Catherine is one of the most unique games the gaming industry has ever created, a fact that is unsurprising considering its parentage. Developer Atlus games, known for thought-provoking gameplay and stories along with the popular series Shin Megami Tensei (Persona), have built their legacy on original concepts. With the creative talents of the Persona team behind this latest venture, Catherine is unlike anything you have played, and the game is that much greater because of it.
- Press Start
Catherine has an… interesting opening menu. It starts with a humanoid sheep falling in front of the camera, and landing on a bunch of blocks that form the game’s logo, splattering its blood everywhere. The camera then zooms below the blocks, showing the main character tied to the column with barbed wire. Yeah. I know. The menu is hosted by the games two main female characters, Katherine and Catherine (This will make more since later in the review), and is extremely cool. Upon beginning the game, you are treated to a tribute to every great anime and Japanese film creation in the introduction to the “Golden Playhouse”, a fictional late night TV show inspired by the Japanese TV program “Golden Western Theater” in which the entire story of Catherine is told.
- The Story: 5/5
The story revolves around Vincent Brooks, a man in his early 30’s with a girlfriend of a few years who loves nothing more than getting hammered after work at the local bar, the Stray Sheep. His girlfriend Katherine is a gorgeous but bossy woman, who opens the game by asking Vincent where he sees their future going. That night he drinks to forget, when along comes a buxom, coquettish blonde in a provocative white dress. The next morning Vincent wakes to see the girl from last night, named Catherine, butt naked in bed next to him, sending him into a guilt spiral accompanied by horrible nightmares every night, and I don’t mean the kind where you are naked in front of class. There’s a lot more blood and teeth.
The entire story is built around the common mid-life conflict of choosing either calm peace or exciting chaos. The writing is fantastic, and Vincent’s conversations with the various Stray Sheep patrons are hilarious, deeply meaningful, movingly depressing, disturbing as hell, or some wonderful combination. Keep in mind that this is an anime game, and has some very Japanese reactions and one-liners. Overall, the tale woven by Vincent’s choices and horrible luck is well done (if slightly cheesy at times), and will keep you on the edge of your seat for one reason or another night after nightmare-filled night.
- Gameplay: 4/5
At the core of Catherine’s gameplay is Vincent’s inner thought meter. Similar to games like inFamous or Fable, the way you respond to texts and questions throughout the game change how Vincent thinks about life. As an embodiment of the game’s innermost metaphorical conflict, the meter has two sides: pink and blue. Unsurprisingly, blue is leaning more towards a stable, but happy life and pink is more awesome chaos. The position of the meter at critical story moments affects how Vincent thinks, and ultimately which ending of the strange tale of Catherine suits you best.
Catherine’s originality comes not only from its morally undecided story, but from its mix of intense puzzle-based and what I have dubbed as “bar night” gameplay. During the waking hours of poor Vincent, you will spend time either watching hilarious/nerve-wracking cinematics performed in either the in-game cell-shaded art style or in extremely well done custom anime clips reserved for big parts of the story, or you will walk around the Stray Sheep bar where Vincent can talk to his friends or other bar patrons, play an arcade game, respond to texts, or have a drink. All aspects of the “bar night” gameplay are well done and surprisingly addicting. The text-message mechanic is also extremely cool. Vincent can use his new phone to answer calls, respond to texts, and receive pics. The way the texts are written is entirely up to the player, and how Vincent texts back can affect certain aspects of the story. Drinking at your table lets Vincent reflect on the day’s events and slowly get more and more inebriated. Even the Stray Sheep’s arcade game is surprisingly deep.
When you’ve had your fun and want to go home, the game’s true creativity is revealed. The moment Vincent lays down and shuts his eyes, he falls into one of the many nightmares that plague him throughout the story. From the very beginning to the satisfying end of the horrific experience, Vincent is asked to climb towers made entirely of different kinds of blocks, ranging from standard white blocks to slippery blocks made of ice. Vincent can push and pull almost all kinds of blocks, and he must do so in order to climb the towers, as the lowest level is constantly falling and death is always at your heels. The puzzle-block gameplay is extremely well thought out, and you will need to develop strategies to continue to climb. Seriously, Catherine has more blocks than an old NES game. In fact, the only thing that Catherine has more than blocks is sheep. Yes, sheep. In the world of nightmares, Vincent comes across tons of humanoid, blood red and frog-eyed sheep. That sounds really creepy, and it is, but sadly it’s one of the more normal aspects of the dream sequences.
Each night has between one and five towers to climb, and in-between each tower is a landing where you can trade constant climbing and stress for “bar night” style interaction. The end of each night, as is gaming custom, is the final climb is where Vincent’s deepest fears come alive. These boss levels are very well done, and have some truly freaky-ass demons chasing you down with all manner of improvised weaponry. The bosses different types of control over the tower, some changing blocks as you climb and some slicing sections of the tower off. Reaching the final door is always satisfying, and the ending of each night is something to remember. The only problem with Catherine‘s gameplay is that it is so very heavily puzzle-based, that gamers who don’t enjoy puzzle games will greatly dislike the bulk of Catherine‘s gameplay.
- Graphics: 4/5
Like most games from Atlus, Catherine gives the world and characters a distinct anime look. The look suits the characters and locations perfectly, and it really makes you feel like you are in a Japanese cartoon. The expressions that the characters use were pulled straight out of an anime, and everything has just the right amount of cheesy exaggeration sprinkled on top. From the slices of lime in Vincent’s cocktails to the beads of sweat that flood worried characters’ faces, Catherine has a great sense of detail, decent animations, and some truly horrifying imagery. Unfortunately, the graphics do look somewhat worse on the XBOX 360 version than the PS3, but the difference isn’t highly noticeable. Nothing will wow you, but the style is fantastic.
- Sound: 5/5
Composed by Atlus veteran Shoji Meguro and performed by L-VOKAL, Catherine’s upbeat synthesized soundtrack has everything from remixes of Beethoven, Dvorak, and Chopin to Japanese Rap. The opening theme and all of the music in the waking hours is the original pop soundtrack, which is able to invoke all the right feelings in all the right places, while the dark yet regal nature of the nightmare tower is accompanied by the Classical Remixes, and they have just the right mix of sound to make the nightmare world feel epic but still remind you that you are very close to a horrible death. Catherine has some great tunes, all of which are eventually playable from the Stray Sheep’s jukebox.
- Replayability: 4/5
Catherine was a game designed to be played at least twice. There are a total of 8 endings, but only 3 categories. There are “True” endings, “Normal” endings, and “Bad” endings. With multiple endings, the option to try levels again for a gold medal, the unlockable Tower of Babel stages that really test your block-moving skills, and the multiplayer that pits one sheep against another, Catherine has a lot to keep you coming back. That being said, I do have to admit that the “8 different endings” thing is a bit of an exaggeration. There are only 5 different endings, as three of them are simply shorter versions of three others. I was slightly disappointed with the exaggerated endings, but other than that the different finales to this tale are some of the best I’ve seen in a game.
- The Final Grade: 4/5
Catherine is an amazing experience, one that is a refreshing change from the norm of today’s constant explosions and reuse of past ideas. While it is a game that only a certain type of gamer will truly enjoy, it is still a fantastic anime experience. Filled with horror, comedy, just the right amount of cheese, and a great soundtrack to bring it all together, Catherine is a great experience for fans of anime and of puzzle games. Wrap all that around a central conflict most games never even consider touching, and you cannot help but respect what Catherine is. There has never been a game like it, and I am proud to say that that is a very, very good thing. Few games can make me afraid to get caught cheating, mess my pants at the sight of a beast with chainsaws coming out of its eyes, fill me with a sense of bad-ass pride, and end with me feeling truly satisfied. I give Catherine 4/5 coquettish succubi, and a bow of respect for being unafraid to stand out of the crowd.