Published on August 1st, 2011 | by Kole Ross, Editor
Developer: Atlus Persona Team
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 [Reviewed]
Five minutes of Catherine gameplay. Enjoy!
An appropriate subtitle for Catherine would go something like “Not For Everyone” or “Niche Appeal.” By all outward appearances, it’s a frighteningly strange divergence from business as usual for an industry crowded with games that nestle comfortably inside of one genre or another.
For those willing to embrace this strangeness, Catherine is a startlingly mature and refreshing game that’s not afraid to tackle adult themes. It does the heart good to know that such a product was given the chance to see the light of day.
Here’s the premise: Vincent is a loser whose girlfriend, Katherine, is pressuring him to settle down. The problem is, Vincent is seduced by a younger woman named Catherine. After this, Vincent starts having horrifying dreams where he must climb towers made of blocks, or else he will die in real life.
Those block towers are where you will be spending the majority of your time. As the most game-like part of Catherine, they’re also the most prosaic, and seemingly the least relevant to what’s going on. This isn’t to say that they’re not fun, though.
Like any great puzzle game, its difficulty progresses along with your comprehension of its mechanics. Each set of towers adds a new type of trap block or power up, and these wrinkles help you learn new ways to manipulate the blocks and forge your path upward. The result is a surprisingly deep game that keeps the curveballs coming until the very end.
The puzzles are difficult, though. I floundered on normal mode for a while before bumping it down to easy, which gives you the ability to undo potentially disastrous moves without having to restart at a checkpoint. This reduced the amount of time I spent banging my head against a brick wall, and I encourage you to follow suit.
The puzzle sections really shine during the boss stages, where Vincent’s greatest fears and anxieties manifest as gigantic monsters that clamber after him with murder on their minds. Visually and thematically, these bosses are appropriately unsettling. Mechanically, they add a bit of unpredictability to the puzzles, shaking up the established order of How Things Should Work.
My major complaint about the puzzle sections is that the controls aren’t always intuitive. Later puzzles require Vincent to climb around the backside of the towers, rendering him invisible to the camera (no matter how much you rotate it). Combine this with directional controls that seem to reverse at random, and the result is a great deal of fake difficulty. Selective transparency or adding a silhouette of Vincent behind the blocks would have gone a long way towards easing this pain.
The gamey-game parts of Catherine are solid, and much more fun than I expected. But the narrative portions are where I found myself sitting forward in my seat.
The marketing leading up to Catherine presented the game as a semi-pornographic celebration of infidelity, but the game is much more nuanced than that. The closest the game comes to that is when Catherine herself is putting the moves on Vincent, but these are presented as acts of aggression, and are hardly glorified.
When Vincent isn’t climbing block towers, he’s dodging pointed questions from Katherine and drowning his sorrows at the bar with his friends. After the requisite cut scenes, Vincent is free to walk around the bar and talk with the other patrons, helping them solve their life problems. This is important, because the men at the bar show up in the nightmares, and your words could determine whether they live or die.
It’s the bar that illuminates one important fact: Even though the game is named after a woman, Catherine is about men. All of Vincent’s friends and acquaintances are struggling with some aspect of growing up and committing to an adult life. Helping them navigate these struggles is part of what makes Catherine unique, since no other game has tackled the notion of “maturity” in such a direct and naked way.
No game has included drunk texting as a mechanic, either. How Vincent responds to text messages from Katherine and Catherine can change the way the narrative flows. I like the idea of this, but the execution is ham-fisted. Your potential responses are transparently weighted to be either “good” or “bad”, and a morality meter pops up every time you lean one way or the other.
This meter is troublesome, since it reduces every action into a binary bit to be flipped. Whenever Vincent is in a jam and starts up his panicked internal monologue, this meter is referenced to determine the outcome. I would have preferred that the gullyworks of the game’s morality system stayed behind the curtain, because it cheapens the Catherine‘s legitimate discussion about how our values affect us.
The meter doesn’t dampen Vincent’s character progression, though. He’s pathetic in a way that I wish was unsympathetic, but instead he’s quite relatable. He’s indecisive and complacent, he drinks too much, he lives in a shithole apartment, and is completely averse to conflict.
Unlike most game characters, he has an arc, and conquers these demons over the course of the story. During the dreams, he takes charge and leads the other lost sheep to victory over the tower. This newfound confidence bleeds into his daily life as he decides how to handle the Katherine/Catherine conflict. This isn’t a spoiler; it’s an underlining of how rare it is for a game to A). Have interesting characters, and B). Know what to do with them.
All of this drama and pathos is brought to life by great voice acting and localization. Putting aside some of the hyper-Japanese goofiness, the dialogue is a cut above the rest. This holds true for the bar scenes, which do a good job of capturing the essence of dude banter.
The story begins to come apart during the final act. I will not spoil this, except to issue an important axiom about how any narrative should handle its mysteries: It’s better to leave a question unresolved than to answer it in an unsatisfying way. Catherine doesn’t fall apart quite as badly as Indigo Prophecy does, but the comparison remains.
I find myself struggling to conclude this review, since Catherine definitely isn’t for everyone. There’s a lot of meat here, and it’s definitely worth playing, but its essential weirdness will turn a lot of people off. It has more in common with visual novels like Ever17 or 9 Hours 9 Persons 9 Doors than it does with anything I’ve seen on an HD console.
After reading this, you probably know whether or not you’re the kind of person Catherine will speak to. If you are, I wholeheartedly recommend it, despite its minor flaws. If you’re not, then I can’t force you to take your medicine.
+ One of the few games to take a risk and approach subject matter that doesn’t involve shooting foreigners.
+ Voice acting is top notch, and so is the localization.
+ Interesting characters who grow as the story progresses.
– Controls during the dream sequence can get wonky.
– The morality system could have been more subtle.