Visuals are undoubtedly a central concern for most gamers. We want our environments lush, our characters idealized and definable, and effects as flashy as our eyes can stand. Yet, while graphics have never been better in terms of resolution, style is another matter. In the history of your game-playing existence, how often have you really been blown away by the care put into the overall presentation or aesthetic of a game? How often have you really thought about the way a game has made you feel, instead of just what actions you can perform within the game? Developer Atlus’ first high-definition effort is a master class in just how stylish and immersive a game can be. It’s not just the story the game tells; it’s how the game makes you feel and react, and how it gives a whole new meaning to the concept of interactive entertainment.
The player character is Vincent Brooks, and no, he’s not an amnesiac orphan with hidden magical powers, nor is he a super soldier devoid of personality or an anthropomorphic creature who apparently loves to jump and collect shiny things. Nope, our man Vincent is kind of like most of us, or at least someone we know: a nice guy overall, but a slacker, hedonist, and pretty self-centered. His long-time girlfriend Katherine wants to get married, he’s mostly unsure of himself, he cheats with the titular character, and his life pretty much goes to crap after that. He’s cheating on Katherine and trying to hide it from her, though he can’t exactly remember the times he’s with Catherine, and all the while he’s having nightmares that involve him climbing a never-ending tower of blocks with sheep, sometimes while being chased by humongous, demonic personifications of his innermost fears.
In other words, typical Atlus stuff.
The gameplay has a nice rhythm familiar to players of Persona 3. The story takes place within a span of eight days, and each day, there are cut scenes to advance the plot, a pre-nightmare segment where Vincent hangs out at the local dive and talks to NPCs, and the actual puzzle gameplay at night.
The story as presented through both pre-rendered cut scenes and Anime segments is truly top-notch. The writing and voice acting, composed of many familiar voices for Atlus fans, are excellent, as you really develop an emotional attachment to the very real people that populate this game. The Anime portions are some of the best I have ever seen for a game, easily topping similar offers in Street Fighter IV and Atlus’ own titles. The real star, however, are the pre-rendered cut scenes, as well as the graphics engine in general. We’ve seen plenty of gorgeous graphics in this generation of gaming, from the almost painfully-perfect world of Final Fantasy XIII to the raw polygonal power of the Crysis series. The stylish world of Catherine, however, is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. The sushi boat Vincent frequents with his friend Orlando is pulsing, hip, and just a little bit too small, like the best restaurants tend to be. Stray Sheep, the local bar you spend much of your time in, is remarkably detailed and equal parts homey and dingy. The level of detail is such that you can play an arcade game (a delightfully retro version of the puzzle aspect of Catherine), pick a song from the jukebox, hit the restroom in the back, go check the ATM just to see that Vincent’s broke, and even choose each drink Vincent probably shouldn’t be spending money on. The nightmare sequences are appropriately foreboding, with blood-stained blocks, foggy environments, and absolutely frightening bosses. Each piece of the presentation has a flair for detail and evokes a very specific emotion.
Having an appreciation for the overall presentation of this game is extremely important because, if you don’t have a preference for style and overall detail, you probably won’t find this game a terribly good value.
The games gives you questions to answer in the form of “confessions” after every section of a puzzle level, and depending on how you answer each question, you steer yourself to one of eight endings (two of which, it should be noted, don’t really involve either woman). The games takes around 15-20 hours to complete, depending on the difficulty level and assuming you watch every cut scene (which are all pausable and skippable, in a great design choice by the developers). The multiple endings could be seen as replay value, but there are really only three “true” endings for the player to get, and the others are just inferior versions of the same outcome. The crux of the game is still the puzzle gameplay, which, in and of itself, is absolutely not worth full retail price.
Using the D-pad, you guide Vincent through each tower of blocks through a pretty complex and lively puzzle system. You can push and pull blocks, hang, suspend blocks as long as they are touching another, and collect various power-ups to aid there. There are also blocks that make scaling the levels much harder as the game progresses, such as blocks you can’t move, to spike blocks, ice blocks, and so forth. The puzzling in Catherine is, by any measure, very good, the intense boss encounters are fantastic, and the added challenge and co-op modes really show off how addictive the system can be, but, at its core, it’s still just a puzzle game, and puzzle games are probably not worth $60 to you on their own. It’s also worth noting that this game is extremely hard, even on Easy, and many players will probably resort to turning on the additional Very Easy difficulty level just to get through the game, at least on the first playthrough.
Ultimately, what will determine whether or not you enjoy Catherine is really if you care about the experience as a whole. If you want to experience something wholly unlike anything else on the market, with an exceptional story and nearly flawless presentation, check it out. If you’re the kind of person who values the core gameplay of a title above the overall experience, Catherine is probably not the game for you.