Catherine, the latest game from Atlus, was an unknown entity for some time. Early trailers from Japan had gamers guessing and there was a point that no one was sure that it would be ported. With the game finally released, I can definitely say that Catherine is not only one of the most unique games to come out this year, but could easily be the most unique game to come from Atlus.
Catherine's gameplay is split between puzzle solving and light adventure. The only part of the story I'm going to talk about is what has been released and put in reviews. Players will control Vincent, an early thirty-something slacker software developer. He is in a long term relationship with Katherine and has been enjoying life so far. However, Katherine has begun talking about taking things further, such as having kids and marriage. Vincent likes things the way they are, but before he has a chance to talk more about this, someone new enters his life.
While drinking one night, Vincent meets Catherine, a blond bombshell who is as easy going as him. The next morning he finds himself in bed with Catherine and in the middle of a love triangle. Now, if this was a soap opera, their relationship issues would be solved by long pauses and dramatic music. Since this is a game from the Persona team, you know that things are going to get weird.
Every night, Vincent finds himself in a nightmare world with all the other cheaters out there, now transformed into sheep. To survive, Vincent must climb up an ever collapsing tower to reach freedom. If Vincent fails to reach the top and dies in his dreams, he'll join the list of men who have been found dead in the morning.
If you haven't guessed by now, Catherine is not your usual game; the story is one of the more interesting ones I've seen in some time. Vincent isn't out to save the world, he is just trying to figure out what to do with two lovely ladies in his life, and the situation grows out of control fast.
Let's talk about the gameplay, starting with the adventure side. Every night before he goes to sleep, Vincent hangs out at his favorite bar with his friends. There are a variety of things for the player to do such as talking with the patrons or having a few drinks. Vincent will occasionally get text messages on his phone from both women, which the player can decide how he responds back. The choices will tilt a law/chaos scale that determines Vincent's responses in cut-scenes and the ending of the game.
There is also an arcade game that is essentially the nightmare puzzle solving, minus the time limit, allowing players a chance to improve their skills. Each time Vincent talks to someone, time moves forward and people may leave the bar, or new ones will show up. Eventually, Vincent will have to go home and sleep and that's when the nightmare starts.
The puzzle solving looks simple at first, but there are a lot of factors for the player to deal with. Vincent has to push and pull blocks to create a way up the tower. He can only climb up one block high walls, requiring the player to make effective stairs. Blocks connect to each other at their edges, allowing Vincent to create paths with the blocks suspending in thin air. Complicating matters are the various types of blocks Vincent will encounter along with the tower collapsing from the bottom up, take too long and Vincent is done for and the player will lose a life.
Figuring out the optimal path up the tower is where the challenge of the game is. Players are graded by how fast they reach the top and at the end of the night will receive an award based on their performance. The awards are used to unlock bonus materials like additional songs in the jukebox. Each night is made up of various levels, after the player beats a section they'll be taken to a landing where they can converse with the other trapped men.
During these breaks, the player can save their game and watch tutorial videos showing off new techniques for climbing the tower. Money, earned from climbing the tower can be used to buy an item, but that will lower the player's chances at getting a good award at the end. Each landing is concluded with the player being asked a morality question that will tilt the law/chaos scale from earlier.
To complete a night, players will have to get through a boss battle. Here, not only does the player have to figure out how to climb the tower, but they are also chased by a manifestation of Vincent's current fear. Each boss will either affect the blocks or attack Vincent, or both, requiring the player to pay as much attention to it, as they do to the puzzle solving.
If you have been reading any reviews on Catherine, one common mention is on the game's difficulty. Having started on hard, got completely stumped and dropped to medium, then considered going to easy I can conclude that Catherine is hard. The three difficulty levels (with a somewhat hidden very easy mode) each have their own puzzle layout. On normal and below, players can redo their actions to a certain point allowing them to erase a mistake or try a different option. The difficulty is going to turn off a lot of gamers, because of how different it is from a traditional game.
In other games, such as action titles, there is always feedback that lets the player know that they made a mistake. Maybe they blocked when they should have dodge, or watched the enemy pattern more. Feedback allows the player to see what they did wrong and improve for next time. However, with Catherine being a puzzle game above all else, there is no feedback to let the player know if they're doing fine, or if the last block they pulled has put them into an unsolvable situation.
There are no new abilities for Vincent to learn, with exception to the items, all progress is based off of the player's skill. The quicker you learn the patterns to look for in block placement and what to do, the easier the game will become. However, if you get stuck, without any feedback as to how you’re playing, things can become impossible.
Which is what happened to me, I got stuck at a puzzle and had no idea how to get through it. Without any feedback, I was banging my head against the wall for an hour. Finally I had to turn to YouTube to watch the solution.
Besides the difficulty I have a few design issues with the game. First, is with having a "lives" mechanic. In Catherine, you can replay a puzzle as many times as you want as long as you have enough lives to do that. However running out of lives just means restarting at your last save point, which you can do before you start a puzzle. This feels arbitrary to me and an excuse for the player to watch the "game-over “screen. On normal, at one point, I had at least 80 lives, the only time I ran out of lives was during my first attempt at hard mode, but it still felt like an arbitrary mechanic.
The controls take some getting used to and even at the end of the game; I was still having some problems with them. The issue is that Vincent's movement is based on his relation to the camera, when he's standing, left moves him left and so on. However, when he's hanging on the side of blocks or moving behind the tower, the controls become reverse. This becomes troublesome when Vincent is behind the tower as the camera doesn't shift to show that view, which has a good chance of getting the player stuck there.
I wish that the developers spent more time with giving the player training videos, or maybe even an actual tutorial. The videos can only be viewed on the corresponding landings, meaning if you forget how one went, you're SOL. Having access to more help and information would help reduce the difficulty curve.
With the difficulty and unusual subject matter good reasons for gamers to avoid Catherine, I hope that a lot of people try this game. The art style was amazing, especially with the later levels. Going back to the story, having finished the game and got one of the many endings, I found this to be one of my favorite game stories in some time. Even with the nightmares and sheep, this is still a love story and Vincent isn't a super hero or whiny teen, he's an adult stuck in a very sticky situation. For gamers clamoring for something original, Catherine easily fits that bill, but make sure that you know what to expect before jumping in, or you may find yourself heading for a long fall.