Developer: Atlus Persona Team / Publisher: Atlus / Played on: PlayStation 3 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol, Violence]
What do you call a game that is introduced by a woman with a giant, sparkly, red afro? What would you call that game when it shows you a story about a man so racked with indecision and guilt about his life that he has nightmares every night? What if, in those nightmares, he — along with a flock of bipedal sheep — has to climb up disintegrating staircases constructed from mutable cubes?
Well, you’d call it Catherine, and it’d be one of the most unique and fascinating games you’ve ever named.
Catherine’s story is framed by the fictional TV show “Golden Playhouse” which is analogous to The Outer Limits or Tales from the Crypt. Via the aforementioned afroed host (who is basically a Japanese Elvira), you play through a week in the life of Vincent. He’s an unassuming man who, after a night of heavy drinking, cheats on his girlfriend of five years named Katherine with a blonde temptress named Catherine. Every night thereafter, Vincent is thrust into a nightmare in which he must climb a rapidly deteriorating staircase or die — both in dreams and in real life.
Aside from the novelty of the story and its willingness to tackle adult themes uncommon for videogames, there’s hefty symbolic depth to the story, its characters, and the nature of Vincent’s dreams. The plot does go metaphysical before its conclusion, but it’s not too outlandish as long as you consider it a videogame episode of The Outer Limits. Ultimately, the story is about a man who is afraid of change in a world that is forcing change on him. Watching him through that process is an interesting character study.
Like recent Atlus games, Catherine’s gameplay is neatly divided in two. Vincent’s waking hours play out similar to a life simulator or dating sim, with lots of cutscenes and dialog. Your input comes in the form of dialog options or composing text messages to K/Catherine, the wording of which will affect Vincent’s alignment meter. While you’d naturally assume this meter corresponds to good/evil or even Katherine/Catherine, the meaning behind that is more profound (but I’ll leave that for you to puzzle out). The meter’s implementation is not quite so deep — certain cutscenes will fork depending on which side of the meter you’re trending. I’m genuinely curious to see how certain scenes play out both ways, having finished the game trending one way the whole time.
Vincent’s nightmares provide meatier gameplay. In these sequences, you have to ascend a staircase that is dropping into a bottomless void one row at a time. You do so by pushing and pulling cubes into place to form a series of steps, but it’s much more complicated than that short explanation would have you believe. The puzzle mechanics behind moving blocks are both original and rock solid. The stages deteriorate quickly, so there’s always the pressure to climb quickly. At the same time, the levels constantly mix up the arrangement and function of the blocks, and always force you to think of new and original solutions. One particular pattern of blocks may have been a cakewalk before, only now one of them is a bomb block, or there’s one block missing and you have to figure a way around it on the fly.
Most of the time, you won’t, which means you will die a lot. I wasn’t prepared for the challenge in Catherine, but I must say it’s refreshing to play a game that refuses to pull punches. Catherine is the sort of game where you memorize the tune that plays when you die, and every time you close your eyes you see a wall of blocks (and you automatically start planning how to scale it). You might want to dismiss Catherine as a sub-retail experience because it’s “just a puzzle game,” but doing so would be incredibly short-sighted. It’s one of the best puzzle games I’ve ever played. On top of that the game offers tons of extra challenge towers and local multiplayer modes once you finish the 12-hour story, so there’s plenty of content to scale.
Nightmare controls are tuned for speed, which you can appreciate once you attain a level of skill with the game. There are some quirks that are hard to appreciate as a newcomer, though. First off, this game is fast and twitchy, which can make Vincent unwieldy for beginners. I would frequently run too far or flip off the edge of a block without intending to. The most annoying quirk is that when you’re hanging from a block, if you rotate around to the back of it, left and right swap. That means you can tap left, swivel around the back, then tap left again and go back where you came from. Holding the direction will keep Vincent shuffling in the same direction, even around the back, but it takes a while to get used to.
Graphics and Sound
Catherine sports the typical Atlus visual flourishes in some areas of the game while flagging in others. I particularly love the game’s UI and menus, most of which revolve around Vincent’s cellphone. Sending and receiving text messages is a visual treat thanks to the phone’s slick and futuristic interface (and yes I know that’s weird to say). The 2D animated cutscenes look crystal clear as well, though the animation quality can dip a bit during the videos revolving around conversation or introspection.
The rest of the game uses the 3D anime style that Persona vets will find familiar. The look is unique, but sells some of the drama short due to basic animation. Lip sync is fuzzy, and the main character talks with his teeth an odd amount of the time. Given that a significant portion of the game is watching people talk, it drags a little on the experience. Voice acting holds it down though, as a stable of talented and experienced voice actors draw out the story. Some of the delivery is a little high strung for my taste, but it sells the drama well enough.
In the nightmare scenarios, the focus is naturally less on conversation and facial animation. Graphics are mostly utilitarian, and the block design strikes an interesting balance between being distinct and unassuming. I’d frequently mistake trap blocks for normal blocks when I wasn’t paying attention (which instantly vaporize Vincent, by the way), but once I slowed down and became a little more vigilant, I could always pick them out.
Catherine’s music is another excellent soundtrack from Atlus, merging down tempo jazz tracks with frantic rearrangements of classical tracks like The Revolutionary by Chopin. It’s a great mix of chillout tunes and driving tracks, and will make you immediately happy that the game includes an art book and soundtrack disk. Unfortunately, the included disk doesn’t contain all the game’s music, but it’s a great stopgap until the full soundtrack comes out.
With very few exceptions, Catherine succeeds in doing everything it sets out to do. It’s a fantastically fun, original, and challenging puzzle game. At the same time, its story explores adult themes that games typically avoid, and will have you hooked on the drama within an hour. If either of those aspects interest you, you can’t let Catherine slip by.