Sweaty Palms: Hands-on with the Catherine demo

It’s here. Atlus’ new game, the one developed by the team behind Persona, its first game on HD consoles, and the one that’s been hyped up endlessly over the last half-year, Catherine, is here.

Well, not quite here yet. Its Japanese store date is still set for late February, and Atlus itself has yet to breath a word on the possibility of an international release. But a demo is out on the Japanese PlayStation Network and Xbox LIVE Marketplace, and we’ve played it.

And it’s pretty crazy, from the first menu screen onward.

Yeah, that’s Catherine sitting pretty on a swing up there, with Katherine atop a column, and Vincent tied to said column with barbed wire. Bleating sheep-men fall past in the background.

The only mode available in the demo is the main story campaign. Upon selecting it, viewers are treated to a stylishly animated intro for Golden Theater, apparently a strange TV program. Its logo appears as a broadcast-style watermark during most of the cutscenes.

The demo opens directly into gameplay, as Vincent enters a creepy nightmare, dressed only in his boxers, equipped with a pillow and a pair of ram’s horns. A disembodied voice urges him to climb or die, and the tutorial begins, narrated by a bleating humanoid sheep.

As was shown in previous trailers and previews, Catherine‘s Nightmare mode is essentially a block-moving puzzle-platformer. Vincent must scale a massive floating wall, moving blocks of it around to assemble staircases while picking up gold and accumulating score multipliers along the way. Sections at the bottom fall off as time passes, so staying in one place is a lethal prospect.

Escaping that nightmare, the game moves on to 16:30 on “Day 1”, as Vincent and Katherine sit in a cafe. Katherine makes relationship talk, heavily implying that she wants to settle down. Vincent, nervous, dodges the subject.

Fast forward to later that evening Vincent mulls over the conversation with his friends Jonathan and Tobias at the Stray Sheep bar. It’s pretty obvious that Katherine wants a ring on it. The topic shifts to Paul, an acquaintance of theirs found dead that morning. Vincent pales upon hearing the circumstances of Paul’s death.

Jonathan and Tobias leave, allowing time to demonstrate another of the game’s systems. Vincent receives a text from Katherine discussing the events of the afternoon. Players can construct Vincent’s response phrase by phrase, with choices ranging from a humble apology for staying out so late at the bar, to a more combative stance, resentful of her pressure. Sending the reply feeds back into a little blue-red bar, shifting the needle one way or the other.

It’s not said explicitly what the function of the bar is or what it represents, but it’s fairly clear that Vincent’s choices and the way they influence the bar will have an effect on the plot and Vincent’s fate.

A mysterious woman approaches Vincent’s booth and asks if the seat’s taken.

Fast forward, and the demo’s next gameplay section appears. It’s a boss fight, or something like it. Vincent must escape a pair of hands wielding a giant knife and fork. A curiously familiar voice demands that Vincent “can’t run away” and that he should “take responsibility”.

The chase is quite frantic, even on Easy difficulty (the only option available in the demo). The hands can attack the staircase by turning large portions of the blocks into much heavier versions that take longer to move. Manipulating the level and still trying to get faraway piles of gold or items made for some pretty close calls. Vincent can also pick up special block items, that allow him to lay down steps of his own to cross gaps or add that last crucial handhold.

Reaching the top gets Vincent to safety, cuing angelic hymns and applause from some invisible peanut gallery.

So far, everything’s very intriguing. It’s rare to see games that deal with genuinely human concern in an adult way, and Vincent’s reluctance to commit is one of the most human around. The only real concern I have is that the climbing and block manipulation might not be able to support the game should the story drag on too long. A trailer montage at the end promises new elements and methods of interaction, though.

Well, we’ll find out soon enough. If nothing else, what we have here is a serviceable puzzle-platform game surrounded by some of the most demented stories and themes yet seen. Works for me!

What do you think? Still interested?

Josh Tolentino
Contributor - When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh served as Managing Editor for Japanator. Now he mostly writes for Destructoid's buddies at Siliconera, but pops back in on occasion.