Cheaters never prosper
Vincent Brooks, a 32-year-old office worker, has a problem: women. With his longtime girlfriend, Katherine, nearly reaching her limit on waiting for him to pop the question, Vincent takes refuge in his favorite local bar as he tries to sort out his life and his future. While contemplating his existence in between sips of rum and cola, into his life walks Catherine—a young, carefree, blonde bombshell who’s everything our hero could want from a woman. Defenseless to her charms, Vincent finds himself engrossed in a scandalous night of pleasure with Catherine, unprepared for the week of utter misery about to unfold.
Thus begins Catherine, the tale of Mr. Brooks and the pull he feels between the love that’s always been there and the lust that’s swept him off his feet. The gameplay itself is formed from the fusion of two different concepts: the puzzle-esque nightmares that Vincent must endure every night due to his infidelity, plus the social elements that exist when he’s awake and interacting with the world around him. This genre-mixing feels more than a little reminiscent of two other recent Atlus efforts, Persona 3 and Persona 4—not surprising, given that Catherine comes from the same team.
Building on the urban legend that falling to your dream death will kill you in real life, Catherine’s puzzle segments precariously place Vincent—along with a collection of other morally questionable men, all of whom turn into sheep once they enter the dreamworld—scrambling up a series of tower floors, each made of huge blocks that crumble away as time passes. Survival comes from creating a path to reach the top of each challenge, achieved by properly pushing, pulling, positioning, scaling, and otherwise traversing these cubes.
There’s no two ways about it: These puzzle sections are hard. Catherine became somewhat notorious in Japan due to the game’s surprising challenge, and player outcry reached the point where Atlus crafted a patch to considerably rebalance the game on many of its difficulty levels. That revised version is the one we’re receiving here in North America, but even so, players who don’t have a head for logic could find themselves constantly running to YouTube in search of solutions.
If Catherine were nothing more than Vincent’s nightmares of falling and fuzzy animals, it’d be enjoyable but not unforgettable. It’s Catherine’s other side, though—that side that some might expect to be ancillary—that engrossed me. The smaller, quieter moments of Vincent’s life are exceptionally enthralling; that’s not just because he’s interesting as a character, but also because everything around him intrigues as well: Conversing with Vincent’s friends while knocking back drinks at the Stray Sheep, meeting new faces and hearing their stories, crafting carefully worded texts to reassure Katherine of your love…or to encourage Catherine’s overly enthusiastic flirting—all of these elements would be simple afterthoughts in other titles, yet here they’re the heart and soul.
It’s that real understanding on the part of Catherine’s developers that I appreciate: the acknowledgement that relationships between characters—and the player experiencing those relationships—are just so vitally important, especially if we expect better storytelling from our games. I also greatly appreciate how adult Catherine’s drama feels—not “adult” as in sexual, but as in mature. When’s the last time you can remember a Japanese game that not only focused on characters whose ages didn’t end in “teen,” but also one dealing with topics such as monogamy, pregnancy, and the understanding of what love truly means?
Catherine, like many other games we remember fondly, is a concept bold in design and grand in ambition, but also one that can—and hopefully will—be improved and expanded until it reaches its true potential. I’m a firm believer in Atlus’ daring (and sometimes crazy) push of genre-crossing concoctions, and I can’t wait for their inevitable upcoming title that mixes the trials and tribulations of parenthood with a hardcore, side-scrolling shooter.
Summary: Atlus’ first HD game mixes puzzle-solving with social elements to produce a mature, engrossing tale of love and lust.
- The Good: Daring first attempt at Atlus HD game development
- The Bad: Puzzle segments—unlike the story—aren’t always exciting
- The Ugly: The fury of a C/Katherine scorned