Developer: Atlus Persona Team
Release Date: July 26, 2011 (NA)
Platforms: Playstation 3, Reviewed on Xbox 360
Old school challenge is something that is lost in video games today. Too often you see challenge interpreted as how many different kind of bullets you put into any number of various enemies using any array of guns. A while back, I wondered if a protagonist could interact with the environment in a non-violent way. Catherine answered my call. The Altus Persona team brings its eccentric sense of humor and relationships to Catherine, and it is a dynamic combination.
For those who don’t want to read my well-labored review, you can download the audio below.
You are Vincent, a 31-year old male who just took on a new job but has the same friends and girlfriend he’s always had. Like many guys we know, he spends most of him time at a local bar drinking, playing arcade games, and talking with local patrons and his friends. Pressure begins when Katherine, his girlfriend of five years, inquires about the direction of their relationship. In typical anime-style, the pressure elicited from a simple question is awe-inspiring. Confusion enters his life when Catherine, the girl of his dreams, enters his life and changes things. He cheats on his girlfriend and is racked with guilt. He’s too spineless to tell to the truth to or break it off with either girl. So, his worries ravage his mind during his dreams.
Each night, Vincent enters a dream where he frantically climbs towers to escape something that’s chasing him. It’s always a subconscious manifestation of his fears. Gameplay involves solving block puzzles by manipulating blocks and Vincent, enabling our protagonist to climb up the tower. Sounds easy right? Easy is subjective. While all blocks have the same shape, they have different properties: some are slippery, some crumble, some sprout spikes, and others can push you off the tower. It is most reminiscent of IQ from the Playstation era but operates more from a vertical viewpoint rather than the isometric perspective chosen by the classic game. The game Rapunzel in the bar allows players to practice the puzzle game without time constraints.
There are enemies in the game but Vincent has limited combat ability. Similar to a King in Chess, Vincent can hit enemies one block beside him. He delivers a ferocious smack with his pillow and the enemy falls. If you can maneuver to a book, Vincent can summon lightning to fry all enemies on screen. So much for my wishes of non-violent interaction.
There are nine areas in Catherine, each containing a diverse number of stages. Every area has a different visual theme book-ended by different music soundtracks. Catherine uses the Gamebryo engine to deliver nicely detailed character models and interesting themes. The art design stagnates as it would have been nice to change the color themes on the base and heavy blocks to correspond the each area’s theme. Otherwise, the anime-style cut-scenes are very entertaining to watch and are voiced extremely well (even in English).
Completing a stage within an area takes Vincent to a safe area. Vincent can save and purchase items to help him in the next area. Here, as during his waking hours, he can socialize with other climbers, viewed as sheep and find out more about their real-life counterparts. This wake/sleep social element is similar to the light/dark elements found in Silent Hill. Vincent begins to notice parallels between players and sheep in his wake/sleep social hubs.
Before moving onto the next stage. Vincent must enter a confessional and answer a moral question. There are no right or wrong answers. These answers indicate a morality stance rather than a good/bad scenario. A meter flashes on the screen when Vincent responds and you are wisked away to the next stage. Atlus uses online connectivity to chart a pie graph indicating which way the community voted on their first play-through. Much of the game’s back-story is found in socializing with many people in the various social areas. During his awake time at the bar, Vincent can choose from four drinks: sake, cocktail, whiskey, and beer. Each time you finish a drink, the game rewards you with some drinking trivia. However, Vincent interacts with his girl and mistress via text messages while drinking. If that isn’t a bad combination, I don’t know what is.
The response system requires the player to press A to type a line, and B to erase it. Each line contains 2-3 options. After Vincent sends his message, his morality meter will flash on the screen again indicating how your action is viewed. This is the dialogue system most RPGs offer but executed in a fresh, modern way. It is a shame it feels so flimsy.
Vincent has a staggeringly large amount of people to speak with but very little time to do so. The bar offers time-windows for Vincent to speak with a rotating cast of people. If you miss your window for the night, you will have to restart to speak with that character or lose the opportunity entirely. The dream world has no time limitations so speaking to all the non-playable characters is much easier, yet less interesting.Catherine is a difficult game and forces you think your way up the tower. The difficulty spikes toward the end of the first 3rd of the game and then provides a more even experience later in the game. But the difficulty arises from the controls and not the puzzles. There is no bigger gaming frustration than failing to implement a strategy because controller response is unpredictable.
Perhaps it’s due to my transforming D-pad on the 360, but multiple instances of Vincent not exiting a block in time caused unnecessary deaths and retries. Often if one holds right on the D-pad, Vincent can run into or on-top-of a block. The lack of a button prompt to grab a block caused me to tautologically die in the same fashion. The analog stick only complicates the precision difficulties.
Catherine is fresh take on block puzzles not seen on consoles for 15 or so years. It’s anime-style presentation is only limited by the extent of the artists’ imagination. No other game this year will make you feel more like a genius (Portal 2 withstanding). The uneven social hubs and inconsistent controls bring this game down one peg. All said, Catherine is a worthwhile experience and a must-own for all you thinkers out there.
Get it scale: 4/5 Get It
For tips and walkthroughs to make it through Catherine, search for MasterLL on Youtube. He has phenomenal videos for this and many other games.