Platforms: Xbox 360, Playstation 3
Developer: Atlus Persona Team
Release Date: July 26, 2011
Sequels and stale genres thrive like weeds in the game industry. But every once in awhile an experimental project, something wonderful and bizarre, gets the green light and gamers get a much needed breath of fresh air. Enter Catherine, a self-described "unconventional romantic horror". It's extremely Japanese (read: unusual in every respect) and better for it. Our hero, Vincent, has a little too much to drink one night and accidentally cheats on his girlfriend. The resulting nightmares that follow his transgression have Vincent pushing, pulling, and climbing blocks to escape a dangerous dreamworld (a lovely metaphor for the push and pull of relationships).
Gameplay in Catherine alternates between 2 distinct styles: a puzzle/platformer that takes place during the protagonist's nightmares, and what is essentially a relationship sim that takes place during waking hours. The goal of each nightmare sequence is to guide Vincent, equipped with only his boxers and a pillow, to the top of a tower made of blocks. Vincent can climb 1 block in any direction, which means you have to construct a variant on a staircase by pushing and pulling pieces of the environment around. Things complicate very quickly as time becomes a factor (the bottom of the tower gradually crumbles away), traps are introduced, enemies roam the tower, and more complex tactics than a simple staircase are required to reach the top. The best areas have multiple creative climbing solutions and the worst have a single solution based on a mechanic players have yet to grasp.
After a few levels the difficulty ramps up beyond mortal comprehension, even on the easy difficulty, and the game becomes unnecessarily frustrating. The developers decided to add a generous number of lives to compensate, but this leads to replaying areas over-and-over only to reach the same dead-ends. Lower difficulties allow players to "undo" their last few moves and NPC's share tips on how to better ascend the tower, but these are merely band-aids placed over a larger problem.
Catherine doesn't adequately teach players how to be successful. Instead, players are forced to learn by failure after excruciating failure. Patience is eventually rewarded, however, and once you get the hang of some advanced climbing techniques (pushing blocks around has a surprising amount of depth) you'll begin to speed through levels with great satisfaction.
At the end of each nightmare sequence players are rewarded with a gorgeous anime cinematic created by Studio 4°C. Following the cutscenes, players interact with the folks at Vincent's favorite bar: The Stray Sheep. Conversations tend to dwell on the morality of relationships and dialog choices can steer characters toward order or chaos in dealing with their respective lady-dilemmas. The bar also provides a tactical arcade variant on the main game and some really interesting alcohol trivia. While throwing back drinks Vincent can also craft text messages to send to his respective love interests. Players have some control over the story, but it's a shame that the plethora of dialog decisions are binary and ultimately only alter the game's ending.
The writing in Catherine is a mixed bag. Bits of dialog range from captivating displays of affection and camaraderie to bizarre reactions that are utterly inauthentic. Much of it is completely optional, however, so hardcore puzzle fanatics don't have to linger in the bar chatting up patrons if they don't want to.
Catherine is original, ambitious, and deliciously refreshing. The decidedly adult storyline is handled with intelligence and sincerity. Limiting player control over the story's direction, however, is a missed opportunity. Catherine's binary dialog options prevent players from delving deep into the juicy gray areas of relationship morality.
The learning curve for the puzzle-platformer sections of Catherine is simply too steep. NPC's provide tactical theory between levels, for some reason, rather than instructing players as they climb. But patient players are rewarded with rich genre-bending gameplay and top quality anime cutscenes. Catherine manages to sate a lot of varied appetities (puzzle, platformer, horror, romance, etc.) all at once. You've never played a game like Catherine before and you really ought to.