If you’ve ever been cheated on, Catherine; Atlus Games latest transnational triumph offers you a fitting opportunity to channel that frustration into cathartic revenge. Catherine follows Vincent Brooks, a 32 year old software engineer whose mundane life descends into surreal devastation as an unfathomable series of night deaths among young men sweeps Japan. Curiously, the same week as these unpredicted deaths occur Vincent is seduced by a succubus-like young woman named Catherine in his local boozer. Catherine seemingly represents everything his five year strong partner Katherine does not, she is loose lipped, seductive and sexually playful all encompassed in the body of a full-chested 22 year old blonde. After a night of depraved passion, Vincent’s nights are filled with terror as he is plagued with nightmares in a twisted world of tetris-esque survival. It appears his only hope for survival come morning is to beat those around him to the top of each night’s puzzle. An extensive tower of blocks confronts him, waiting to be manipulated to reach the door to freedom.
Catherine is a hugely off-kilter rejuvenation of the puzzle genre, packaged in an interactive social simulation anime narrative. As Vincent progresses through each night’s puzzle nightmare, a large proportion of the player’s time will be spent in the Stray Sheep bar wherein Vincent can check text messages, converse with friends, build social links, order drinks (which rewards the player with real-life factoids about each beverage following an empty glass) and play an arcade version of Catherine named Rapunzel. It is in the Stray Sheep bar that Vincent is given solace to be himself and begin to comprehend the turbulent events unfolding around him. The name Stray Sheep corresponds to the other players in his nightmare, whose physical appearances resemble that of a humanoid sheep. These same sheep also appear as customers in the Stray Sheep during day, where they will come and go as time passes with each interaction by Vincent. Each sheep will have their share of personal woes which Vincent can empathise with, eventually solving or neglecting their blanketed cry for help by the end of the game.
The puzzle gameplay itself is fairly simplistic in execution, focusing primarily on the movement of said blocks. This is done with basic movements on the d-pad or analogue stick and the X button to grasp onto tangible objects. There are several varieties of blocks each offering a different tactical advantage or restriction. These include blocks which crumble upon repeat contact, elevated spring blocks, spiked blocks which result in instant death and unmovable blocks among others. If the player makes a number of moves they are unsatisfied with, the select button can be used to reverse their last move (the number of times one can do so is dependent on difficulty setting). There is also an array of collectible coins and power-ups scattered throughout each stage, ultimately affecting the players scored outcome depending on their usage and collection.
Catherine’s cinematic sequences are produced by Japan’s Studio 4°C, lending the in-game cut-scenes a visually profound narrative quality. The use of anime inspired visuals does much to lend Catherine its own aesthetic identity, particularly in the fearsome boss encounters where Vincent’s true fears are animated with grotesque flair. Throughout Vincent’s nightly trials, which primarily focus on navigational skills and lateral thinking to succeed, the player’s ability will also be tested in a hellish limbo period between each puzzle. Here, the player can interact with others condemned ‘to climb’ and share techniques which help in the playing field. Most intriguing is the confessional; to move on Vincent must enter a confessional booth wherein a piercing, effeminate voice probes the player with personal questions. These largely concern the players approach to sex, life and love; expect some real home wreckers.
Catherine’s puzzling campaign is titled the Golden Playhouse, which presents the player with the narrative trajectory playable in a standard very easy to hard setting. In addition to this, the player is rewarded with an alternative campaign titled Babel, which is unlocked progressively depending on the player’s prowess at attaining gold prizes within the Golden Playhouse. Babel is clearly Atlus’ attempt at including further replay value beyond Catherine’s 12+ hour campaign, however it is treated with equal respect; avoiding the cheap ‘new game plus’ features seen frequently in other contemporary titles. Babel both ups the ante with its comparatively complex level design (often forcing the use of tactics that are arguably avoidable in the Golden Playhouse) but also introduces local multiplayer. Working together sometimes dilutes the difficulty but offers an enjoyable alternative if you find Babel tough alone. Additional story content is revealed upon completion of Babel, providing an incentive for those particularly enamoured with Catherine’s unorthodox tale.
Catherine’s story employs the typical surrealism that Atlus have maintained in their past titles, however Catherine feels like a more personal experience. As Vincent progresses through each hellish event, the player can punish or appease his desires depending on their own emotional response to his actions. The outcome as such can be manipulated through a variety of ways, including Vincent’s mobile texts to both Katherine and Catherine, his answers during confessional and his attitude towards those around him in the Stray Sheep. The game has eight final endings, including two bad endings which dependent on your feelings towards the characters; could be the most satisfying to witness.
The level of control the player has over these eight outcomes however, is disappointingly passive. The saint and devil metre that frequently appears on screen in moments of moral panic can be easily manipulated to sway either way with very little persuasion. This largely removes the need to carefully build a gradual good/bad direction, for example if the player suddenly decides in the later chapters they wish for Vincent to go back to Katherine, then simply send her a few flattering responses, shy away from the lacy young minx and don’t be a dick in confessional. On a positive note, this allows the player to avoid full replays in order to attain all eight endings. By creating a reserve save before the final night, Vincent can easily amend his relationship with either persuasion, thus removing excessive back tracking. It is worth noting that the player’s performance during the puzzle sequences does not impact the ending received.
Catherine is among Atlus Games finest efforts, cementing their place in the elite of Japanese game developers. It is a daring, unique title that combines a rare juxtaposition of high production values and niche thematic gameplay, making it one of the most attractive gaming aberrations this generation. Catherine offers what little others do; challenging and addictive gameplay while simultaneously attempting to fuck your personal life up with a relentless commitment. If you have nothing to hide, Catherine makes for a perfect bonding activity with your partner and is quite possibly the first videogame to offer relationship counselling without the need for therapy or bills – how can you argue with that?
Prepare to learn something new... about yourself.