Note: This review (for the imported US version of the game) originally appeared on the PAL Gaming Network in August 2011.
Atlus is a company that is no doubt best known for Shin Megami Tensei, a series of games with a heavy prominence on mythological creatures and demons. Atlus’ latest release, Catherine, is a title that also focuses on demons, but of a very different sort. When you step into the world of Catherine, you step into a world filled with demons of lust.
In Catherine, you play as 32 year-old Vincent Brooks, a man whose life seems to be going nowhere. His girlfriend Katherine is pressuring him to get married and might even be pregnant with their child. Despite his reluctance to pop the question, Vincent remains a faithful boyfriend… that is, until he wakes up beside the girl of his dreams, a perky young blonde named Catherine. As if that wasn’t trouble enough, Vincent begins to have bizarre nightmares in which he is surrounded by sheep and forced to climb towers in order to survive.
It’s here that we’re going to dispel a common myth about the game – Catherine is not a dating simulator. You never really have the chance to interact with either of the leading ladies, apart from the much-talked about texting system. The rest of the social aspect of the game sees you wandering around your local hangout, chatting with fellow barflies and wait staff about various topics that hint at something ominous. If anything, Catherine is more of a moral simulator, which ties in perfectly with the intense and engaging story. Indeed, it’s the story that has propelled Catherine to something resembling infamy within gaming circles, promising players eroticism. However, those looking for full-on sex and naughty bits will have to look elsewhere though, as Catherine actually keeps it fairly tame. Still, the fact that it keeps anything too explicit hidden well away lends itself well to the classiness of the game, or else it might have ended up being crude instead.
Vincent’s nightmares do earn the game the moniker of being a horror game, although hardcore horror fans will probably find the game to be fairly low with the scare factor. It’s certainly a degree darker than say, the more recent releases in the Persona series, but we found that the most disturbing aspects of the game to be linked to the moral (or immoral) decisions that the player can make throughout the course of the game, which in turn can result in eight different game endings. It raises a lot of questions about human nature and society in general, and the game often makes you feel like you are the one being judged instead of Vincent.
Catherine’s gameplay is unusual, and probably not at all like what gamers were imagining when the title was announced last year. The gameplay stems from the aforementioned story element of climbing towers to survive Vincent’s nightmares. To do so, you must push and pull blocks into place and form a stairway for yourself. It’s far from being a walk in the park though (as nightmares usually are), with the game throwing numerous obstacles in your way. Firstly, the tower is slowly crumbling below you, which means that a fast climb is a safe climb. Secondly, regular blocks aside, there are a whole range of blocks that include but are not limited to Torture blocks that threaten to impale you on spikes, unmovable Dark blocks, and Ice blocks which cause you to slide around. Thirdly, there are occasionally also enemies that knock you off blocks or stand in places that are essential to your climb route, although they are mostly more a minor annoyance than an actual threat.
Each nightmare ends with a ‘boss battle’ of sorts, with the boss in question chasing Vincent up the tower. In these scenarios, you don’t just have the blocks and the long climb ahead of you to contend with, but also the various attacks the boss has. Some of the more memorable ones we came across include an attack that spawned chainsaws that moved across blocks and another that would temporarily reverse the game’s controls. However, there are items scattered around some levels that can be used assist you. Some destroy all enemies on the screen, others turn blocks normal. There’s an item for almost every tricky situation at hand, but you just need to know when to use it.
If this all sounds like it could get tedious or overly linear, don’t worry – the beauty of Catherine is that there is always more than one way to solve a puzzle. This increased our already significant enjoyment of Catherine tenfold; it encourages you to think outside the, er, box. The game frequently teaches you new climbing techniques, which not only helps you save valuable lives but can also give you a fresh perspective on how to tackle stages you may have already beaten. Of course, some ways of climbing the tower are more efficient than others, which is where the scoring system comes into play. The faster you climb, the higher your multiplier increases, and the higher your score. Your final score each level earns you not only bragging rights if you submit your score to the online leaderboards, but do well enough and you can unlock challenge levels for later play. It’s a neat way of encouraging you to learn all the little nuances of each level as well as offering high replayability and new challenges now matter how many times you play the game.
Despite these glowing points, Catherine makes a couple of rather depressing design decisions that can turn an already difficult level into something worthy of screen-smashing rage. The game tells you early on that you can work around the back side of the tower, but the camera is unaccommodating and refuses to budge after a certain angle. Meanwhile, controls are reversed, so it’s often likely that Vincent isn’t moving the way you want him to. When you’re madly scrambling to get back onto blocks it’s incredibly frustrating and unintuitive. Some of the later levels (in which blocks randomly change) tend to make gameplay more luck-based which, in a game where having a solid strategy is the key to survival, seems somewhat unnecessary.
Catherine is lovingly presented with the use of cel-shaded graphics. The amount of care that has been put into creating these assets aren’t overly obvious during tower-climbing gameplay, but there are a fair few cutscenes in which you will be able to admire the visuals. There is the occasional cinematic that is animated in the traditional Japanese anime style, which are for the most part quite well-done, but at times feel somewhat lazily done. The music has been handled by Shin Megami Tensei maestro Shoji Meguro, who creates an interesting and well-suited soundtrack comprising of original tracks and arrangements of famous classical songs.
At the end of the day, Catherine isn’t a game we would recommend to people who dislike puzzle titles. Core gameplay aside, there really isn’t much that is likely to entertain or encourage such players to continue, especially given the limited interactions Vincent has with the other characters. Gamers who enjoy puzzle games are in for a very deep and rewarding gameplay experience though, because regardless of these flaws, Catherine’s story manages to be a compelling and fascinating trip into the human psyche. If you’re one of these people, prepare for a long and loving relationship.
Fascinating, challenging gameplay | Compelling characters and story | Thought-provoking
Some poor design decisions | Not for those who dislike puzzle games