Platform: PS3*/Xbox 360
ESRB: Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol, Violence
Atlus’s title “Catherine” is making strides for the content of video games. Amid your Isaac Clarkes fighting aliens, your Soaps shooting up Russians and your Links sword-and-shielding their way to a safer world, you have Vincent – a man simply trying to sort out his love life.
The story revolves around this Vincent, long-time boyfriend of Katherine. Katherine wants to get married, which has Vincent running scared to his favorite bar, the Stray Sheep. This is where he meets Catherine, a young, bubbly, scantily clad bombshell blonde. In a drunken stupor, he takes her home and sleeps with her.
At night, Vincent is haunted by nightmares of crawling up pyramids of blocks that he must push and pull to create his path. This is where the gameplay takes place as you must escape the dream before the blocks fall out beneath you or you’re stabbed by a baby with a fork or something. It makes sense when you play it.
First, I have to say I really appreciate what Catherine is doing. Video games generally surround a plot that is larger than life – something one would often never encounter on a day-to-day basis. Vincent, however, is dealing with a problem nearly every man will one day face – commitment. It’s a mature topic when juxtaposed against saving the universe, and Atlus handled it in a superbly mature fashion. What really ices the cake is that Vincent’s story is, in many ways, your story, as you get the chance to make several of his decisions along the way, which affect a morality meter and give you one of several endings.
To make this more enjoyable, at the end of each level there is a confessional where the player must answer a relationship-related question. “How would you feel if your spouse had a good friend of the opposite sex?” and so forth. After answering, your submission is polled and added to the first answers everyone else gave when playing the game and a pie chart tells you how the world answered. I really enjoyed this feature, as it also allows you to sort by men and women to see how they answered, and it revealed some interesting data.
At a core gameplay level, the game is also really clean. The mechanics are simple, so there’s really nothing to go wrong. Various kinds of blocks keep the puzzles fresh from night to night, and those puzzles are incredibly difficult. This is likely the most difficult game I’ve ever played, and I had to consult video guides on more than one occasion on the normal difficulty.
Surprisingly, there’s a lot of replay value as well. Not only is the game a solid 12+ hour endeavor to start with, there are several “side-quests” to keep you busy, too. Vincent will encounter several men whose lives are also in shambles when it comes to women, and through various encounters, he can save each of them from the same dreams he’s having. This is made more difficult when you’re only allotted so much time in the bar each night before customers trail off, so choose your conversations wisely. Additionally, there is an arcade game in the bar based on the nightmare stages where the player can hone their skills. There are a lot of levels here, but prizes wait those who get to the top. Outside of the main game, there’s a mode called “Babel”, also revolving around the puzzle gameplay and offering different challenges for one or two players. And finally, of course, the player may want to view many different endings to the game.
The plot is interesting and often intense, but can also drag due to some odd scripting. Vincent really likes to use interjections – “Uh”, “uhm”, “eh”, “gasp!”, “eeee”, in addition to his fits of sweating bullets and inner monologues. This can make things feel like they’re going on forever. He’s also a terrible liar, which can be frustrating to watch.
Behind the plot lies a lot of real Sumerian mythology. I had Wikipedia open as the game was drawing to a close, looking up various names that were dropped. To avoid spoilers, I won’t divulge anything here, but expect another post brushing over the demonology “Catherine” surrounds.
This is all accompanied by a very cool visual scheme. While it sometimes appears you’re watching a Japanese anime, at others it’s an odd 3D presentation, and then while playing as Vincent it takes on yet another visual feel. This actually works really well and is a fresh feel for games that are all trying harder and harder to look like real life.
The soundtrack is great. Composer Shoji Meguro puts a modern spin on several classical pieces including works from Bach, Chopin, Holst and Beethoven. While most classically trained musicians will recognize them, they aren’t common enough that the average ear will necessarily notice (outside of Handel’s “Messiah”).
I do have to say that I’m curious about Atlus’s cover art decision. The average Joe will look at this and assume it’s a grossly inappropriate game, and rightfully so. Perhaps they were going for a sex sells mentality, as Atlus’s games are not known for selling well in the United States. Indeed, “Catherine” did manage over 200,000, which Atlus was very excited about, but for shame if that’s a cover-art-induced number, because not only is it misguiding of the game’s exceptionally mature attitude and lack of full nudity, but the game was very good in its own right.