A Lot of Potential Unfulfilled
Because Persona 3 and Persona 4 were such deeply loved games, I think everyone wanted to see what Atlus was going to do once it finally developed a game for modern consoles. After finishing Catherine, I didn't think it was quite the debut the company was hoping to make with its first product on current-generation hardware. I was actually a little surprised because most of my worries before the game's release didn't bother me at all in the final product. However there are other issues I had with the game, and while Catherine starts off pretty well and remains interesting for most of the ride, I couldn't help but feel that the game was building up to a better conclusion than the one waiting for players at the end of the game.
Vincent Brooks, the game's protagonist, is like a lot of other 32 year-old men. While having lunch together, his girlfriend, Katherine, implies that she thinks it's about time the couple got married, but Vincent isn't quite so sure. Katherine is kind and caring towards Vincent, but she's also pretty stern and irritable. Later that night at the bar Vincent frequents, his friends go home, but Vincent stays to have a couple more drinks. That's when, Catherine, an attractive young lady, sits down next to him. Catherine is pretty much the polar opposite of Katherine. She seems pretty care-free and also has no ambitions about getting married. After getting pretty drunk, Vincent wakes up the next morning to find Catherine right there in bed with him. Vincent finds himself in a bad situation and it's up to the player to decide to choose between Catherine or Katherine over the next week the game takes place during.
As you likely already know, Catherine is a puzzle game. There are strange rumors going around the bar that unfaithful men get cursed and find themselves in nightmares each night. They have to climb crumbling block towers and reach the top or they die in real life. Vincent's sins don't go unnoticed and he has these nightmares along with other men, who look like sheep to him (and vice-versa).
I was initially worried about the block puzzles, but I actually thought they were a lot of fun. The player learns a lot of interesting techniques and it's fun how there are multiple ways to solve the towers. I was playing the game on Easy, and I found the game to be pretty challenging, so I think puzzle fanatics could have a lot of fun with this game because I have to imagine that hard is extremely mind boggling. The game keeps the puzzles engaging by adding a different variety of blocks (ice blocks, spike blocks, springs) and by making each tower more complex and difficult. However, I did reach a point on the sixth night where I was simply was just not smart enough to solve the towers. Despite the numerous techniques the game shows, some of the more elaborate ones aren't very apparent when they should be used when put in practice. That's when I finally just unlocked the Very Easy mode so I could move on in the story because I was stuck. In fact, it's surprising how easy it is. I went from dying 30 times in a row to beating the tower in one try because the game gives so many item drops. It was a little sad that the fun was completely stripped from me because I'm just not very good, it would have been nice if the game was just easier (instead of completely neutered), because I might as well have just been watching someone else play. I will reiterate though that I'm not very good at the game.
After he survives the nightmares, the player is presented to some interesting cutscenes until he's back at the bar during the night. While at the bar, the player can talk to Vincent's friends Johnny, Orlando, Toby, and Erica; in addition to the other bar patrons, many of which Vincent recognizes as the fellow sheep he discusses block climbing techniques with during his nightmares. Vincent also receives text messages from Catherine and Katherine that he can respond to in multiple ways.
Talking with Vincent's buddies is pretty interesting. They all have some interesting romance dilemmas of their own, though they aren't cheating and having nightmares like Vincent is. They serve as interesting side-stories that are fun to watch develop over the course of the game. The other bar patrons suffering nightmares are also pretty interesting, because they have interesting stories about how they started getting the nightmares and how they are going to resolve their issues. It's important for Vincent to talk to them and encourage them as this helps determine their fate, but people enter and leave the bar frequently so it's important for the player to manage Vincent's time well while at the bar. Vincent also has a meter that shows if the action the player is taking is making Vincent more committed to Catherine or Katherine (or possibly neither). This is where responding nicely or dismissively to the text messages comes in. During the nightmares, the player also enters a confession booth before climbing the next tower. Inside it, the player answers a question that also changes the meter. The questions, such as "Have you ever cheated on somebody?" or "Do you like kids?", are pretty interesting if you choose to answer honestly. After each question, you see a pie graph of what other players answered too, which is pretty cool. The side the meter is leaning changes the thoughts in Vincent's head as he reacts to situations and helps decide which ending the player gets.
I found the story to be really interesting, and I was always curious to see where each night would take me, but it had several flaws too. For one, choosing between Catherine or Katherine is a pain because they're both pretty irritating and because the game actually shows very little about them. Vincent barely speaks to either of them and most of his dialogue includes "um...well, you see....er...uh...". It would have been nice if the game gave some more context about why Vincent likes either of them in the first place. Katherine is just always suspicious and critical of Vincent (and rightfully so), but what about their relationship before the game started? And it's obvious he just likes Catherine because she's hot, but Vincent doesn't even give the impression that he's enjoying any of the sex he's having with her.
My biggest problem with the game is the bad reveal. For the sake of not spoiling anything, I won't go into great detail, but the cause of the nightmares and (more importantly) the reason for them, as well as the answer to "Just who is Catherine?" is extremely stupid, and not in the awesome, ridiculous "Hey, it's Japanese!" way. This is a big letdown, because while the story is interesting, it's only interesting because you feel it building up to something big, which it didn't. The game also has multiple endings and I watched all of them on Youtube after beating the game and they're all fine enough, but none are mind-blowing. The only problem is, they don't all conclude the side-story of Vincent's friends Orlando and Johnny, which is a shame because I thought they were interesting characters, but it's not a huge problem. In addition to the karma meter, the game's endings vary by some late-game confession booth questions. Sadly, these aren't very interesting like the other ones. I won't divulge anything, but the player responses pie graphs were almost completely one color. Seeing as the story really was the main reason I was interested in the game, it's a real damn shame the biggest moment left such an awful taste in my mouth.
To its credit, the story handles the "adult" nature of itself pretty well. I was concerned before playing the game that it would be a 13 year-old's version of "mature". I was worried the game would be obsessed with sex, but the game takes itself seriously when discussing the implications of cheating and commitment versus excitement. Do not take this as some sort of message that this is some incredibly emotionally deep game that will change your perspective on life, as you will be disappointed. Story aside, the game looks great. The anime artstyle is extremely impressive and I would say that it even looks better than Tales of Vesperia, which looks pretty similar. This certainly doesn't look like Atlus' first modern console game. The voice-acting is top notch, but some of the voice actors and actresses are carry-overs from Persona 4 and it's easy to tell. I had trouble removing Yosuke, Adachi, Rise, and Kanji from my head sometimes while playing the game. The soundtrack is fine, but I didn't really fall in love with any of the tracks from the game, though from what I've read, I'm alone in that regard. The game is actually not that long compared to Persona 4. My gameclock was at 11 hours and 48 minutes by the time I finished, which actually makes Catherine a decent rental option, though the different endings give a lot of reason to go back.
I really wanted to love Catherine and up until the final moments I thought I was going to love it. It's such a huge bummer that this game didn't get anywhere close to being satisfactory, let alone good, at tying up the big loose ends. It almost feels like the writers simply had no idea how to justify the craziness of the nightmare sheep world or the crazy sexy girl that came out of nowhere. This might be going a little overboard, but I can't iterate enough how much I hated the reveal. The block puzzles are fine, but that's not supposed to be what carries this game. I would only recommend Catherine to the biggest puzzle game fans who are already interested in the story. If you don't like puzzles, the story really doesn't justify itself enough to go through with them anyway even if you decide to let the game play itself by turning on Very Easy Mode.
Note: I played the Xbox 360 version. The game crashed a lot on me, especially when it was installed to the hard drive, but I think this may be because my 360 is dying. Also, the game should be played with the D-Pad, but the 360 controller is notoriously terrible in that respect. I would recommend the PlayStation 3 version even though I haven't played it. Other reviews seem to agree with me, anyways.