When you think of things like love and faithfulness, you often find yourself looking at your own moral standings. Are you a cheater? Can your significant other count on you to be faithful? Can you count on them? All of these pressing questions may not be on your mind that often, but they certainly will be (whether you like it or not) when you play the Puzzle/DateSim that is Catherine.
Cue the appropriate Background Music...
Catherine is a game developed by Atlus, specifically the Persona Team. Their intention during development was to create an experience that you have never seen before, an experience that makes you feel things and want to know more. It is safe to say that this goal is achieved.
The game puts you in control of Vincent Brooks, a 32 year old programmer with no real goals in life. His future plans are limited to looking forward to the next time he can get a drink with the guys at the Stray Sheep Bar. Vincent is in a relationship of 5 years with Katherine McBride, a woman who is the antithesis of himself: responsible, hardworking, and most of all, eager to take the relationship to the next level. This fact puts Vincent on edge at all times, afraid of commitment and newfound responsibility. His problems only get worse when he wakes up one morning to find a beautiful blonde lying naked next to him. To make things even more problematic, he has no recollection of how she got there. This leaves Vincent now stuck in the middle of a horrible love triangle that he must come to terms with. Oh, and just for laughs, this girl who he is cheating on Katherine with… happens to be named Catherine. Conditions deteriorate even more so when Vincent finds himself having nightmares on a daily basis, in which he and all of his acquaintances have become sheep. If he dies in his dream, he dies in reality. He and his fellow sheep will be tested on their resolves to live. Only if one climbs all the way to the top will they achieve true freedom.
"Sheep-ception" -Michael Varhanik
The game’s procedure, in a nutshell can be broken down as follows:
Vincent awakens in a fully animated cutscene, and gets himself together. He then goes about his day meeting whomever he was scheduled to see. He concludes his day by going to the Stray Sheep, a local bar, where he meets up with his best friends. From this point the player can control Vincent, free to walk around the bar, drink, use his phone, and converse with the patrons. He then goes home and falls asleep, only to find himself in a nightmare. After a lengthy time in the dream world, Vincent awakens and this process begins again over a 7 day period. Of that process, player control is only present during the time in the bar and in the dream world.
The essential gameplay elements can be cut down into two pieces. The first is Dialogue with NPC’s. Over the course of the game, Vincent can communicate with the other characters in the world, be it face to face, or through text message. This is limited only to those he meets in his dreams, the latter only in the Stray Sheep Bar; the two locations that act as the player’s hub. These conversations determine your karmic alignment, and ultimately shape how your experience will turn out. If Vincent answers questions kindly or justly, he will gain a positive rating, likewise, negative ratings result from more dastardly or cruel responses. The depth of these conversations does not exactly meet the level behind games like Mass Effect, but will make you think about yourself at times, questioning your own moral fiber, and at times even determine the fate of the NPC you are talking to. Vincent’s own behavior during cut-scenes, as well as his thoughts, will change dynamically in each play through based upon your alignment. This was a wonderful aspect of the game as it opened up relationships between Vincent and the NPC’s that were truly enthralling. It was so enjoyable that it left me wishing the developer had not limited player control to 2 areas to meet people. Not to say that this aspect is bad in any sense, it just leaves me wanting more like it.
The second aspect of this game is the Puzzle element. This is the bulk of the gameplay. In the night Vincent is forced to solve mind bending puzzles in the form of rearranging blocks so that he may traverse them and ascend in the tower. If the player fails to do so, Vincent will fall to his death in the dream, and thus, die in reality. As forementioned, most of the game is spent here in these nightmares. I cannot stress enough the impact these puzzles had on me as a player. Aside from their already extensive screentime in game, the overall experience left me with residual mental images similar to the tetris effect. I was literally seeing the puzzles when I closed my eyes, thinking of new ways I could navigate the literally cubic nightmare. When I would finally come back and play some more, I was then faced with newfound strength and determination to get even higher. When I did, a surge of joy would then overcome me. I can only compare the feeling of success when completing a level to that of when you beat a robot master in megaman for the first time. It took countless tries, but once you did, you felt all the more powerful for doing so. Your reward for doing the impossible? Temporary respite. An opportunity to save, and a chance to talk to some of the other men haunted by this nightmare to coach eachother and exchange climbing tips, before being hurled back into the rat race for even more climbing, eventually leading up to a boss battle at the end of each night. These difficult experiences just add to the overwhelming sense of immersion and drive you to go on. Additionally, there is another mode called Babel mode loaded with more of these puzzles.
Climb! Climb for your life!
The guys behind the sound design did a fantastic job. The sounds of each individual action are well placed and made, be they clinking glasses or the sliding blocks. Even more impressive is the vocal quality. The game is loaded with brilliant voice acting. Considering this is a Japan based release, localized for American release, this is a BIG deal. Literally every character is perfect. Some voices you will come to recognize from other voice acting works, as the cast was well put together, comprised mainly of the stars of other Atlus games. Regardless of where they came from, each actor put together a wonderful performance.
Another important aspect of a game’s sound is, of course, its music. Most of the tracks during the nightmare sequences are mixtures of classical scores remixed by the sound composer Shoji Meguro. These tracks are always appropriate for the scene. In the day time you will find themes that are used during specific types of moments that are made exclusively for Catherine. The last bit of music comes from the Stray Sheep bar. From here you can choose the tracks on the jukebox which you unlock by completing in game challenges. These tracks comes from assorted Atlus games. Overall the sound is great.
What really drives this game is its compelling story. I cannot tell you how many times I persevered through the nightly trials so that I might achieve greatness and see the next day. The story itself, while somewhat linear, will basically follow your karmic alignment and is entirely based around the love triangle between Katherine and Catherine. There are of course, two different women to choose from. That said, the playthroughs might have different outcomes in certain moments, such as how Vincent behaves or who he shows his true affection for. The story itself is a bit of an artwork- literally dictated at times by drawn out Anime cutscenes with writing that left me fully entertained all the while. The story honestly is good enough to warrant suffering through difficult puzzles, and then going back to replay them. The whole premise of choosing the one you want to be with carries you along for the whole ride, and the NPC’s personal struggles leave you even more intrigued, with their personal stories taking a place in your heart.
Yep, it just hit the fan.
I completed the game at around 16 hours. With 8 endings, it's safe to say I will be playing it a lot more.
The tale of Catherine is one of personal struggle and reflection. Seeing Vincent grow as a person from his hardships (as well as seeing him avoid total disaster) leaves a rewarding sense of relief and pride. You grow attached not only to Vincent, but to all of the characters in this marvelous experience. The difficult yet rewarding game leaves a lasting impression and ultimately makes you content with your ending, while also making you think about yourself in the process. The anime artstyle and top notch voice acting seal the deal in the nightmarishly entertaining experience that is Catherine.
8.5/10 GO PLAY IT. NOW