A Puzzling Relationship
Catherine has a lot going for it. It's got the same quirky characterization as the incredibly popular Persona 4, and shares that game's same penchant for high concept and style. Like its titular titillating temptress, it’s incredibly alluring from face value alone. However, thanks to a story whose oddness borders on the inane, and gameplay that can get a tad TOO procedural, Catherine isn't a game that everyone can enjoy on the same level.
The tale of Catherine follows 32-year-old Vincent Brooks through the worst week of his life. His girlfriend of 5 years, Katherine McBride, has started to become impatient with his lack of commitment and begins pushing him to tie the knot. Not content to give up his "free and easy" lifestyle, however, things become infinitely more complicated for Vincent when a blonde bombshell named Catherine literally falls into his lap and, before he even knows what he's doing, he's cheating on Katherine with her. This doesn't even take into account the nightmares that Vincent starts to experience every night. When he goes to sleep, Vincent is faced with hellish towers of blocks that he must climb in order to escape a very real death.The quirk of Catherine's story and characters does a fantastic job of selling it. Vincent is written and voiced hilariously, being both relatable and impossibly stupid/irresponsible at the same time. The bit characters and acquaintances in Vincent's life are similarly well-written, and the sheer style of it all carries a lot of the weight. Sadly, Catherine's story occasionally falls flat because of two fatal flaws. For one thing, the central conundrum of Catherine vs. Katherine is almost a moot point, as both ladies start off almost insufferably unlikable. In the case of one of the ladies, she eventually becomes more tolerable and even a fairly deep character, but the other remains so one-dimensional and outright absurdly written that this "choice" is one that's not horribly compelling. Secondly, that absurdity permeates so deep into the story and it saps it of a lot of its humanity and punch. Don't get me wrong, it's entertaining as all hell, but some people may take the late game twist as an insult to their intelligence.
CONTENTSimply playing through Catherine gives you a good chunk of game to chew on. It'll take you about 12-15 hours on a standard playthrough of the game's Normal difficulty. Strangely, the additional modes and fun you can have with Catherine revolve around not only finishing, but doing well in the game's main story. For example, there are cooperative and competitive block puzzles to tackle. Sounds pretty cool, no? Well you're going to have to complete that 12-15 hour campaign before you get to play even one level of it. There's also a fairly deep trials mode known as Babel that is unlocked level by level when you achieve a Gold Trophy in various stages of the game's main story. That might seem reasonable, but realizing how difficult Catherine can be at times, getting those Golds to unlock more game content is daunting task.
It all adds to the occasionally old-school feel of Catherine's challenge, but it's puzzling that Atlus would hide so much of the good stuff it has to offer behind such high watermarks. There's a ton of good stuff in Catherine to get at. It's just going to take a while to get at it all.
GAMEPLAYThe actual gameplay of Catherine is perhaps the simplest aspect of the game to convey. During the day, you control Vincent at the Stray Sheep bar. Here, you interact with the various patrons and answer texts which play into the way things will proceed in the story. It's not hugely variable, but it's nice to have the freedom to effect little things in the narrative. You'll also be doing things that play more directly into the gameplay aspects as well. You can play a retro-styled version of Catherine in the bar, and this can provide you some additional practice for the night portions of the game. Additionally, seeing as the Stray Sheep is a bar, you can drink. This might seem useless (aside from the fact it provides you with some truly interesting trivia about alcohol), but the more you consume, the faster Vincent moves during the night-time portions.
And that is essential because, as the song goes, the freaks come out at night as you're forced into Vincent's nightmares. In these, you'll take on the game's main source of action, and that's block puzzles. Essentially, you'll be staring down a staircase made completely of blocks, and you must push, pull, stack, hang, climb, and do all manner of mind-bending actions to climb them. You don't have all day, however, as not only does each stage slowly crumble underneath you, but many blocks are traps that can kill you or send you into unfavorable situations. At the end of each floor of the tower, you'll even have to face off against a boss doggedly pursuing you as you attempt to solve each puzzling staircase.
The block puzzles of Catherine can be described in a few words. Challenging. Rewarding. Frustrating. Repetitive. If you don't dig procedural aspects of games, or don't want to punch a baby from the sheer difficulty you'll face, then don't come within a hair's breath of Catherine. Few games are this challenging, and thus more rewarding when you take out another stage. This is a puzzle game, make no mistake. It's an extremely mechanical game, despite trappings to the contrary.
PRESENTATIONOne thing that is undeniably solid about Catherine is its presentation. The graphics are unique and stylish. As good as everyone looks in pixels, the well-done anime cutscenes only bolster the experience. The standout aspects, however, are those that reach your ears. The voice acting is fantastic, with voice acting for Vincent and his posse being particularly excellent. The OST for Catherine, much like the Persona games before it, should be owned right alongside the game.
VERDICTBut whether you wish to actually own Catherine is dependent on your tolerance of what the game is... and that's a puzzle game with a nonsense story attached. The sheer style and zaniness of Atlus's latest may be enough for you to want check it out. Indeed, the curious would be well-served in at least seeing if Catherine is their type of game. It's challenging, it's unlike anything out there right now, and it's just the right type of weird that even the wholly unfamiliar with this type of Japanese craziness can appreciate it. It's a great game, but one that's difficult to recommend to everybody.
People who become enamored with Catherine within the first hour or so are going to love it. People who are put off by that first impression... well...