I didn't really know what to expect when Catherine was first announced. I was definitely expecting something twisted thanks to the core staff being responsible for the Persona series over the past few games. It wasn't until the demo that I was firmly on board with what they were trying to do, giving us a game cocktail that was one part dating sim, one part Devil Dice, and a good chunk of Intelligent Qube, with a dash of Q-Bert, and a twist of that Atlus weirdness that they are known for, and you get Catherine, one of the most unique titles released in years. It's also one of the most difficult games in years, loaded with traps that will bring players to the brink of insanity in a way that can only be matched by one of their previous games, Demon's Souls.
Catherine has a story that's as unique as its gameplay and is really where the game shines, even if it is a little heavy-handed and seems to deal strictly in absolutes. You'll follow a week in the life of Vincent Brooks, a software developer who thinks he's got his life all figured out. He's got a job he enjoys, some great friends, and is going on five years with his girlfriend, Katherine. After a horrible nightmare that involves a great deal of climbing and being surrounded by sheep and experiencing his own death, Vincent's world starts tearing apart at the seams, people seem to be dying in their sleep, Katherine wants a commitment, he's forgetting periods of time, and worst of all, Catherine has forced herself in to the picture, in an attempt to woo Vincent away from his predetermined life to give him something a little bit more dynamic. Sure this whole thing could be resolved if Vincent grew a bit of a spine, but then where would the fun be?
The week is loaded with twists and turns, with most of it spent at the local dive bar, Stray Sheep. It's here that Vincent will be spending most of his time dealing with the day to day events. You'll find other patrons of the bar are going through similar tribulations, but no one is quite sure about what's going on. Others don't really seem to care and are resigned to their fate of being cursed for betraying the ones they loved. All the while the bartender and his waitress Erica are there to serve up the drinks to help ease the troubles of the patrons, offering nuggets of wisdom where applicable. There's also an arcade machine that mimics the main style of the game, called Rapunzel. It offers a much more hardcore puzzle experience, giving the player a limited number of moves to reach the top of the stage, and thankfully the design team saw fit to let your progress of this game be carried over between playthroughs. There's also a jukebox to add some atmosphere, with a track selection that grows as you unlock trophies in the game, and includes tracks from the Shin Megami Tensei series which is a nice bonus. If none of that interests you, then there is always plenty of drinking to do, and text messages to respond to, or you could just talk to the patrons and try to help them get through their own problems.
When the time comes to pack it in, you'll send Vincent home and he'll suffer through another nightmare, which is where the bulk of the gameplay takes place. You're climbing to survive, and the path is made of blocks that can be pushed and pulled and manipulated in order to give yourself a pathway to the top of the tower. There's some diabolical layouts present here, with some of the later stages eating away at your continues while you figure out what to do. Thankfully the stages are littered with extra lives and items to make the climb a bit easier. On easier difficulties you can undo your previous move in the event that you push a block off the tower or you manage to back yourself in to a corner. After a few stages that will throw some new twists at Vincent, it'll be time to face the killer for the night, a manifestation of Vincent's fear about moving on from being a man-child. These killers range from the unborn child that Katherine may or may not be carrying, to a very, ahem, strange euphemism for an alternative form of sexual intercourse. You'll see it and wonder if that's really what you think it is, yeah, it is.
Vincent's not the only one climbing this tower, there's a plethora of sheep climbing along with him, all looking to survive, some of which will not be so fortunate as you hear their cries while they fall from the tower. Some will prove helpful and will work with Vincent to teach you techniques to aid in climbing up the tower, showing specific ways to manipulate the blocks to get out of sticky situations, and some of these I wouldn't have even been able to think of on my own, so it's really appreciated that they did this. Other sheep will not be so kind, with many that will attempt to use Vincent to get ahead, while others will just be looking to end his journey as they become more dangerous while Vincent proceeds up the tower. It's not just a race against these other sheep though, you'll also be competing with the tower itself, as the lower levels bottom out from under you, so you've got to keep moving, which will build a combo meter that will affect your score at the end of the stage. There are also coins that can be picked up along the way that can be used to buy items that will aid in your climb to the top. Along the way up you'll also be answering questions that pertain to relationships and are used to determine what kind of life Vincent will be leading, provided he's able to survive this mess. Some of the questions come off as superfluous while others try to get you to think about how you'd really respond to the situation provided, and all of the answers you give factor in to the ending you receive.
Visually this game is at times drop dead gorgeous and other times it actually suffers from that next-gen brown that we've all come to know and loathe. But what's most noticeable about the games graphics is the use of the Gamebryo engine, yeah that engine that powered Fallout 3 and Oblivion. Index Corp. bent it to their will and made one of the best looking games of this generation. The character models look crisp and the art translates perfectly in to the 3D world. Though for some reason the animation of Studio 4C is a bit inconsistent with the art quality. It almost would have been better to keep all of the cut-scenes in the game engine rather than swap between animation and in-game graphics. But if Catherine can look this good, I have high hopes for any future games that use Shigenori Soejima's art style, including future Persona games.
Shoji Meguro provided the soundtrack for Catherine, taking some great classical pieces like Chopin's Revolutionary Etude, and the Mars Suite and Jupiter Suite from Planets by Gustav Holst and working it in to the game's tower levels. Outside of the tower, his urban sound that people will recognize from the Persona series is used to minimal effect, limited only to the Stray Sheep bar, which is kind of a bummer. Catherine also sports some of the best voice-acting in the business, using a great number of actors from the Bang Zoom Entertainment studio. Laura Bailey plays the titular Catherine and plays opposite Michelle Ruff who takes up the role of Vincent's bride to be, Katherine. Rounding out the cast, Troy Baker plays our hapless hero, Vincent, and plays the role practically to perfection.
Playing through Catherine a few times, it's definitely a game that gets easier as you start to pick up on the tricks that you can pull off to make your way up the tower, but initially this game has a pretty sharp learning curve. Most players will want to make use of that 'Easy' mode, because this game really doesn't pull any punches. There are a ton of instant-death moments that you've really got to keep an eye out for. Some of the traps will cause you to fall to your death just because of a simple lapse in forgetting what they do. However it's not the type of difficulty that will make you want to chuck the game out the window, they actually saved that difficulty for the boss stages, which seem to be the most sadistic stages the game can throw at you. The development team also decided it would be a good idea to reverse the controls while hanging on the back side of the tower, which leads to a whole mess of control problems when dangling for your life.
Even with the difficulty level of this game, Catherine is still a totally enjoyable experience, and the story is one of the best parts of the game, and you're not punished for using lower difficulties to get through the game, though completing the game on normal will unlock the Tower of Babel which is a bonus mode that offers up four challenging stages that will test the absolute limits of your skills and provides leaderboard access for those who want to see how they stack up. If you're feeling a little bit more competitive with friends there is the Colosseum mode that lets you play against a friend as you both scramble to the top of a stage.
Having finished Catherine a few times, I'm pleasantly surprised with how the game turned out. The initial marketing push put me off from the game, but the gameplay of the demo brought me back in. It's definitely the type of game that you're going to be taking a chance with, you're either going to enjoy it or you won't. Personally I found the game to be totally enjoyable despite the higher than normal difficulty. It's kind of it's own unique beast, much like that of Demon's Souls, but it's not detrimental to enjoying the game. Anyone looking to try something different should look to Catherine's unique premise for a new gaming experience, one that I am glad Atlus took a chance on releasing in the states.