Let it never be said that the gaming industry is running out of ideas. Sure, it’s fun to be snarky about the current popularity of military shooters – hey, those are the games that are brown and have lots of bloom, right? I’m hip with that – but moaning about what’s popular doesn’t excuse us from digging around below the AAA release calender and discovering games that might not have a huge marketing budget. Atlus has made that search a little easier with Catherine, a game which – given its strange name and eye-catching (to put it bluntly) cover – sticks out regardless of pedigree. Which, to be fair, it has plenty of, if you already follow Japanese developers.
Catherine is the first current-gen console game from Atlus R&D1, the team that developed Persona 3 & 4. It’s a puzzle game about a 32-year-old man named Vincent who is cheating on his steady girlfriend, Katherine, with a waifish seductress named Catherine. A lot of noise has been made over how these two concepts connect – a puzzle game about infidelity? What? – but considering Catherine has all of the goofiness of Persona 4, it’s not a hard sell at all. Players control Vincent as he wallows in a bar with his friends at night, and then again during repeating nightmares. Nightmares that are block puzzles. It all comes together, trust me.
The puzzles are, essentially, a climbing game. Vincent has to reach the top of each block structure he is presented with, pushing and pulling blocks to form paths up before the blocks below fall away. Blocks connect at the edges, so it’s possible to push them out over bottomless pits, as long as they’re touching another block. Vincent can drop down and clamber around a block, too, making it possible to cut across large walls of blocks. The controls and concepts are all rather simple, but in practice, things get crazy fairly quickly. The learning curve is harsh, although going back to an early stage after completing the game will make you feel like a genius.
It can get quite tense, as the stages fall apart quickly, and the path up isn’t always obvious. Luckily, on the lower difficulties, there’s an undo feature that rewinds actions. Even with that, though, these stages get incredibly difficult. Spiked blocks and ice blocks can make the simplest route up incredibly tricky, and on more precarious levels, it’s entirely possible to push the wrong block out and bring the whole tower crashing down. There are spots, however, where this natural difficulty is hampered by annoying factors outside of Vincent’s control. Some stages are boss fights, of sorts, and while most of them are exhilarating, some of them wrest control of the camera away from the player, which can make careful maneuvers next to impossible. Without spoiling anything, there are also a handful of times where randomness can ruin a perfect route up – which, on lower difficulties, can simply be undone, but on Hard means your last ten minutes were entirely for naught. Still, these are minor hiccups in a game that otherwise has an excellently crafted difficulty.
The story unfolds outside of the nightmares. Vincent is an indecisive man, but with a little pushing and pulling from the player, he can be nudged into making some key decisions. These moments are determined by your actions and choices in the Stray Sheep, the bar Vincent visits each night. Here, he can talk to his friends and fellow bar patrons. He can discuss his situation with his friends, or try and encourage other characters around the bar who are going through similar nightmares. He can also reply to texts from Katherine and Catherine, which is an awesome take on classic branching dialog trees: Vincent can tap out a response, line by line, and each line can be erased and replaced with something with a different tone. It’s a fairly realistic depiction of texting, and also a way of doing away with a common drawback of dialog in games – namely, the way other characters seem to wait patiently while the player decides how to respond.
It certainly helps that the characters are all excellent. While calling them “realistic” would be a stretch, it really doesn’t matter – Catherine is certainly wacky, but it’s a wacky game about very real things, and its menagerie of weirdo characters manage to convey themes that most other games wouldn’t touch. Infidelity, both emotional and sexual, is the topic throughout most of Catherine, although other ideas pop up along the way. The irreverent humor and tongue-in-cheek supernatural nightmare segments soften the blows of what could have been a fairly somber game. However, with its ensemble cast, Catherine is entirely better off being completely crazy than trying to deliver everything with deadly seriousness. It’s more fun because of it. The soundtrack is appropriately zany as well, shifting from downtempo trip-hop styled tracks in the bar to crazy rock versions of classical pieces during nightmares.
The visual presentation is excellent, too. The art direction of Shigenori Soejima looks far better here than it ever did on the PS2, as the quasi-cel-shaded graphics do his characters absolute justice. There are several traditionally animated cutscenes, but they almost feel unnecessary. Catherine‘s depictions of anime-styled characters in 3D are some of the best ever, and well-directed in-engine cutscenes eliminates some of the problems wordy Atlus games have had in the past: the dialog is still there, but the dynamic camera and animation at least makes everything feel like a real conversation, as opposed to a wall of text to read while the characters stand around.
Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that these conversations are still present – there is a good deal of Catherine that simply isn’t a game, but something to watch. A great deal of the story unfolds without any input from Vincent, which could become annoying for some. Still, just like the Persona games, the last act barely holds your hand at all. There are several endings to see, ranging from the rather touching to the completely bananas. These are all based on choices Vincent has made throughout the game, as well as a final set of questions beyond the typical point of no return. It’s worth it to see all of these endings, and the game makes it quite easy to do so – there are multiple save points, and it’s possible to skip puzzle sequences that have been cleared with a gold medal. The game is quite long, and packed with extra content like multiplayer and bonus stages, as well as a charming arcade machine in the bar that features bite-sized versions of the nightmare puzzles. Be warned – only one song plays during each of its many stages. That’s a true nightmare right there.
Atlus games have always been a little out there, but most of their weirdness has stemmed from the story, not the actual gameplay. For all its infamous craziness, Persona 4 is still very much an RPG. Catherine proves that the studio can make the game portion as equally unique as the storytelling. The two halves of the game, on paper, seem incredibly disjointed; in practice, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. I get the feeling that somehow, that’s just another part of a sly point the game is trying to make. Catherine justifies its unique premise with unique gameplay, and works wonderfully.