Catherine Review

By Shawn Collier on August 31, 2011

As a smaller developer and publisher (at least in North America) Atlus has been known first and foremost for their Japanese-influenced RPGs, namely their trademark Shin Megami Tensei franchise. The Persona series, a spin-off of that franchise, took its parent's RPG roots and in the latest entries added a unique dating simulation element to the mix that changed some events based on the player's actions. The Persona team's latest creation, Catherine, takes those simulation elements and wraps them around a seemingly commonplace genre: block puzzles. It certainly sounds unique but the question remains: does it come together into an enjoyable experience or is this an eccentric mash-up that's better left ignored?

In regards to the that previous question, Catherine's puzzle element is surprisingly good. You play as Vincent and the backdrop behind the nightmare dungeons is that in the world he lives in, men have ended up dead due to mysterious causes with seemingly no explanation. It turns out that men who have been unfaithful or have other emotional problems end up in a nightmarish dungeon where they have to climb to survive otherwise they'll fall off and die in their own nightmares, causing them to die in reality too. To make things worse they'll return here each and every night after their first visit and you will even have to compete against other men who have no qualms about pushing you off the tower.

Thus, Vincent is forced to scale up the floors that make up the giant tower dungeon that he's found himself in. How can he do this, you might ask? Similar to the old-school arcade classic Q*bert, Vincent can scale the floors by climbing up the various blocks that make up the tower. Most all of the blocks, except a few immovable ones, can be pushed in any direction as long as Vincent has room to move in that direction. Like other puzzle games, however, you don't have infinite time to make your moves, which in Catherine's case has the floor beneath you falling apart as time progresses. To make things harder, there are also different types of blocks. Some take longer to move due to their weight, there are also ice blocks that can cause Vincent to glide across and trap blocks that impale Vincent if he stands on them for too long.

These hazards get upped even further in the various boss stages that occur at the end of each night. Here, Vincent climbs for his life while trying to stay away from the various monstrosities that are seemingly crafted from his inner feelings. Speaking of most of them would be a spoiler but it's safe to say that Vincent has some serious drama in his life. What makes these bosses harder than the regular stages is that they have their own unique block destroying and modification abilities ranging from turning rows of blocks into heavy blocks to attacking and killing Vincent instantly.

What makes Catherine's puzzles entertaining is that the floors aren't limited to a single solution as there's multiple routes for improvisation and lateral thinking. That isn't to say Catherine is a cakewalk as it's an infamously difficult game. Atlus even had to tone down the North American release to make it feel less punishing on some of the stages. But even at it's most devilish levels Catherine is extremely addictive and is fairly generous with handing out retry opportunities. All great puzzle games have that "one more try" feel to them and Catherine doesn't disappoint here in the slightest.While Catherine's puzzle elements are good on their own the real meat of the game is what surrounds it and separates it from the copious amount of cookie cutter iOS puzzle games out there. Vincent, the man you play as in Catherine, is a software engineer who has a girlfriend named Katherine. She was beginning to ask him about marriage and eventually reveals part of the way through the story that she's pregnant with his child. If that isn't enough drama he ends up waking up from one of his nightmare dungeons with a scantily clad girl named Catherine, who, you guessed it, Vincent slept with after a drunken night out with the guys at the bar. He doesn't want to cheat on Katherine but there's something about Catherine that intrigues him. Vincent's life begins to fall apart as he tries to keep his interactions with the two girls separate while they both merge together. The story does delve into some out-there fantasy elements in its final chapters but it fits into the overall theme of the game without being too outlandish. Those who have played prior titles in the Shin Megami Tensei franchise won't find this much of an issue but those new to games from this development team might find the switch somewhat jarring initially.

Atlus tried very hard to market Catherine as a very sultry individual, but in the context of the actual game she is much more mature than you'd would initially be led to believe. Sure there are numerous "mature" elements present in the game and it makes no qualms about referring to topics such as sex and love, but it's done in an adult way that doesn't trifle or tiptoe on those aspects. Vincent isn't your stereotypical hero, he's just your average man trying to sort out the recent mess he's made in his life. As you could infer from the previous paragraph a central theme of Catherine is intimacy, enforced by the player's access to the game's world being constrained to the Stray Sheep bar and the numerous dungeons inside the tower Vincent is forced to climb which reinforces the focus seemingly trivial concerns of a relatively small cast of people.

As for Catherine's overall gameplay and story structure, it's laid out very similarly to Persona 3 and 4. Each day starts out with some socializing via cutscenes, amnd from there, you'll head out to the bar to talk with your friends, the fellow bar patrons or even playing the arcade game Rapunzel. Then will then be more cutscenes and then the night-time nightmare dungeon. Unlike Persona 3 and 4 though, Catherine only takes place in the span of a little over a week so the seemingly drab routine surprisingly doesn't overstay its welcome.

Catherine also has an interesting morality choice system which revolves around tasks such as answering text messages, staying with Catherine when she appears at bars late in the night and even answering seemingly innocuous answers from the bar's patrons. But the problem with how Catherine implemented this karma meter is that it pops up every time you make a decision that sways the meter either way. Catherine's writers went to great lengths to create a feeling of character interaction that's above most other video games by trying to create an illusion of real interactions with its characters but that illusion falls flat when you're constantly reminded of Catherine being a video game when the meter appears after every dialogue choice, no matter how important it is to the overall story. And the game doesn't just remind you that your choices are binary opposites but it also reconciles Katherine as being a blue cherub while portraying Catherine as a little red devil, making Catherine seem as the "bad" choice instead of just another possible path in the game. Some players do like knowing what effect their decisions have in the game, but other video games have done this much better by silently affecting the overall narrative and only directly indicating the shift the choice made when necessary. Choices and their effects in real life often fall into a grey area and while video games can't mirror that perfectly it would have better to have let the user toggle the display of this meter instead of constantly displaying it to the user.

That isn't to say that these actions don't affect the story, they do. One path might see Vincent begin to grow as a character, so much so, that he takes responsibility for his actions.

Essentially Catherine is a tale of a man who finally accepts the fact that he has to grow up, and thus the dialogue and the consequences of his actions rings true with that fact.

Atlus have often received a reputation in the graphical department. Their games are often decent and stylized but nothing overly impressive. Catherine on the other hand is surprisingly impressive thanks to its anime-derived cel-shading. Studio 4C, the animation studio most known for their work in some of the shorts featured in The Animatrix and Halo Legends, were in charge of the animated cutscenes while Atlus' in-game engine handled the other cutscenes. Usually when you use two different animation outfits you get mixed results, but Catherine manages to mix the two without making the switching too jarring to the player. One minor issue with the cutscenes is that the voice levels are often out of whack with the volume outside of the cutscenes.

Likewise, Atlus games often have a reputation when it comes to replay value. They are known for having lots of post-game content and Catherine doesn't disappoint here in the slightest. There's multiple endings to be had depending on where your karma meter ends up in the game's final hours and this will require multiple playthroughs. Catherine also features two multiplayer modes: Babel (cooperative) and Coliseum (head-to-head). The former unlocks as you progress through the game and lets you play with a friend to scale the tower together but with randomly-generated towers and the rule that if either player dies both players lose. The latter is similar to Babel but lets you hamper your opponent's progress on your way to the top. Unfortunately both modes are local-only so those looking to play with friends over PSN or Xbox Live will be disappointed.

Final Thoughts

Catherine is a game that will certainly appeal to some people, but not others. That's not to say that different groups of individuals won't get anything out of the game but this is a game that actually is mature instead of just trying to act "mature". In an era when video games are defined by the developer and publisher's fears of anything that isn't a million-seller, Catherine is a welcome change from the norm even with its faults. It's unique, quirky and nothing like anything you've played recently, and that's a good thing.

Good story development.
Unlike anything you'll have played recently.
Puzzles are challenging, but not rage-enducing.
The karma system could have been implemented better.
Multiplayer is local only.
May not appeal to everyone.
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