A Smoking Hot Sadist
Many months ago I witnessed my first trailer for the game Catherine. I found myself entranced by its Persona art style and interested in the mature anime aura it exuded. I had grown quite fatigued by JRPGS and felt that Japanese developed games were feeling stagnate and dated with no innovation to be found. The more I learned about the Catherine the more I wanted it — even though I knew going in that it was a challenging puzzle game with dating sim aspects. I have never found dating sims to be entertaining but I was determined to not let that stop me from trying this game.The most exciting element of Catherine I looked forward to was the mature story line of a man going through infidelity, a unique plot point that I rarely see in video games. Unfortunately, while Atlus tries to innovate their formula, Catherine’s repetitive game structure and poorly designed puzzles stop it from reaching its true potential.
The story of Catherine begins with our main character, Vincent feeling under pressure from his long-term girlfriend, Katherine, to take their relationship to a more serious level. This, along with the demands of a new job, plagues Vincent’s well-being and he begins a set of horrific nightmares in which he must shift large blocks to climb up and out of his dream state. After a second night of this our protagonist awaken, only to find another nightmare in his bed — Catherine, a young blonde bombshell he met the night before.
The main story kept me constantly contemplating the fate of Vincent and his many relationships but it has a foreseeable twist at the beginning of the final act that makes the game lose much of its seriousness. The story has a good pace that kept me wanting to get to every new cut scene as soon as possible. The main gripe I have with Catherine’s story is the game doesn’t attempt to dive into any subplots that are given. Gamers can learn more about other characters but there is little interaction with interesting NPCs. I feel that Catherine could have been much better if it allowed itself to explore other side stories. The game offers 8 different endings, but recently it became clear how you obtain the endings. I don’t want to spoil anything so I will just say one thing. Catherine's narrative is not as expansive as I would have hoped and makes replay value decrease substantially. Nevertheless I still found the story entertaining and interesting but replay value is significantly reduced once you realize how to get the separate endings.
Catherine’s visuals are without a doubt an attractive feature of the game. The characters are designed very well and are each unique in their own quirky way. The characters do come off as a little too American and less Japanese but overall it didn’t really bother me. The game offers very few environments but each environment feels very well realized. Every nightmare section boasts its own unique theme but the levels within the theme do not change and more or less feel a little cheap. The music in the game has a mostly classical feel and while I did enjoy it immensely the game could have used a few more songs. The English voice acting is very solid and comes from the typical voice over talent that you find in most Japanese animations. The lack of a Japanese voice track option is definitely a large oversight which will unsurprisingly upset some fans that waited for Catherine.
Unfortunately Catherine has a host of game design problems that makes it very difficult to enjoy. Now I knew going into this game that it was suppose to be a hard puzzle game, however I think that something was lost in translation. I don’t believe any puzzle is hard because they are tricky or they require a lot of skill. The puzzles seem to be hard because they are not only randomly chaotic but the game has terrible pacing. Catherine will often tell you how to defeat the challenges by going over techniques that other sheep will provide. Unlike some games that gradually teach you new tricks and have you use a variety of things you have learned, each puzzle only uses one or two tricks and some basics you learned in the first section of the game. The difficulty will often spike randomly and bosses add pressure that often feels unbearable. The game will occasionally introduce new elements and not give any explanation of what these items do until after the level you use them. I definitely believe the game was play tested, I just don’t think they cared if the puzzles were enjoyable.
The structure of the game is also incredibly repetitive and often led me to feel very burnt-out after each session. The structure is cut scene followed by Stray Sheep Bar interactions and then concludes with the nightmare block towers. While in the Stray Sheep you can converse with fellow bar patrons, text people, drink or play the arcade game Rapunzel. One element I really enjoyed is crafting your texts from a few options they give you but some response will have an undesired affect to your morality meter. The morality meter displayed through the game will change dialogue that occurs through out the game but isn’t necessarily based on right or wrong. Instead the game asks you if you want a more stable or chaotic lifestyle that coincides with a choice of partner. The block towers are also predictable, featuring a few warm up levels buffered with sheep interactions and capped with a boss fight. This made the game very hard to go through and if I wasn’t as interested with the story as I was, then I probably would not have finished the game.
Overall Catherine has great concepts and unique ideas it wants to bring to the table but the execution is lacking. One philosophy I hold dear to my heart when reviewing games is that a game can’t coast on its looks. Catherine has a few great stories to tell but very little of its core gameplay is fun. I enjoy a good puzzle game but Catherine teaches you techniques and will often not care if you remembered them or not. Catherine is a game that gets in the pool but doesn’t explore the deep end enough and instead feels content with keeping it safe.