A Risque Story That Needed More Risk
The premise for Catherine seems to come right out of the mind of @petermolydeux, the Molyneux twitter imposter: A game where fast-paced Zelda block pushing puzzles serve as a metaphor for the main character's relationship issues. By drinking with his friends at the bar, he will be able to slowly articulate and, ultimately, progress in his relationship(s).
At least, that's the ideal. The result is not quite so elegant nor as cohesive, but it hits enough of those points to remain interesting and entirely original.
Now's Not The Time To Be Dead
Catherine is a story focused game stretched over several routine cycles: long days of beautifully animated and tense cutscenes, short hops into the calming (yet unnerving) interactive evening bar sequence, and then long, multi-staged, horror-filled puzzles overnight climaxing with a slasher flick boss fight. This fairly basic 3-piece loop is all you will find in Catherine, which causes some problems in how these pieces interact and how inconsistent in quality they are.
The best side effect of this loop is Catherine becomes thematically structured much like a horror film. The build up typical of the movie genre begins with Vincent's dreams taking on an A Nightmare on Elm Street hook. Tension is built as Vincent escapes the nightmare's treacherous terrain and fear and panic consumes Vincent as he fights his personal Freddys. Escaping allows for that short sigh of relief before Vincent is presented with mountains of stress from his shitty love life. After narrowly avoiding relationship collapse and bloody death, drinking at the bar is his (and the audience's) only relief and release. An uneasy dread hangs over Vincent and the bar, as he knows the next night/day will only be worse.
This is not story pacing you see in games often and for them to pull it off so well is remarkable. It leaves you with a sense of urgency to rush through those long levels and even the cutscenes, and a need to enjoy and linger at the bar while Vincent's pride (and liver) takes a beating.
Which is probably for the best, as the atmospheric Stray Sheep is where you'll find the most interesting dialogue and diversions. The secondary characters are what really stand out, as everyone walking into the Stray Sheep has an enjoyable past and personality accented with a fantastic English dub. It's too bad the game forces its Visual Novel influences on you, making you micromanage this time efficiently. I wish you could just sit back and talk with Vincent's buds as that smooth piano plays...
(Oh, about the music: while I love tracks like Also Sprach Brooks, the soundtrack is the weakest soundtrack Shoji Meguro has done since Devil Summoner in 2006. It's kinda disappointing at times, but at least there are some excellent tracks.)
May You Rest In Peace, Little Lamb
So what about the other two segments? If the Stray Sheep is so great, what brings down the other two?
Well, as much as I love the idea of Catherine's narrative, those daytime sequences fall flat on their face. Yes, it has great tension and there are some amazing characters, but that unfortunately excludes the main three characters. Catherine is basically a rapist with very little character beyond sexual desire. Katherine is barely better, offering a bit of half interesting backstory, but only pops up otherwise to be a boring personification of every terrible relationship. Vincent is a coward, but, much like his love interests, his boring nature makes it very hard to care about this cowardice or his escalating predicament. What's worse is is he is essentially present to operate illogically and ambiguously enough to allow player choice to determine his outcome at the last possible second.
And that is the truest, largest fault with Catherine: its reliance on and presentation of player choice. Much like other games that include it, the ill-conceived morality gauge removes all real interesting choice in the game in favour of grinding dozens of story moments for positive/negative karma. What this ultimately results in is a narrative that took a chance on the premise, but plays it safe otherwise.
And for what? The game has 8 endings with 3 major paths, but the paths split only at the final hour and the game sacrifices character development and storytelling to do it. It tries to present both an interactive story while guiding the user through a planned experience, each approach constraining the others strengths and exposing their weaknesses. In the end, you get no payoff for your decisions in a base story that just didn't take enough risks.
What's worse is that the morality system is the only glue that holds together the 3 main sequences of the game systematically. Asinine questions are sprinkled in evening and night just to swing the metre one way or another, barely affecting the inner monologue of Vincent during the preposterous day cutscene. If they would have cut the dialogue choices, it would have allowed for bigger change in the day to day structure or more bleeding of one segment into another, but instead it all becomes routine. It is a great disappointment that entirely squanders its potential.
It's The Killer. Do Not Die.
So what about the night levels? You know, the actual game part? For the most part, Catherine delivers a wonderfully unique race to the finish, block pushing puzzler that is less of the predicted Q*Bert clone and more of a fast-paced Zelda block pushing puzzle with added rules and surprising depth and challenge.
And it feels good. Feels really good. Despite needing patches for the difficulty in Japan, the rebalanced North American version provides an almost perfect difficulty curve. Given a repertoire of just a few moves, it's surprising just how much diversity in challenge and techniques Atlus was able to squeeze out. Every situation presented has hundreds of viable approaches and strategies and the game constantly demands executing them with a split-second decision. It is a wonderfully tense and rewarding system.
The developers did like to throw in a few terrible "puzzle" levels at you unfortunately. Your goal is not to race to the top, but to figure out a specific pattern necessary before time runs out. This design rewards thinking like the developer, rather than rewarding finding new solutions like the rest of Catherine. These levels are mostly featured at the beginning of the game, making it a much more cutthroat opening than necessary.
Speaking of cutthroat, the save system can be downright nasty at times. The game takes a snapshot of the level once you hit a checkpoint, so you can screw yourself if you take too much time. I kinda liked this feature as it forces you to live with your mistakes, but there are some unwinnable situations that force you to restart the level and it may frustrate the hell out of people.
In short, Catherine presents a simple gameplay idea and exploits it to its natural conclusion, something I always love to see in a game. It never becomes too hard, but always challenges and surprises. Its even strong enough to become adopted by an unlikely community...
Yes. That is high level players in the fighting game community playing competitive Catherine. At first, the multiplayer stinks of a marketing afterthought straight from the SNES days. You can't even play it until you beat the game. But play a few rounds with your friends or watch a Catherine tournament unfold and you will see that, whether by accident or on purpose, the mode is secretly genius. It involves all the split second planning and decision making of the single player, but with the added goal of screwing over your opponent as much as possible. It is an experience that is entirely unique to Catherine and makes it probably the strongest multiplayer puzzle game since the original Panel de Pon.
...And That Was The Trivia For Tonight
Catherine set high expectations with its artistic eye candy, adult scenario, and undefinable gameplay. It ultimately disappoints a few too many times and sometimes downright fails, but remains a rare treat nowadays. Catherine offers a unique experience built on an extremely solid and deep gameplay system, something you cannot expect from developers when costs are high. Catherine took a risk and should have went all the way with it, but I'm glad they at least took it, if only to see something new that didn't quite pay off.