Publisher Atlus has been all money lately. While the team is known for making mostly "niche" games, they've established quite a fanbase especially with eastern gamers. From the Persona games at the end of the PS2's dominance to other Shin Megami Tensei games on the handhelds, Atlus has simply been putting out quality titles. Catherine is the publisher's first internally-developed title for a high-definition console, and those patient enough to handle the game should find that this is one of the best games to come out this year.
What's It About?
The game's story-driven plot revolves around 32-year old Vincent Brooks, an average joe working the regular 9-5 job and who would like nothing but to experience "true freedom" in his life. He's also been dating his college sweetheart, Katherine (with a K), for a number of years, and she's reached the part in her life where she wants to be tied down. Unfortunately for Katherine, Vincent isn't somebody with a lot of money–which is extremely sketch because he eats sushi every day for lunch and is literally at the local bar getting smashed with his friends and by himself every night.
This is where things get interesting. After a night of crazy drinking, Vincent wakes up from an intense nightmare and finds the most beautiful woman he's ever met naked on his bed. Her name is Catherine, with a C, and she also happens to be everything that Vincent is looking for in a girl.
Without giving away too much, the player will find that getting hammered at the bar, having a nightmare, and then waking up with Catherine will be an occurrence that pretty much will happen every night. Players essentially take control of two Vincents: active Vincent and dreaming Vincent.
Why Should I Care?
The main reason why anybody would care is the plot. The plot of Catherine is only something you'd see in bad romantic horror movies, but this is a video game, and it's anime. With this unique blend of ingredients, Catherine is something new and unique to experience.
When in control of an active Vincent, players will spend all their time at the Stray Sheep, the pizza bar that he's in every night. Here you can socialize with your friends or the locals, have a drink or two (or four), watch the news, go to the bathroom, sigh at Vincent's bank account, play all sorts of Atlus tunes in the bar's jukebox, or even play an arcade game called Rapunzel–a game that's designed to help you out for the game's real action.
When the night is over, Vincent will have a nightmare, and it is in these nightmares where the real gameplay takes place. In these nightmares, Vincent has a sheep's horns and along with other sheep, he has to climb mountains and walls of concrete boxes in order to escape by reaching the top. Over time, the boxes at the bottom will fall, so speed is key.
Yes, the core gameplay in Catherine revolves around climbing mountains of blocks until you reach the top. But before players pass it off as just another niche title, keep in mind that the act is also both hard and very addictive. As stated, each climb is essentially a race against time. Every nightmare Vincent has is separated into multiple levels, each one more challenging than the last. The last section in a nightmare is a boss fight… or rather a boss climb, where different figments in Vincent's dreams will attack him in an attempt to kill him. Additionally, new and different blocks are introduced in each nightmare Vincent has. There are blocks made out of ice that have different sliding mechanics, trap blocks with spikes on them as soon as Vincent steps on them, blocks that explode, and all sorts of other blocks there to make things harder to deal with. With all the pushing and pulling, players are bound to make mistakes, so thankfully the select button also acts as an undo button.
Also along the levels are different items such as coins which can be used to buy power-ups in between levels, standalone power-ups, extra lives, and even checkpoints. Enemies even infest the blocks and will shove Vincent when he's in the way. Vincent can just avoid them or retaliate by shoving back or even using a book of spells power-up disintegrate them. At the end of each level, the game gives a score based on how fast players climbed the blocks in addition to all the coins collected. You can only get a gold trophy in a level if you collect every coin.
When in between the levels of a nightmare, Vincent will find himself at a rest stop with sheep that he can talk to learn about techniques, or buy power-ups with the money collected at each level. The power-ups are designed to make things easier, and they perform such tasks as creating a new block, killing enemies blocking the way, or even allow Vincent to climb more than one block at a time. While they're powerful, it's also worth noting that buying an item will significantly lower the climbing score as well.
Put all these different factors into play, and you have a ridiculously hard game. The game is so hard, players wouldn't be laughed at if they died 12 times in the second level because it probably will happen. There's absolutely no shame with playing the game on easy mode. The game's difficulty level in no way affects the story, so players who are interested in the story should do whatever they can to clear these puzzles. Yes, the game is primarily all about going to the bar when you're awake and climbing blocks when you're asleep. But look at Persona. It's about going to school every day and then climbing a tower when you get home. The only difference is Catherine exchanges an RPG battle system for some intense puzzle solving.
Gamer Tip: Catherine is hard. If it's too hard, even on Easy, you can unlock a "Very Easy" mode by holding the "undo" button when highlighting "Golden Playhouse." "Very Easy" isn't an option, but the game's default mode will become even more easy, with more power-ups appearing at each stage.
Players skilled enough to beat the game will unlock the Colosseum mode, which allows you to play through any area in the game with two people. So now instead of computer AI making things hard, things can get really hectic with two humans climbing the same tower. It really makes for some fun and really intense gameplay, but it's hard to really understand why Atlus decided to make this mode an unlockable.
What Makes It Worth My Time And Money?
As corny as Catherine's story may be, there is a lot to like about it and the game in general. As stated in the introduction, Catherine is the first title developed by Atlus to feature high-definition production values, and the game looks and sounds superb. The game was produced by the team that handled the Persona series, so it's no surprise that players should feel attached to the characters that spill their guts for the sake of the story. The calm, yet thrilling, soundtrack consisting of both original game music and remixed classics from the likes of the legendary Beethoven and Chopin was composed by Shoji Meguro, also of Persona fame. Also lending to the superb sound are the voices of veterans like Troy Baker as Vincent and Michelle Ruff as Katherine McBride among other voiceover professionals. Anime purists should be disappointed to know that you can't play the game with the Japanese voice actors and English subtitles, even though that would've been an easy addition.
When it comes down to it, the masterful storytelling of a unique plot, the terrific art design, superb sound, and addictive gameplay make Catherine one of the best titles gamers will have all year. Add the fact that there are multiple endings in this completely wide open game, and you have something you'll keep playing. Keep in mind, however, that this definitely is not a game for everyone. Not just because of its Mature rating for literally everything in the book (violence, blood, sexual themes, partial nudity, strong language, alcohol) but because the game is extremely hard. The difficulty really will leave a lot of players frustrated, but the sense of accomplishment players will have when completing a stage on their own really is a pleasure to experience. The first playthough can take anywhere between 15 and 25 hours depending upon climbing skill, and after beating it, the multiple endings and unlocked modes (including a competitive multiplayer mode) give players more of a reason to keep playing.
Catherine literally defines what a unique gaming experience is. Like Vincent's friend Orlando says, "Variety's the spice of life. You need more!"