Some of the first trailers of Catherine undoubtedly caught everyone’s attention not so much because it showed off Catherine’s wonderfully sharp animation or the titular seductress, Catherine. Instead, the subject matter probably caught most people off guard. It didn’t show a hero on a hero’s journey to save the world or anything. If anything, it looked more like a trailer for a new Anime drama series instead of the next game from the guys behind the Shin Megami Tensei Persona series. That trailer begs the question of how can you turn such an ordinary, almost mundane drama into a video game? Unfortunately, we still don’t quite know. Catherine comes mighty close, but it still has its share of dissonance.
The central story revolves around Vincent having to choose between Katherine, his long time girlfriend, or Catherine, the woman with whom he had a one night stand. The story moves at a nice pace and constantly throws interesting twists and turn making Vincent’s choice harder and harder. Turns like waking up with Catherine in bed for the second time or Katherine learning that she could be pregnant keeps the story engaging, and just watching Vincent squirm under the pressure makes for half of the entertainment in the story. All this on top of the string of recent, mysterious deaths of middle-aged men, most of whom were rumored to be cheating on their significant others, adds even more tension to the story. So what kind of gameplay can possibly fit this kind of story?
Note to self: Never trust the hot chick that decides to sit with you out of the blue.
Putting aside the fact that they’re both Japanese, the Professor Layton series and Catherine share a very similar flaw. The two offer up a story that doesn’t quite complement the actual gameplay. In Catherine’s case, we get a block-pushing/pulling puzzle. Every night, Vincent gets transported into a nightmare where he must ascend a wall of blocks, which is slowly crumbling from the bottom up. To do this, Vincent has to pull or push blocks usually to form some kind of a staircase. Oddly enough this has a much steeper learning curve than it appears. These blocks follow a special rule where even though there’s nothing underneath it, it doesn’t fall as long as one of the bottom edges is touching the edge of another block. This mechanic veers so far from intuition that it acts as a hurdle at first before it becomes an asset. Once you get accustomed to it though, the puzzles practically unravel themselves.
To be fair Catherine does throw a fair amount challenge in the later levels. These challenges come in various forms from either a tricky layout or new block types like a spike trap block that shoots out spikes if you step on them. Some of these walls will force you to stop and stare at it before finding a solution. During these moments, the time limit can get a little stifling for comfort. The checkpoint usually placed halfway up the wall makes repetition of puzzles that has already been solved necessary just to get to the same place as before. Thankfully, the game does seem to offer a generous amount of lives, but I’ve watched my life counter plummet all thanks to a couple of puzzles that just seems utterly impossible. It even has an undo function as well, but it can only undo up to 9 actions limiting its usefulness.
Nevertheless, climbing these walls satisfies the puzzle solver in me especially given some of the clever layouts and the imaginative solutions required of said layouts. The last puzzle of each night also stands out because of the giant, horrific monster that chases you up the wall with their own unique attacks forcing you to think up new tactics on the fly. Moreover, the monster changes every night reflecting Vincent’s biggest anxiety of the day. On the night Katherine told Vincent that she might be pregnant, the monster takes on the shape of a giant, deranged baby. These levels truly present Vincent’s struggle with his problems in the waking world and really reminds us how heavy it weights over Vincent’s psyche.
Unfortunately these monstrous encounters represent the only link between the story and the puzzle gameplay. Even though Catherine does employ a morality system that ultimately decides the ending, it remains divorced from the block pushing puzzle gameplay. Opportunities to affect the morality meter only show up during daytime and in between nightmare levels. Images of Vincent climbing wall after wall with only a vague promise of freedom driving him upwards make for a great representation of his journey, but the two still feels a little forced upon each other.
Remind me to buy a lifetime supply of condoms
Yet, that feels like a minor issue given Catherine’s unique (to the video game world anyways), and refreshing, storyline coupled with an equally engaging puzzle game. The localization team also deserves a huge amount of praise for translating the story over, and the voice actors did their characters justice in voicing them as well as they did. In short, Atlus was just being Atlus. Catherine probably isn’t going to create a new genre of games based in relationship drama, but it at least proves yet again that video games really are capable of stories that don’t involve the same tired tropes most games fall back on.
- Sharp, clean Anime style
- Great, mind-bending puzzles
- Every American released, Japanese game should be localized by Atlus!
- Endless mode for those who can’t get enough of the puzzles
- Time limits and puzzles don’t necessarily mix all that well
- Deceptively high learning curve
- The story and the gameplay don’t quite gel together all that well
- Not exactly conducive for either co-op or versus play and yet there it is