As a JRPG fan, it was hard for me to be excited for Catherine at first. Here was one of my favorite JRPG teams taking a slight hiatus from the genre and making what turned out to be a puzzle game with a sexually charged story. While this might seem like quite a departure from the Persona series at first, there is definitely still a distinct feel about the game that makes it clear who the developers are: from the crazy soundtrack to the dark supernatural story. Persona 5 this is not, but it’s definitely still a great game in its own right.
Catherine is mostly the story of three people. You play as Vincent, a 32 year-old programmer who has been having a problem with nightmares recently. Vincent is dating Katherine, a rather domineering woman his own age with glasses who is trying to get him to settle down and start a family after having dated him for 5 years. Then along comes Catherine, a 22 year old bomb-shell Vincent meets in a bar that thinks marriage is a pointless institution and that having fun and being free is all that matters. Vincent has had issues sleeping lately because of troubling dreams in which he is constantly climbing a tower to keep from falling to his doom, and rumors are circulating that if you fall in the dream you will die in reality.
The story plays out a lot like if Persona was set with adults instead of high school kids. Everything seems normal outside of the strange world of the nightmares until you get further in and the developers throw you a curveball and bring in all that supernatural stuff they seem to love. Side characters also abound in the bar you’ll be spending most of your waking hours in (seems Vincent is somewhat of a drunk), and each of them has a pretty interesting story themselves if you care to listen. I particularly liked the story of a reporter who forever regrets the lives he changed through his writing. Overall the story isn’t perfect, but it was a lot of fun, made me laugh quite a few times, and was a huge driving force for me to play through the game. It’s nice to have a video game that approaches sexuality and relationships from a different angle than “press triangle to hump”, even if it can be ham-fisted about the subject material sometimes.
Of course, being about adults and their sexual escapades, Catherine’s ladies do sometimes show some skin and there are even some scenes of bedside pillow talk, but don’t mistake this for a porn game. Honestly, it’s an unfortunate stigma since Heavy Rain actually has more nudity and actual sex in it than Catherine ever does, yet Heavy Rain is considered a legitimate game (barring the “it’s just watching a movie” argument) while many feel free to write off Catherine as nothing more than masturbation material. I know the box art is going the sexy route to get people’s attention, but this game is much more about relationships than it is about sex, so if you’re still hung up on that assumption, I think you should give it a chance. One reason you may want to skip Catherine that is perfectly legitimate would be the gameplay. It is definitely not for everyone.
Gameplay is mostly split between two major sections: daytime and nighttime. During the day Catherine is like a simple adventure game. Between cut scenes that advance the main story you walk around the bar talking to people and trying to get a better handle on the mysterious deaths that you have been hearing about on the news as well as talking to your friends about your current romantic predicament. There isn’t a lot during this time you can do to affect the bulk of the story. If you don’t talk to side characters they eventually won’t show up to the bar anymore and talking to people advances time so there is a bit of time management gameplay needed if you want to hear everyone’s side story, but that won’t change the main storyline. The two female leads are almost never directly at the bar and instead interact with you through your phone while there. You can choose how you reply to their texts and this as well as other dialogue choices you make throughout the game will influence a meter that will swing either to blue for order or red for chaos. This will in turn affect which one of 8 possible endings you get to the story. Stray Sheep bar is fun to play around in, but there isn’t a whole lot of thinking or skill involved.
The bulk of your brain power will be spent on the more interactive and intense puzzle portions of the game. Every night after Vincent leaves the bar he grows horns and enters a nightmare world in which he and some sheep constantly climb a tower of blocks in an attempt to reach the top before the bottom falls out from under them. Mechanics are deceptively simple: pull and push blocks in an attempt to make yourself a path upwards. Vincent can only climb up one block height at a time so your goal is basically to make stairs. Since it’s a dream world the laws of Physics don’t completely apply so blocks can be supported in the air just by touching edges with a block underneath them.
Surprisingly, just these simple rules and Vincent’s ability to hang onto the edges of blocks and shuffle across make for some extremely difficult puzzles at times. Learning all of the tricks of the trade from the other sheep showed me just how complex things could get, but it was also an invaluable tool to teach me ways to get out of different situations. Each night is divided up into multiple stages and the block pattern of each stage is constant so you don’t have to worry about lady luck frowning upon you (except for a couple stages much later in the game) but the constantly falling floor can be really unnerving. Most of the block patterns that these stages present to you probably wouldn’t be too hard to figure out if you had all the time in the world but because the bottom level of the stage is always falling away you have to be reasonably quick on your feet.
If you die, you can use a continue to restart the level at the beginning or the latest checkpoint and you can get more continues by picking up pillow items. Probably my worst times playing Catherine were when I was stuck on just one section of a level but because I could never figure it out in time I had to keep redoing the sections just before that I already knew how to do. Throw in trick and trap blocks that can kill you instantly if you forget about them and I could definitely see this getting infuriating for some. Luckily, there is respite for those that just want to see how the story plays out and while the game is pretty gut wrenchingly hard at points on Normal I had a fairly easy time with the last two nights when I switched to Easy and there’s even a Very Easy mode for those who are still frustrated.
Sadly, multiple difficulty modes can’t fix some of the gameplay’s other issues. Sometimes puzzles will require that you hang on a block and then shimmy your way around the back side of the wall. Unfortunately the controls for going around the back of the wall are not very well designed and the constant flip-flopping of the directional controls as well as the inability for the camera to make it all the way to the back makes these parts of the game more trouble than they should be. It’s also really easy when coming up to a wall to push a block forward instead of pulling it out like you had intended which can screw you over irreparably. Luckily you can press select to undue up to nine of your last moves on anything but Hard mode but the fact that I had to use this so much for such a simple error makes me inclined to blame the controls over my own ineptitude.
Catherine’s interesting story is bolstered by an exceptional presentation. The anime-inspired art style is striking and makes for some hilarious expressions on characters’ faces. Puzzle sections are surrounded by insane architecture and nightmarish visuals that really hammer in how dangerous this place is. From a technical aspect, there’s nothing here to write home about and you can definitely see some textures during the puzzle sections that aren’t up to par, but I never really cared while playing. I just wish that there was more of this world to see and explore beyond the Stray Sheep bar and the nightmare puzzles.
Atlus fans were disappointed to hear that the game wouldn’t feature dual audio but the English-speaking cast have done an admirable job in Catherine. My only issue with the presentation from this aspect was the lip-synching for the bartender which looked incredibly off, but this may have been something done on purpose. Persona Team games have some of my favorite soundtracks and Catherine is no different. Most of the songs are remixed classics like Chopin and Mozart that for some reason fit the block puzzle gameplay perfectly, but there are also a couple more upbeat Japanese hip-hop type songs thatPersona fans will love. The standard edition of Catherine comes with a sound track disc but sadly it only has 12 tracks and was missing some of my favorites.
It took me 13 hours to finish up Catherine but there’s a reasonable amount of replay value from the multiple possible endings. The ending is based on the direction of your morality meter and how you act during the last hour or so of the game. Morality forces you into one of three different paths but after that the ending is decided totally by dialogue choices near the end so don’t fret if you end up with one of the poor endings. Realistically there are really only three main endings (decided by the morality meter) with different flavors (true, good, bad), so getting the trophy/achievement for seeing them all will take you three playthroughs.
This may not seem like an amazing value as far as play time goes, but where Catherine really nails it is the extra modes. There really isn’t much they haven’t covered here. If you like the gameplay but already know the trick to all the puzzles there are 4 extremely tough “Babel” stages that drop blocks down randomly and ask you to scale up a certain number of steps. If you don’t like the time crunch mechanic of the nightmares the Stray Sheep bar has an arcade meta-game called Rapunzel that takes away the time restraint in exchange for limiting the number of blocks you can push or pull in each of 64 different stages. If you have a friend over and you just can’t get him/her to leave so you can keep playing the story mode of Catherine you can play with them cooperatively in Babel mode or competitively in one of the nightmare stages. The only thing I can think of that isn’t covered is a meaningful online component beyond leaderboards and seeing how other players answered their morality questions.
Catherine is a goofy little game that is always going to have the uninformed assuming it’s for perverts and I’m sure some of those that do try it for themselves will break their controllers in frustration, but I still had a great time with it. Storylines like this just aren’t told in gaming and it’s a crying shame, not because it’s amazing, but because the medium should try to branch out as far as it can. So remember, don’t judge a book by its cover, or a game by its box art (some of my favorite games have horrendously bad box art). Not every beautiful blonde is a ditz.