Love is hell. In Atlus’ Catherine, for PS3 and Xbox 360, no statement is closer to the truth. I feel pressed to review something in the horror genre, and there is a place for Catherine there, though it surely wouldn’t be labeled as such.It doesn’t offer any jump scares, but it offers a slow and carefully constructed madness that, if the player is invested, will provide an experience that is hard to get out of your mind. If you are in a relationship, this game will perhaps rub its fingers across your chest and violate you, perhaps more especially for male players. I told myself I wouldn’t do this one, but here it is: Catherine.
Without its mood and story, Catherine would be an incredible puzzle game with a drinking simulator. The game begins nontraditionally with an intro for a television show called the Golden Playhouse. The players are then greeted by the hostess of the show, the Midnight Venus, a buxom, afro-donned woman with a sensual voice and a skin-tight suit. She is perfect character to indicate not only that yes, you are playing an Atlus game conceived in the Persona series’ spirit, but that you are about to play something unusual—which will later prove to be an understatement. The episode of the show we get to partake in involves 32-year-old Vincent Brooks, a lowly tech worker who spends most of his time either at work, at the bar, or in his miniscule studio apartment. His girlfriend, Katherine (yes, that is a K, just hang on), is a strong, independent woman who feels like their relationship should move to the next level. This pressure on Katherine’s end leads to the main focus of Vincent’s internal dialogue throughout the game: his struggle with the idea of settling down versus retaining his “freedom”. It isn’t long before Vincent goes to sleep and has nightmares wherein he must climb up an ever-cascading staircase of blocks to escape a pitfall-like doom. This is the crux of the gameplay, which I would normally wait to get into until after a plot summary, but this is an odd game, so let’s jump into that.
By “staircase of blocks” I mean that Vincent must push and pull giant blocks in order to create a staircase in order to ascend. Vincent is not his normal self, in these dreams he is only wearing the heart-covered underwear he wears to bed (every night…), his trusty pillow tucked under his arm, and a set of sheep horns on his head. Yes, and everyone he encounters in these nightmares is a talking sheep. Ignoring that insanity, since he can only climb up one block at a time, there are different configurations of blocks that must be arranged to proceed. Not only that, as I said before, the blocks below Vincent are cascading into oblivion, giving him plenty of incentive to keep going. Many towers appear to be in haphazard formations, which the player needs to sort out, and fast. Bonus points are awarded for chains, which are created by always progressing upward at least one block within an allotted time. Making these chains is the only way to get higher ranks, which can open up some goodies in the game later. To mix things up, the game throws different blocks at the player in each level like ice blocks, spike trap blocks, and blocks that will crumble if stepped on too many times. As one might imagine, Vincent’s initial reaction to these dreams is almost the same as the unsuspecting gamer. “Where the hell am I?” is how you will feel, because this puzzle game set within a borderline romance/horror is unlike anything else.
After escaping his first nightmare, assuming that you can survive the tutorial, Vincent spends his day typically by working and then getting plastered with his buddies at the bar. If you drink enough, the game’s narrator offers up some fun facts about each drink type which change every night. One might wonder why Vincent should drink to such excess. As you later find out, the more drunk Vincent is, the better his speed will be in the nightmares… which continue to happen. Before the second night of nightmares, though, Vincent meets up with a beautiful, blond, sweet-voiced, inappropriately underdressed woman. After a night of nightmares again, he finds that he spent the night with this bombshell, named Catherine (yeah, with a C). Saying more about the plot specifically would be a disservice to anyone who hasn’t experienced it. Suffice it to say, the plot becomes more and more interesting as Vincent deals with his infidelity differently.
Aside from these puzzling nightmares, which are haunting men all over Vincent’s community, are the only other gameplay sections of the game—the bar named The Stray Sheep, appropriately. In the bar, Vincent can chat with his buddies—each an interesting look at single men ranging from inexperienced, over-experienced, and silently brooding. These guys felt real to me as they joke about one another, offer advice, and talk about their experiences with women. The other characters in the bar offer interesting male case studies that would arouse any psychologist and are genuinely worth talking to. There is also an arcade machine that is a slightly altered version of the nightmare game which, except for the hardcore few, you will never finish. The art direction and style of the game are fantastic, offering both anime cutscenes and a 3D anime look during gameplay. It conveys the uniqueness of the title even in its cover design, which will be the only predominantly pink case in your collection, unless Barbie’s Horse Adventure 17 or whatever still has a place in your game cabinet. The voice acting is well-done also, with many actors from games and anime alike.
Vincent’s telephone serves as a menu hub wherein Vincent can communicate with Catherine and Katherine. Depending on his answers in these text messages, the girls will respond differently, and Vincent’s “morality” (for lack of a better word) bar will adjust itself. The “morality” bar, of which this is my first mention, moves back and forth from what could be described best as reserved to freaky, Katherine to Catherine, repressive to outgoing, monogamy to polygamy, or traditional to grossly counter-traditional. Different things affect this bar along with text messages, like other interactions with characters, and (my favorite) survey questions asked between the different nightmares. These questions are also tallied with first answers from around the globe, which is an incredible study of how players rank in a series of secret-probing inquiries. At the end of the game, the “morality” bar determines Vincent’s ending, of which the obvious three—center, right, and left—are the most mentionable. Some of these endings are insane; I’ll say no more than that.
Aside from a few camera issues the player could have in a given level, there isn’t much to complain about with Catherine. The story is not too different with each playthrough with the exception of the ending, which could be a big turn-off to some people who want to replay the game. One section of the game is an escort mission and plays like absolute hell. This challenge is not fair, hampered by poor A.I. (artificial intelligence), and should have been left out completely. For players that just want to ride alone with the story easily, there is an easy mode. At normal and hard settings, this game will hurt the average player. By the end of the game, you will master the rules of the puzzle formula not because you want to, but because you have to in order to survive. The boss battles are particularly interesting. Instead of only the threat of a pit, a giant incarnation of one of Vincent’s fears chases him up the tower, shouting. It is, unfortunately, in these scenes where camera issues are most prevalent. This led to a level of accomplishment that only games like Megaman and Contra can offer, but this time, in a puzzle game. The extras of the game with two-player capabilities, is a true test of the game’s challenge offerings. There is one area, however, in one of the final challenges, which is based on the luck of the draw with random blocks and could actually be impossible depending on the die roll. Not cool, Atlus. It is perhaps a nitpick, but a dull ruby in a beautiful crown of a game.
The struggle to reach the top of this tower is not solely felt by Vincent. The music, mostly drawn from classical pieces, adds to the desperation of the climb. We know that it is brutal; we feel it each time Vincent plummets, and this adds to the game’s depth. The game is neither judgmental nor preachy—in fact it says a lot about both the stressors and, perhaps, problems with traditional monogamy and the direction in which being too free can also lead to a loss of identity and increased insensitivity. The art and epic music all add to the madness of it, a madness that feels primal. Suffice it to say, playing this game in the dark and alone started to make me feel crazy. It is a game that I thought about when I wasn’t playing it, even after I was long finished with it. I wanted to reach the top of the tower so badly, to discover the meaning behind it, to see what happened to the hero, and explore, dare I say it, my own relationship comforts and insecurities. Playing Catherine surprised me and made me feel something. It is an experience so original that any player who enjoyed it will feel hungry for more. There is, however, no offering with such a unique blend of love and lust in game form.
Vinny Orsillo | @VinnyOhGames