Reviewed: August 6, 2011
Released: July 26, 2011
When I originally heard about Catherine I knew it was a title that I would be interested in just from the description… and the artwork. Atlus’ Persona Team and Studio4°C bring us this anime-styled adult romantic nightmare that is easily one of the most bizarre and uniquely rewarding adventures that I’ve ever experienced in gaming, so much in fact that I didn’t want to put the controller down to write my review for the PS3 version.|
Catherine’s story follows the life of Vincent Brooks over the course of a week. This 32 year-old coding techie by day spends his nights fighting crime… I mean getting wasted at the local Stray Sheep bar. Vincent is also currently in a long term relationship with the caring and almost motherly Katherine who brings up that her mother has been asking about them. This is all put in jeopardy as a blonde bombshell named Catherine, the titular character on the cover, shows up one night at the bar. Vincent wakes up the next morning to find that he slept with Catherine and the nightmarish story really takes off.
There are two distinct gameplay sections of Catherine to experience. During the day you’ll spend time in the Stray Sheep bar in the social simulator part. The bar serves as the hub for the whole game and is seen between each nightmare segment. This is the simulator portion of thegame that allows the player to have a few (too many) drinks, chat with the regulars, play songs on the jukebox and try your hand at Rapunzel at the arcade cabinet. You will spend most of your time here chatting with your closest friends Jonny, Toby, and Orlando.
You can also get up and talk to the other regulars, all of whom you should talk with thoroughly to help them through their problems throughout the course of the game. There are a few other characters that you should talk to such as your regular waitress and friend, Erica, and of course Boss, the classy dressed owner of the Stray Sheep who wears sunglasses indoors. The Rapunzel arcade cabinet is a mini version of the nightmare puzzle game with a classic storybook character. This serves as a tool to help you practice your techniques for the story’s real challenge. There is also your phone that you can use to answer calls and receive and reply to texts.
When Vincent goes home each night that is where the real portion of Catherine begins. The Nightmare that comes each night is a puzzle game that starts out pretty simple but gets hellish as you progress. The objective of each night is to keep climbing blocks to the top of each floor in a massive tower with 8 levels and several floors per level. Climbing these floors requires you to push, pull and stack blocks with the X button and the D-Pad to make your way to the top of the stack.
I had the chance to check out the controls on the 360 version as well and I have to say that the PS3 has the optimal controller layout hands down. The only real time I used the analog stick was during the day time sections and in between floors in the nightmare mode. The analog stick is just too imprecise to be effective with Catherine’s puzzles as you have to be quick and accurate with your commands.
The tricky part of Catherine is that the parts of the block wall below fall off as you climb, so it’s a race against time to use every mind-bending, block-moving trick in the book to climb to the top. The thing that I really like, and have yet to fully wrap my head around, is that gravity does not apply with the blocks under one particular rule. You can suspend any movable block even if there isn’t a block directly below it, so as long as a block is connected by one of its edges you can suspend them in ways that shouldn’t be possible.
As you get farther into the levels they start throwing in all kinds of blocks such as ice, monster and heavy dark blocks. Then they get really devious when they bring in the ever present spike traps that activate as soon as you step on them and the bomb blocks that will damage any block around it as well. The other thing about Catherine that is awesome is that sometimes you can solve a tricky situation by hanging off the edge of a block and move around the front and back of the wall as long as you have blocks to do so. To make things even more interesting there are boss levels at the end of every nightmare. These are usually a lot tougher than the previous puzzles and will take every trick you have at that point to safely make it to the top. These bosses are usually something that Vincent isn’t ready to face in the real world and honestly, some of the most wickedly disturbing things I’ve seen in gaming yet, even in this supernaturally charged adventure.
As you move from floor to floor you can talk to the other “sheep” and learn new techniques that you can absolutely bet you’re going to need for the upcoming section and beyond. Just like the bar, it’s imperative that you talk to every sheep on every floor, and over time you'll start to match the sheep with the patrons from the bar. There is even a merchant sheep that you can buy items, via coins found in the puzzles, that can help you on the next floor. The only downside to buying these it that it counts against your score for the next floor; however it doesn’t hurt your score to use the items you find in the puzzles themselves.
Everything you do in the Nightmare portion of Catherine gains you a score value like moving blocks and ascending fast to raise your combo. Even picking up items such as the Mystic Pillows (retries) and coins will raise your points score and result in a bronze, silver or gold award. The gold awards on the normal difficulty or higher are the ones to shoot for to gain access to one of Catherine’s other modes. I will get to those in a bit, but first I have to mention the game’s morality meter.
Morality meters or choices are all the rage in games these days but Catherine’s take on this is truly unique. Every key action, usually in question form, will affect Vincent’s story and determine which, and I’m serious here, of the 8 different endings you can get by the end of the game. The questions are almost always asked by the mysterious voice in the confessional booth and depending on your answer to some tough real life questions your meter will go positive or negative. Will you stay with Katherine, leave her for Catherine or end up alone? Only you have the say in what happens.
Graphically, Catherine is right up my alley with its anime style story animations and the in-game cel-shaded characters and environments. The anime footage for the game including the rather cool Golden Palace movie company montage by Studio4°C was awesome and one of the things that drove me to keep playing. I couldn’t wait to see how the story unfolded. The actual gameplay graphics were pretty good as well despite only being in 720p. There was some noticeable jaggies throughout the title mainly in the puzzle portions, though after a while I completely stopped noticing thanks to the fast paced nature of the gameplay. I also loved the characters, which feature some anime staples as far as their designs. I loved Katherine’s and Boss’ sharp outfits as well as Vincent’s almost carefree look…well at least when he’s wearing more than a pair of spotted boxers. And of course there’s the tantalizing Catherine featured on the box cover that's sure to make the game pop off the store shelf.
The soundtrack and the voice acting are certainly two of the highlights of Catherine for me. The music composed by Shoji Meguro, a staple in the Megami Tensei series, features remixes of amazingly enough…classical music for the main portion of Catherine. I noticed hints of classical tones while making my way through the nightmare levels though you really don’t notice them that much when you're concentrating on not making a fatal move. I really loved the score for the entire game right down to the cool theme song at the beginning. To make things better Catherine is presented in both Dolby Digital and DTS Digital Surround 5.1, so everything sounds crisp and clean and very multi-dimensional. For those who want to hear some of the music outside the game you should check out the included CD that comes with a cool art book on initial copies of the game.
Catherine also boasts a pretty big voice cast, especially in the world of anime and gaming. There are some moments of over-the-top acting here and there but as a whole I have to commend Atlus on their excellent selection of talent. Industry veterans such as Troy Baker, Laura Bailey, Michelle Ruff, Liam O’Brien, Yuri Lowenthal and Travis Willingham make up most of Catherine’s awesome cast.
As I mentioned before, Catherine has 8 different endings, so there is the possibility for a lot of replay value if you want to see all the endings as well as garnering the trophies for doing so. These endings may or may not be enough reason to replay the game 7 more times. I know I have plans to give it a few more goes at least. There are also two other gameplay modes that you can tackle besides the main story mode with its three difficulty levels. The two levels are Coliseum and Babel and each offer two distinct kinds of two-player experiences.
The first, Coliseum, unlocked after completing the game offers competitive play in same levels as the story. The second, Babel, is for the best of the best as you must complete four sections of the massive tower Babel. This mode is available from the start, however the sections are locked until you meet the requirements of a certain amount of gold awards. The first one is unlocked after getting one gold in normal difficulty or higher, but the others take a bit more work to get if you wish to tackle the tower’s toughest challenges, and if either of you die in co-op you have to start from the beginning of the trial.
Catherine is unlike anything that I’ve ever played in my years as a gamer. It’s fresh, immensely rewarding, and one of the most bizarre yet personal experiences that I’ve ever had the fortune to play. The story is compelling, the gameplay can be tough and the music and vocals are amazing. Catherine may not be for everyone or the greatest game in the world, but it is by far one of the greatest Atlus titles of all-time. If you want something unique, look no further than Catherine.