I’ve never been a fan of anime, dating simulators or indeed the arcade classic Qubert – and yet with that said, there’s something very wonderful about Atlus’s surprise hit Catherine. It’s a game that caused one hell of a stir since it was released last year in Japan and the US due to its deep, dark, sexually charged, taboo-filled mature themes. After a rocky and controversial marketing campaign (including a launch party that alienated female press due to being hosted in a thriving Gentlemen’s Club) the game has finally made its way to the UK, and the timing couldn’t have been better! Are there any noticeable changes between this copy and the US version? Not that I can see. Was there anything that actually needed to be changed? Of course not! Catherine successfully combines an eclectic array of genres and styles and splices them together to create the most unique gaming experience I’ve had in a long and diverse career.
Up until now, the core gameplay of “erotic puzzlers” has primarily consisted of undressing blotchy, Googled images of naky ladies with their naughty bits protected by conveniently positioned tiles that only vanish upon the completion of a rather tame puzzle. Trust me, I’m a connoisseur… Ehem… Anyway, Catherine succeeds in giving this lame-duck genre a great sense of purpose, and whilst it’s never subtle – the surrealist art style and quirky puzzle elements are more than justified by the games’ relatable narrative, captivating themes and witty charm.
We follow Vincent, a fictional 32-year-old office worker who is afraid of committing to his textbook broody partner Katherine (with a K). I say “fictional” in this case, because from the get-go we discover that we are controlling the narrative of a late-night romantic horror movie, “Catherine”, for foxy channel “The Golden Playhouse”. Whilst this is an interesting framing device, it isn’t particularly necessary and all I can conclude from it is that it’s probably there just to help exaggerate the surrealist nature of the game itself. Drowning his sorrows each night in his local, Sheep-themed bar – Vincent lands the attention of Catherine (with a C), a gorgeous blonde bombshell that stands as a clear binary opposition to his long-term partner. After having an alcohol-fuelled one night stand, Vincent finds himself suddenly tortured by his current situation. All he wants is for life to slow down, but if that happens… he’ll die! Why? Because each night Vincent is cursed to enter a dark, nightmarish realm in which he – alongside other unfaithful men (who are represented as Sheep for metaphors’ sake) – must climb to the top of a tower of blocks to escape the clutches of the horrors of commitment. I know, I know… Mental. Whilst the narrative is engaging enough, I found that if you have an active love life you may find the games’ multiple outcomes (and believe me there are plenty of endings) to be fairly standard and predictable.
Catherine is a confident game, perhaps the most confident I’ve ever played. Not only is it consistently sure of its direction (some moments of real technical and cinematic mastery here, courtesy of Shigenori Soejima, really set the bar high), but it also attempts to deal with genuine, universal themes in a brave way. I’ve read criticisms online stating that Catherine doesn’t really do anything with the ideas of relationships and instead thrives on very two-dimensional dialogue performed by a band of archetypal characters – i.e, the “commit-a-phobe”, “playa”, shy virgin etc. Whilst I understand the gripe, I have to say I wholeheartedly disagree! There were many times throughout the game where I found myself literally identifying with Vincent’s plight (and oh god – I hope my partner isn’t reading this). I felt that without the empathy I had for Vincent, the game
wouldn’t have been anywhere near as captivating or as impacting on me. Despite nailing the well-rounded protagonist, Atlus really do slip for everybody else and subsequently players are presented with the often tedious task of talking to a whole range of characters that are characterized fairly poorly. It got to the point where I didn’t much care for anybody’s opinions or conversations (perhaps with the notable exception of Catherine with a C, mainly because she is just too hot and more often than not conversations with her end in intercourse.)
The main bulk of the actual gameplay stems from the concept of block-moving. In order to ascend the many challenging towers the game throws at you, one will have to learn tips and tricks to adapt to the multiple block-types and methods of attachment. Before I began the game I was concerned that I’d really not enjoy this element as repetitive puzzles such as this often lose their charm very quickly – and whilst yes, the more challenging towers do become forcefully testing, I found that from the first Boss stage onwards I was addicted. You can’t work your way halfway up a tower and then quit just because things get too difficult – you always feel as if you have a job to do and Catherine refuses to release you from said job until completion. Sadly this consequently springs a major criticism, and that is how relentlessly the difficulty ramps up after just two stages. I began the game on “easy” (which I stand by is probably the only way to play unless you’re the type of person who can solve a rubix cube in 20 seconds) and after coasting through without a problem, the first Boss sequence had me retrying for a good 30 minutes. From thereon in, the difficulty doesn’t let up. This isn’t bad if you’re looking for a challenge, but for the more mainstream gamers this will undoubtedly provide you with hours of sweat and frustration and little satisfaction.
Catherine also has some nice little additional features, and these charmed me instantly. Throughout the game, the game asks its players a series of relationship-based questions to which you give a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Whilst this is primarily used to impact Vincent’s good/bad bar (a redundant device that essentially is used to decide your final outcome), I found that what I enjoyed more was checking out the subsequent pie-charts the game loads for you – including answers given by fellow players or focus groups to compare to. Some of the results are remarkable and definitely intrigued me – a fantastic, subtle way of keeping interested players hooked and wanting more. You can also send texts to other characters (optional) from Vincent’s phone whilst he’s sat in the bar, and if you’re struggling to tackle some of the tougher climbs in the game there’s even a phone app which allows you to practice block-moving without your lives getting depleted. These are all nice little extras that help polish Catherine and provide a captivating, holistic gaming experience.
Whilst the difficulty settings could do with an adjustment and some important characters could benefit from deeper characterization, Catherine is a strong title that will satisfy a broad audience of gamers – despite appearing at first glance like it’s catered for a niche market. The puzzle gameplay is well executed and thankfully never becomes repetitive although the often ridiculous challenges are sometimes off-putting and will have you giving up on a pretty regular basis. All in all Catherine is definitely not without its faults, but its brave approach to a surreal, unique gaming experience and for that reason alone it instantly becomes one of those titles that’s not to be missed by gaming fans.
Catherine is released in Europe on February 10th, courtesy of Deep Silver.