Alarm bells for Catherine were set when nothing more than screenshots and promises were released, yet I ignored them because it looked so delightfully weird. When the gameplay was shown, I finally sensed concern, and suggested that it might be "Q*Bert with tits."
After playing the demo today, I can confirm that it's not quite that ... but it's definitely the complete opposite of anything I would call fun.
For a start, Catherine is an undeniably fractured game, if the introductory hour is anything to go by. It tries to be both an anime and a videogame at the same time, and the two pieces aren't welded together so much as placed next to each other awkwardly. There's a jarring split between sometimes-quasi-interactive cutscenes and puzzle-based gameplay, with no real attempt to reconcile the elements.
As for the gameplay itself? Well, I can certainly see the appeal. It is simply not an appeal that speaks to me. The frantic block-puzzle gameplay has a certain charm, but the ludicrously twitchy controls that have protagonist Vincent spazzing from left to right are far too exuberant for the urgency that the game imposes on the player. You'll be wanting to grab a block or move to a location, only to have the hopped-up Vincent overshoot his proposed location.
I can't say I really appreciate the lack of time given to the player, either. Even by the second stage, Catherine demands you to just "know" which path to take. Any time taken to think through a puzzle is met with inevitable death. As Dale North previously said, this is a hard game -- but whether that difficulty is through legitimate challenge or unfair limitation is not something I'm prepared to judge from a mere demo. All I know is, it's not the kind of challenge I think is particularly enjoyable.
When Vincent isn't running around in his boxer shorts and being chased by fork-wielding women, he's moping in cutscenes that presented with either in-game visuals or unpleasantly choppy anime sequences (and I mean it's choppy by anime standards). So far, the characters seem rather mundane and stereotypical. Vincent is miserable, his friends are nothing to speak of, and neither Katherine nor Catherine make an impression.
During these sections, Vincent can receive and send text messages, and his actions will impact a karma meter that has an influence on the story -- though the demo won't show the results of this feature, naturally. It seems like it could make the game far more interesting, but I'd need to buy the full title to check it out.
From this early stage, the game looks to me like it really just wanted to be an anime, but stuffed in just enough gameplay to qualify as a bit of software rather than a movie. I could be wrong, and the full experience could offer far more. I just don't know, and I doubt I'll be buying it to find out.
I am not saying Catherine is a bad game, at all. I can appreciate the quality in place and I have little doubt that a select type of gamer is going to absolutely fall in love with the thing. I am not that type of gamer, however, and I have a feeling I will be far from alone. I'd advise everybody interested in the game to thoroughly check out the demo. You may love it or you may hate it. I am speaking more from the latter half of the audience, but I can most certainly respect that there will be many from the former, who will absolutely revel in Atlus' latest offering.
All I know is, I'm glad I'm not reviewing it, and so are you.