When the team that developed the Persona series releases their first high-definition game, it’s something everyone should pay attention to. While it’s certainly a step away from the role-playing games they usually develop, Catherine is no less innovative. A story centered around a love-triangle, the game tests the player’s commitment and tower-climbing ability.
Catherine‘s plot sees 32 year-old Vincent Brooks caught between two women: Katherine, who he’s known since high school and has been dating for years, and Catherine, a newcomer, who barges her way into his life one night at his local hangout. Catherine enters his life shortly after Katherine brings up the idea of marriage. Vincent feels comfortable where he is and frankly, doesn’t want to change it. Catherine appears as the free type he himself wants to be, and he’s unable to resist.
Though, Vincent isn’t the only one dealing with problems. Everyone in town is worried. Men have been mysteriously dying in their sleep. Rumors claim it’s the result of a nightmare where, when you fall in the dream, you die in real life. Vincent has these dreams, and every night is forced to move blocks and climb high in order to survive. Of course, there’s a reason why men are experiencing these nightmares, but you’ll have to play the game to find out.
At its core, Catherine is a puzzle game. The majority of gameplay time is spent pulling blocks, creating stairways, and climbing towers as the blocks below you slowly collapse. At the start, puzzles are basic, using only one to three types of block. As you progress, different block types are introduced, making each puzzle all the more challenging. You’ll come across blocks that shoot up spikes, blocks that explode, slippery blocks, blocks that move on their own, and blocks that break after two or three steps. If you haven’t already heard, these puzzles are hard, even on Normal difficulty. At times, you may want to throw your controller at the television. I know I did. But it’s Catherine‘s difficulty level that makes completing each puzzle so rewarding.
The game is built around nine stages (or levels), each with its own number of floors to climb. The first stage, for example, consists of three puzzles, while the last stage consists of six. Each stage is separated by a necessary morning through night cycle, which usually involves Vincent waking up, dealing with his problems, working, then going to the Stray Sheep bar to drink with his friends. This stage separation fills in the plot points, so I often found myself hurrying through the nightmare’s puzzles in order to get back to the story. After every floor, Vincent can save on a church-like resting platform where the other surviving men, who Vincent sees only as sheep (they also see him as a sheep), can be conversed. They can even teach you climbing techniques. To progress to the next floor, players must answer a love-based question in the confessional. If connected online, you can see how other players responded.
When you’re not climbing towers, you’re either watching cutscenes or lounging at the Stray Sheep bar. The bar is an interesting place, and is one of the game’s key elements. There, you can talk to your friends, the waitress, the bartender, the bar’s regulars; you can get drunk, which allows you move faster in your nightmares (so why not drink, then?); you can check and send cell phone messages; you can play music on the jukebox (which features unlocked songs the Catherine soundtrack, and songs from other Atlus titles); you can play the arcade machine (a game called Rapunzel, based off the tower-climbing gameplay in Vincent’s nightmares); and most importantly, you can dive into the lives of others.
The majority of characters who visit the bar every night are dealing with their own misfortunes, and players can choose to help them out of it. When speaking to the bar’s patrons, you have choice of dialogue, and thus, can change their futures. Some of the men you speak to at the bar will appear on the resting platforms in Vincent’s nightmares (in sheep form); they too are experiencing the same dream Vincent is having. That said, it’s possible that all of them might die. Choosing the correct dialogue at the bar, and actually speaking to them before they leave, might save them.
Each character in Catherine is unique and their very own. Each person’s conflict gives us hints as to what type of person they are — and they’re all completely different. You have your group of friends — Jonny, Orlando and Toby — who all contrast with each other. Orlando is the cool, relaxed character; Toby is the kid, still learning the ways of the female; and Jonny is the quiet, yet intellectual character. Then there’s Erica, the waitress who went to the same high school as the group, and Boss, the smooth-talking, sunglasses-wearing bartender. I can call out all the bar patrons by name and traits, but I want them to be yours to discover.
Your cell phone is also part of the game’s aspect of choice. You’ll receive texts from Katherine and Catherine as you play, and may choose how you wish to respond. Catherine will constantly send you dirty pictures (no nudity, sorry), which you can look at for a brief second before Vincent closes and says ‘I can’t look at this in public.’ We’re taking a point off for that (just kidding). Depending on how respond to your texts, amongst other choices made in the game, can change the outcome of the story. Every time you make a choice in Catherine, your karma meter will tick left or right (red or blue). Depending on where it stands at the end of the game, the ending will change. There’s a total of eight different endings to Catherine.
These days, you don’t see many decent voice-overs in localized Japanese video games, but Catherine is the exception. Voice acting is done incredibly well. Troy Baker does an excellent job as Vincent, and the same can be said for Laura Bailey and Michelle Ruff as Catherine and Katherine. The music is superb. It feels very in place with the game’s modern dating-world atmosphere. I can’t get that “Yo” song out of my head. I have no idea what the guy says most of the time, but it’s just so catchy.
Of course, it’s worth mentioning every copy of Catherine includes an art book and a copy of the game’s amazing soundtrack. Aside from the story mode, the game also features a two-player Colosseum Mode and an additional Babel Mode, which allows you to climb an all-new set of towers (under certain conditions).
Catherine is a special game. Its story was one of the most intriguing I’ve played this year; it’s weird and takes some unexpected turns, but it’s Catherine‘s standout attribute. There are few games that get to me so much where I attempt to grab all the trophies / achievements. I’ve actually only done it with two games in the past. Catherine will be my third. Team Persona created a gem with Catherine. It’s a long and difficult, but that level of challenge and the experience of the plot are reward enough. Just be sure to take breaks between failing puzzles. Or you might end up hurting someone.
Catherine was reviewed on a PlayStation 3. Golden Theater (story mode) was played to completion (16 hours). Colosseum and Babel Modes were also played, but not to completion. Catherine launches for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on July 26, 2011 for an MSRP of $59.99.