and dies, both players lose. The latter mode, Coliseum, has both players controlling differently colored sheep in a no-holds brawl to reach the top before the other. Like the sheep in the game both players can smack each other down to their hearts content as Atlus's staff did multiple times as they demoed the mode for us. Sadly neither mode is available for play online, but those with friends close by should have one hell of a time with the modes available. The game does support online leaderboards, however.
From what we've seen of Catherine it looks like Atlus has delivered a game that heavily deviates from their usual safer releases but at the same time holds enough of the charm and excellent design that the company's titles are known for. Fans will get a chance to check out the demo next Tuesday, July 12. And for those interested in purchasing the game, Atlus is releasing a normal version of the game alongside a special deluxe version filled with a ton of extras including a reproduction of the pizza box featured at the game's bar, Stray Sheep. Catherine hits the PS3 and Xbox 360 on July 26 in North America.