Catherine: A Late, But Great Entrance to the HD Party
Atlus has a habit of seriously biding its time before making its debut on most console platforms. Save for a few exceptions here and there, it's not usually a matter of if Atlus will develop a game for a given system, but rather when. In Catherine's case, that wait has been particularly long, with its release coming five years after the Xbox 360's debut heralded the coming of HD games en masse. With that arrival finally having come, Catherine continues Atlus' lengthy legacy for philosophically complex, humanistically skeptical games. It's not as provocative as its covers might otherwise imply, but if you're game for being a thinking man in solving puzzles both literal and personal, Catherine is certainly worth the trip. That's assuming, of course, you have at least some solid Japanese fluency backing you up. [Reviewer's Note: Since the time this review was published, Atlus USA has taken up the task of localizing Catherine. In addition, a patch was released that made tweaks to the easy and normal difficulty levels, which is said to be applied to international editions from the get-go. Those changes and linguistic swaps aside, while the contents of the game will likely remain the same, this review only references what was originally contained in the Japanese release pre-patch.]
Despite the game's namesake, Catherine actually has you playing the role of Vincent Brooks, a 30-something ordinary IT worker who's still living up the bachelor life. He goes drinking with his friends a lot after work, sleeps in his boxers, and is generally in a slightly untidy state, essentially living the dream as a man. Vincent also has a longtime girlfriend by the name of Katherine, an elegant woman who, after five years of dating wants the relationship to become more meaningful, ideally with a little marriage. The thought of such a commitment naturally scares him a bit. To make matters worse, he's also been having bad dreams involving a tower that will result in his death in real-life if he doesn't successfully climb it, an effect which is all but confirmed when a string of sudden deaths occur to men in their sleep. Oh, and there's also the matter of Catherine, a girl much younger than him that he randomly meets at his regular bar and, unwittingly, ends up seeing on the side, starting an affair of sorts. Suffice it to say, Vincent is a stressed man.
The actual gameplay for Catherine is similarly nuanced and broken up into a few really distinct parts. The majority of your time playing the game is actually spent in Vincent's dreams as he climbs the tower to avoid dying. Unlike a lot of Atlus' other games in its RPG-heavy library, this part of the game is actually a three-dimensional puzzler of sorts. In order to climb the tower, Vincent has to utilize a lot of different blocks that have distinct physics, properties, and layouts, essentially creating the stairways to the top of each stage himself. In addition to that, a time limit of sorts is always imposed, since the bottom layers of the blocks fall out at a constant rate, adding a sense of urgency to solve things sooner rather than later. While the puzzles themselves can get fairly devious even relatively early on in the game, solving them rarely feels frustrating, due largely in part to the game having well-placed checkpoints and an instant retry option in the pause menu. If you screw up, you usually know what you did wrong and are able to change tactics accordingly for the next immediate attempt. Even when things get especially tough later on in the game, this leads to a real sense of satisfaction and accomplishment when you beat the levels with just your own brainpower. You can, however, lower the difficulty level in-between stages, if necessary.
But the game doesn't just throw you into the lion's den and expect you to figure out all of the mechanics and techniques for yourself. Catherine includes a lot of straightforward tutorials that do a really good job of acclimating you to the quirks of the gameplay and its pacing, ensuring that you always know about new elements that are coming up before they actually appear. While many of the tutorials are optional in nature, for first-time players, it's probably advisable to take a look at all of them at least once. They usually include helpful videos that show you exactly how to accomplish whatever the game is discussing. Knowing when to actually apply your knowledge out the field is up to you, especially since many of the puzzles are designed to have multiple solutions. Still, the tutorials are nevertheless well-made and bring you up to speed on Catherine's fairly unique brand of gameplay without overwhelming you with too much information at once. This is good, as there's plenty of things new things to learn even up to the very end of the game, surprisingly ensuring that the block moving doesn't actually get stale.
The one main issue to be had with this part of the game, as well as with Catherine overall, is in how it controls. While by and large the actual process of moving blocks around and completing the levels is straightforward and without issues, one certain situation the levels and puzzles present at times just makes the controls flat out fail. This happens when you're forced to climb behind blocks, at which point horizontal controls for Vincent will often just inexplicably reverse, forcing you to fumble around and change how you're orienting him in your mind until he's within view again. What's worse is that sometimes the controls will reverse again before Vincent has even returned back to the other side, turning the times during which he's behind something into a pure guessing game with the controls. Couple the fact that the camera actually doesn't rotate 360 degrees and gets stuck in exactly the spots that block your view of Vincent when he's behind the playing field and you have some situations that can be genuinely irksome. Rarely ever will you fumble along with the controls so long that it will cost you a life, but the consistency with which the botched controls appear later on in the game are just too consistent to ignore.
Puzzle solving isn't all that you do in Vincent's dreams, though. In between each level is a rest area, home to other hapless people who are stuck in the same boat as you. Since they all look like sheep in this world, however, it's impossible to tell them apart, aside from individual personality quirks and a few distinct pieces of clothing that they adorn here and there. More importantly, though, these rest areas also have a confession booth of sorts, where Vincent is always asked seemingly random moral questions. The questions, which can range from opinions about marriage to how you treat your romantic partners and beyond, always have just two selectable answers to pick. While they seem relatively innocuous at first, they actually contribute to the game's morality system, which affects Vincent's overall outlook about his current life situation, as well as which of several endings you'll end up viewing. This might makes it sound as though the system is yet another two-dimensional interpretation of good and evil, but the answers sometimes come with unexpected ambiguity that will affect your morality meter in ways you don't expect without some further contemplation about the implications of your choice. Catherine essentially wants you to never be purely good nor purely evil because of this. Also, the loading screens that come after these questions always generate a pie chart that shows what percentage of Internet-connected players chose which option, sometimes providing bemusing implied commentary about the player base in their own right.
The culmination of all those puzzles and philosophies, however, comes in the form of bosses, which always come last in every set of levels that Vincent has to tackle for the night. While the specifics of what actually appears should be discovered by the players themselves, they're essentially grotesque manifestations of Vincent's various problems. These bosses all come with unique abilities and attacks that, in addition to the usual crumbling nature of the level, makes you especially keen to race to the top for the sake of survival. Since you have no means to actually fight back against your pursuers, all you can do is keep running and improvise your route to the end in the midst of the bosses' sabotaging tactics. When you reach the finale and haven't been bested by your fellow climbing stalker, your job to keep Vincent alive is done for the night, scheduled to continue again in the next one.
The other main segment of the game naturally takes place during Vincent's waking hours. During these times, a lot of plot development happens as Vincent recovers from his dreams and socializes with his friends and Katherine about what to do with his life. Much of this happens during cutscenes, but you still have things to do when the game inevitably brings you every evening to the Stray Sheep, Vincent's bar and main spot for hanging out with the men. During these times, a lot of optional gameplay opens up and is largely revolved around socializing. You can drink a lot of alcohol with Vincent's friends to help him cope with the day's events. Doing so has no real benefits, although if you finish off a drink, you actually get to hear various pieces of trivia about what you just downed. You can then order additional booze of several different kinds, should you desire it. There are also other patrons to visit sitting elsewhere in the bar with whom you can have chats. Doing so allows you to befriend and familiarize yourself with a lot of the regulars, who all have stories to tell. Since time actually passes while you talk to people and drink, it's impossible to get to know everyone in one run, coming and going according to their own schedules. But the ones you do decide to take the time to talk to consistently all have distinct perspectives and personalities that make Vincent contemplate his prospects and how to move forward all the more. There are also actual rewards in the game tied with these optional meetings, although the specifics of which are best left unsaid.
Most importantly of all, though, you'll receive text messages while inside the Stray Sheep. Sometimes they're just congratulatory messages in the game for beating the last batch of levels, but more often than not, they're from Vincent's friends and companions. The contents of them are usually nothing serious, but they reveal sides of the characters that you might not otherwise see over the course of the game. Your lover might ask you to come over for some cake or to see how work is going, while a friend will (mistakenly) ask you out, thinking you're actually the game's one and only waitress. You can reply to messages from Vincent's two love interests, Katherine and Catherine, the contents of which can be changed depending on your mood, what you feel about them, and how you want them to think about you and what you're doing. This does include lying, sometimes to make them feel better and other times just for your own benefit. These replies also tap into the game's morality system, with the contents of your responses and how you choose to say things affecting whether they turn out good or bad. Much like with the questions you get at the rest areas, though, the morality behind what you say is rarely straightforward, therefore keeping your relationships with the women appropriately ambiguous. In addition to regular texts, Catherine will also sometimes send provocative pictures to Vincent's phone that express in no uncertain her burning hot lust for him. While the actual replies to those work in exactly the same way as regular texts, you can't actually view the pictures "out in public," so to speak, forcing you to go to somewhere secluded to bask in its intended sexiness.
Catherine as an overall experience, however, wouldn't ultimately hold up if the storyline wasn't compelling. To that end, Atlus has once again done an excellent and engrossing job in making the game's plot interesting and engaging up until the end, whatever that might actually entail for you. This is due in large part to the writing, which is consistently great, making even the most surreal events comprehensible and enjoyable to watch. The characters, likewise, are all really well fleshed out and relatable, including the side ones you meet only at the bar. They all have their own bits of individuality that make them stand out and create interesting dynamics when they're in a group with other people, which makes getting to know them over the course of the game's 20 to 30-hour playtime consistently fun. Most of all, though, they all act and sound like real adults. Unlike many of Atlus' other games, which tend to skew towards younger casts, the entireity of Catherine is populated with adults of varying ages. Their age isn't just for show, either; they all talk, act, and live like the mature people they're supposed to be, making it easy for the game's older players to relate to them. For once, the adults in a video game aren't just glorified manchildren. While Catherine's storyline ultimately isn't Atlus' best, it's still incredibly thought out and elaborate, with plenty of things both symbolic and otherwise to pore over. It's an incredibly solid start as the company's first HD game, if nothing else.
That being said, though, if you don't actually have relatively high fluency in Japanese, don't expect the game's events and conversations to be intuitive enough to figure out just based on what's superficially happening on the screen. While you can actually complete the game without being able to read or listen to anything, you'll definitely miss out on critical points in the plot developments and characterizations that will greatly help explain things that will otherwise seem incomprehensible. Presumption based solely off guessing games and body language is too dangerous of a route to take with a game like Catherine in order to get the most out of it. Plus, dialog and text choices just become purely random without a good Japanese comprehension, something the game hardly intends for you to do. Assuming you're not already a native Japanese speaker, you'll probably need at least a few years' worth of solid, intense university-level studies in order to have a solid understanding of the game. The nuances conveyed in Japanese during the plot are enough to recommend against purchasing that over the English edition. Although the experience is great, you're going to miss out on a lot of the little things in the game if you don't understand what it's actually saying.
Much like the writing, Catherine's presentation as a whole is incredibly strong and constantly joyous to behold. The graphics are incredibly vibrant, powered by a new cel-shaded engine Atlus employed specifically for the game. Combining a rich color pallet with an anime visual style and high quality motion captured animation, Catherine's visuals are extremely pleasing to look at and make everything look lively and distinct. The character models in particular are probably the most expressive of their kind amongst cel-shaded games since Wind Waker first did it on the GameCube nearly a decade ago. Their facial expressions are capable of contorting in a variety of different, natural-looking ways, never entering the uncanny valley. Even the user interfaces within Catherine are sleek, with everything from Vincent's cell phones to the main menus to the confessional sequences all being situationally stylized, each one complementing the game's overall tone in a unique way. There are also a fair number of anime cutscenes that appear with regularity throughout the game. These are also sleekly produced and just as enjoyable to view as their polygonal counterparts.
Music in Catherine hardly slacks off, either, being beautiful to hear as well. As with most of Atlus' other games within recent years, veteran composer Shoji Meguro was brought aboard once again to bring the game to life through sound. With his signature piano and electric guitar in tow once again, as well as an organ for one particularly distinct end-game track, he's once again crafted a soundtrack of a high caliber. It captures the mood of the game extremely well no matter what the occasion is, whether it's deep melancholy, confused turmoil, or just jazzy relaxation. The voice actors also put in similarly good work, voicing every single line of dialog in the game, consisting of a cast that goes to great lengths to make their respective characters stand out. Those who know their Japanese voice actors will recognize some heavy hitters from the industry, although knowing their identity is naturally not key to enjoying their work in Catherine at all. Catherine's sound design also works well, hitting all the right notes when needed and even cluing you in to conditions on the playing fields, thanks to no recycling whatsoever between different situations.
While Catherine isn't definitively Atlus' absolute best work to date, it's still an incredibly strong start to their line of HD games. With an original and hauntingly engrossing storyline, intriguing and intellectually satisfying gameplay, and a presentation that's great on both artistic and technical levels, Catherine does a lot of things right. It's a distinct experience that's thoroughly Atlus-style in genetics and provides a lot of hope for future console games that will be coming out of the company. While it's wise to just wait and buy the game's English localization for non-Japanese speakers, if you have the means to play the game and possess a solid grasp of native colloquial Japanese, you're in for a game that's definitely distinct and will leave a lasting impression after completing it. Until it comes out in a language they really understand, everybody else truly doesn't know what they're missing out on in the meantime. That, for the most part, really is a shame.