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Aug. 4th, 2011 | 04:09 pm

Here's my editorial/unscored review write-up thing on Catherine. I tend to write way too much when doing reports on videogames, so this is it uncut. This article will be on a couple of other sites in a more condensed "cut" format, but here is the whole thing.

Finally the next game from the Persona Team, am I right? Well, if you’re coming into this game expecting something along the lines of Persona then you’re going to be thoroughly disappointed. It’s not really your fault if you’ve been mislead either; they’ve labeled “Persona Team!” all over this game. It’s even in the art book that comes with it. Of course, it probably wasn’t their intention to trick you into thinking that Catherine was a game along the same level as Persona, but it’s easy to mistake that fact.

If you’re going to play Catherine you have to take it for what it is. A puzzle game. Granted, there’s more to it than that, but at the end of the day it’s a puzzle game through and through. It’s a frantic climbing block puzzle where you have to rearrange blocks to take you higher. However, there are obstacles to overcome like the ground falling beneath you, enemies trying to attack you, various types of specialty blocks (ice block, bomb block, etc…) and boss encounters. If you don’t enjoy this style of puzzle, or puzzle games in general, then Catherine isn’t for you. That’s the problem with puzzle games; it can fall into a niche so easily, unless it’s an instant smash success like Tetris or Bejeweled. Fortunately, I happen to be a somewhat of a puzzle connoisseur and it turns out that I enjoy this specific type of puzzle very much.

A challenging, yet satisfying experience. It hurts so good!

The good thing about Catherine’s puzzle aspect is that it actually has some semblance of depth. There are always multiple ways of reaching the finish, and a variety of things to keep in mind at all times. As you progress you’ll learn techniques that’ll make your experience with climbing so much easier, provided that you remember them in the heat of the moment. You see, these techniques aren’t something that you store in your menu or use as an ability; there’s none of that. It acts as more of a tips-and-tricks system. Catherine can get pretty complicated and extremely difficult if you’re not keeping up with all the skills that you need to utilize. The game throws you in frantic situations and you need to be able to think on your feet at a rapid pace, more so than a lot of other puzzle games. It’s an overwhelming and stressful experience if you’re not absolutely prepared to be thrown into the frying pan at all times.

Puzzle games are a state of mind. If you don’t have full commitment to what’s happening on the screen then you’re pretty much boned. It’s the classic example of turning the game off and starting again later when you’re more alert and then magically being able to solve the puzzle that took you fifty tries previously. Catherine is unforgiving and spikes in difficultly very quickly and it seems that most people drop the difficultly to Easy or Very Easy half way through. I’m unsure of what that actually changes since I played the whole game on Normal. It actually defaults to Easy though, and there’s even a warning when you start on Normal saying that only experienced players should play this mode. Fortunately, you rack up the retries pretty easily so it’s hard to actually get a game over. You can also find or purchase items to help you out in a pinch.

The biggest problem with the puzzle section of Catherine is the controls. It’s a serious issue. I wouldn’t say its game breaking, but it’s certainly annoying and very unfortunate. Catherine’s gameplay is relatively fast paced and hectic, so it’s frustrating when you have to deal with absolutely insane control design. The first problem with this is that it’s sometimes unresponsive to your commands and there can be a slight delay as to when it’s executed. You need to push and pull blocks in this game and there’s an impractical pressure sensitive element where if you put too much weight on the analog stick you’ll climb over the block instead of grabbing it. In theory it should work fine, or they should have made you stall a bit more when you face a block, but the amount of pressure needed to just face a block is minimal. Remember, you’re in the heat of the moment here so imagine for a second what that’s like.

Now, the bigger and more psychotic problem with the controls is that it’s reversed when navigating around ledges. Only crazy people could have come up with such a deranged way of doing this. Do you remember how controls work in old school horror games where up is the direction you’re facing? It’s kind of like that. Luckily, navigating on the opposite sides of blocks isn’t what you’ll be doing a whole lot, but it’s annoying when the time comes. Again, these aren’t game breaking problems. It’s manageable and you can adapt to it once you realize what’s happening. It’s just something that could have easily been avoided when developing the game and it’s a shame that such an addictive puzzler is bogged down by this. All in all I find the puzzle section of Catherine to be great fun and the boss encounters can provide for some intense sequences. If you can’t get enough of Catherine’s puzzles, then rack up some gold medals during the game and some bonus content will unlock with extreme difficultly.

Now let’s get into what the rest of this game is all about. Catherine follows this format:

Nightmare world (block puzzle) --> Cutscenes --> The Stray Sheep bar, where you socialize with various people --> Repeat.

Certainly the instant appeal for this game is the hyper-realized sexual fantasy concept that it has to offer. The one thing that we were all curious about during the announcement of Catherine was the Persona-style dating aspect with a more “adult” visualization. I guarantee that’s why most people bought this title, rather than the fact that it’s actually a puzzle game.

Catherine is about an unmotivated deadbeat named Vincent who likes to keep things simple. His life gets completely turned around when he accidently cheats on his longtime girlfriend, Katherine, in a drunken stupor with a girl of the same name. Thus, the spiral of chaos in his life begins. Also, every night, Vincent and other men get trapped in a nightmare world where they have to climb block puzzles. If they don’t survive then they die in the real world; taking cues straight from the concept of Persona 4. The story and cutscenes are pretty cool and are generally handled quite nicely. It’s always fun to watch Vincent try and bumble his way out of sticky situations. He’s kind of like a loveable idiot who makes extremely poor decisions. Vincent also seems to have a mild autistic anxiety which makes him super awkward in social situations, so you can’t help but feel bad for the guy even though he’s a slight unintentional sleazebag. The rest of the supporting characters help to set up the atmosphere as sort of a cross between Friends and Cheers. The game does a good job in making you feel like you’re part of a tightly-knit small town group of friends.

Orlando is a dick.

Some interesting elements of Catherine’s story are the themes and symbolism associated with adultery and how humans should be punished for it. The game has deeper psychological undertones bordering on Freudian theories of inner desire and the Oedipus complex. By the end of Catherine, you’ll realize that symbolism plays a big part in the story. Unfortunately, the writing gets dicey at various points in this game; which is weird because Atlus is usually pretty good for localization. It’s the familiar feeling of being lost in translation that happens with a lot of Japanese videogames. This doesn’t happen through all of the script, but you will find some perplexing dialogue. Although, some of the more insane reactions to things will make sense once you complete the game, so be mindful of that. You also have your classic anime phrases that you’ve come to expect via the localization of almost everything Japanese. Let’s take a look at some of my favourite clichéd lines that I guarantee you’ve heard before if you have watched or played anything from Japan (unless the localizers are doing their job right):

- “It’s not like that.”
- “You’re so cold.”
- “It can’t be helped.”
- “I wonder…”
- “Such a pain.”
- “That is…”

And of course whenever somebody says anything depressing or opens up about themselves, the responding party will immediately counter with saying that person’s name. Let’s create a scenario, shall we?

“My mother’s dead and I just don’t know what to do!”

It’s unclear whether Catherine takes place in Japan or America. I know that it has to be set in Japan because Vincent makes a cameo in Persona 3 Portable, but they don’t make this obvious to you and it can be confusing culture-wise. On the other hand, they actually say “dollars” instead of “yen” to add to their Japanese/American fusion, so it’s extra perplexing. Maybe that’s why the localization for the Persona games works so well because it’s clear that you’re in an authentic Japanese setting. The voice acting is quality stuff though. Atlus seems to have a group of select voice actors which they reuse for multiple projects, like Troy Baker, Yuri Lowenthal, Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, etc. You’ve heard them before, and they’re excellent actors, so no problems there. The art is great in Catherine and everything looks so beautiful; from the in-game renders, to the animated cutscenes. It’s definitely some good eye-candy.

There’s a morality system in Catherine which is judged depending on the choices that you make via dialogue options, text messages, or Q&A. Depending on where your morality is at, Vincent will react differently to some situations during the cutscenes. From my understanding though, the story will remain relativity unchanged regardless of your alignment up until the ending. There are eight different endings which vary depending on your morality and how you answer certain questions near the end of the game.

At the Stray Sheep bar you can do a variety of things like: drink, use the jukebox, play the arcade game: Rapunzel, text message, and socialize. It’s definitely the “sim” part of the game, if you want to call it that.

Drinking at the bar is one of my favourite things to do, because after you finish a drink you’ll get an interesting piece of trivia for that particular beverage. They’re actually pretty good pieces of info. I’m a sucker for random knowledge. You can drink rum & coke, beer, whisky, or sake, and if you get three whole drinks in your gut then you’re able to run faster in the nightmare world.

Every time you get an achievement you’ll unlock a song for the jukebox. This can be either songs from Catherine or anything in the Shin Megami Tensei series. I admit, it’s kinda cool to change the Stray Sheep song to something from Persona, but the music in Catherine is pretty good in itself so it’s not necessary. Since I’m on the topic, the music in Catherine is split between remixed classical pieces and original scores. It’s all really well done and sets the tone quite nicely, but just like any composer, you’ll recognize his style from previous Trauma and Persona games. So if you didn’t like the Atlus style of music before, then Catherine won’t change your mind.

Rapunzel is essentially a retro version of the same block puzzle that occurs during the nightmares, but it’s actually pretty interesting. I was skeptical of the block puzzle before going into Catherine, and even more skeptical when I realized that the only other minigame would be the same thing as the block puzzle. However, Rapunzel is divergent enough to keep it fresh and you actually have to approach it much differently than you would the core puzzle. The main difference is that you can take your time; instead of scrambling to the finish. You have a certain number of moves to complete the puzzle and you’re able to view what the entire map looks like since it’s a more of a concentrated brainteaser. This makes Rapunzel feel like more of a traditional puzzle experience than the nightmares do. Both types of puzzles in Catherine are quite enjoyable.

Vincent's life is being turned upside down.

You’ll receive texts from multiple sources but mostly from Catherine or Katherine. Catherine, specifically, will also send you provocative photos which you’ll need to go to the bathroom in Stray Sheep in order to view (because Vincent’s embarrassed to look at them in public). The interesting part about text messaging is that you’re able to reply and choose each line of dialogue to send from a pool of several options each. Depending on what you send back you may receive a call from one of the girls, another text, or of course a change in your morality meter.

When you’re at the bar time passes every time you sit and have a conversation with someone. People will enter and exit the bar as your night draws to a close. Besides conversing with your friends, you can talk to various other people connected to the nightmare world and help them out with their inner struggles. Their fate will be decided by your decisions. It’s not hard to help everybody, but some morality choices are ambiguous which can be frustrating when you thought it meant something else. Perusing around the Stray Sheep can be quite a bit of fun; if only those segments lasted a bit longer and there was more to do. Sometimes you’ll burn through the bar parts pretty quick and next thing you know you’re back in the nightmare world.

Besides the leaderboards, there is another online component integrated within Catherine. In-between puzzle sections you’ll have a bit of downtime to talk to the other “sheep” as well as purchase items. When you’re done you’ll have to answer a personal question and that answer is sent to a digital pie chart where you can see other people’s responses to the same question (anonymously of course, as some of these questions really are quite personal.) Also, after you beat the game a two-player mode opens up and you can tackle block puzzles with a friend.

I’m glad that Catherine exists. It was a smart move for Altus to try something new, especially fiddling around with new tech for our current-gen consoles. Despite some glaring faults, I found Catherine to be quite an enjoyable experience. This is definitely not a game for everybody, but if you’re at least curious then it wouldn’t hurt to give this title a shot.

Post Script – Since I procrastinated in a big way while writing this thing I’m able to touch upon some topical information. It seems that Catherine has been a huge success for Atlus in America and Japan, far exceeding their expectations and now they want to perhaps make it into a franchise. I am happy for Atlus and I’m all for this idea. I would love to see another game like this with more polish. Also, since I’m here adding thoughts, I watched the endings that I didn’t get on youtube and some of them are pretty awesome/hilarious. It also clears up a few things in case you’re a stickler for details.

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