February 6, 2012, Author: Diogo Miguel
Ever wonder what people mean by counting sheep? Catherine, the latest video-game from Atlus, has the answer for you. Turns out that dreaming about sheep is not a good sign at all… or at least it isn’t when playing Catherine. The game tells the story of Vincent, who starts having terrible nightmares when he finds himself connected to two very different girls. There is much more at stake, however, as Vincent finds out soon after in a deadly climb into his worst relationship-based fears.
The perils of a relationship
Catherine has a pretty unique story, considering how it attempts to cover the many issues surrounding relationships. The main character, Vincent, gets himself in the ultimate relationship moral struggle when he commits the number one relationship sin. He soon finds himself being plagued by both supernatural occurrences and the daily dilemmas that come with being in a relationship.
It wouldn’t be that interesting if the game focused on normal aspects of a relationship. Instead it covers topics that would make a lot of men anxious, with a single mention of the likes of marriage and unwanted pregnancies. What is refreshing, though, is that all of this gets portrayed with dialogue that actually reflects real life. Character reactions to bizarre and unfortunate situations will often mirror that of how an actual human being would react.
What makes human beings unique is how each of us reacts to situations in a different manner. That’s probably why the story for Catherine asks for player input several times throughout the course of the game. The player is able to influence decisions in Vincent’s life, like how he replies to mobile phone messages. It might seem subtle at first, but the game changes direction based on player choices. The various endings influenced by the choices made throughout the game will surely make it enticing to play through more than one time; especially considering the fact that each ending is completely different, adding value to the game.
The biggest surprise will come from finding out how the player deals with all the dilemmas of a relationship. It might just surprise a few players that aren’t expecting their choices to have such a negative or positive impact in Vincent’s love life. Without going into details, it is truly fascinating to continuously be surprised by all the story twists and ultimately learn who the proverbial person behind the curtains is.
The only way forward is up
There are two very distinctive ways to play Catherine throughout the course of the game. The first sees Vincent socialising at his local bar. This section of the game is where players get to learn more about the story from other characters, and the latest drama in Vincent’s love life. Other activities liven up the time spent in the bar such as a jukebox, being able to get ridiculously drunk or even play a game within a game. It’s clear that the development team spent a lot of time making sure that there is something to do in-between the main game. It’s after Vincent leaves the bar that players get to experience the reason even Japanese players complained about the difficulty level in Catherine.
Vincent finds himself in a new nightmare every night, and the only way to survive is by going up. You would think that he was overreacting about a dream, but he won’t wake up if he dies. In order to go up Vincent must keep climbing blocks, but it’s not as easy as it sounds, as you’ll need to push blocks to make a path. New types of blocks also get introduced in later stages making the game less repetitive.
The only downside to the puzzle mechanics is that they are not forgiving when it comes to errors. Blocks continuously drop off the stage, so the player is racing against the time to get to the top. Fortunately, players not looking for a challenge can pick the easy or normal difficulty, which will enable a rewind function that makes it possible to go back a few moves. It won’t stop the blocks falling, but it gives less skilled players a chance. There are items within levels to make life easier as well, such as one that allows the character to climb two blocks at a time.
The nature of the puzzle mechanics also means that every player might face each level in a different manner. There are many strategies in the game that will work if used efficiently, such as making a set of steps by pulling blocks out.
A boss will pop up at the end of each nightmarish night. Fighting the bosses is a much more lively experience, as each has special powers used towards trying to stop the character. It’s also interesting to see each of them, as they are all embodiments of the constant relationship fears plaguing Vincent.
The offending flaw in Catherine’s otherwise sparkling diamond is probably the way that the character moves. It’s hard to move around sometimes, as the camera is fixed and can only be rotated to a certain degree. This is why the rewind feature is a godsend when it comes to making silly mistakes caused by accidentally pushing the wrong block, and so on.
Finishing the main story for Catherine is not the end, as there is much to do beyond climbing the nightmarish levels. Those that manage to get one or more gold trophies in the main stages will unlock extra stages to climb. These will challenge even the most skilled climbers, and are sure to add a few hours to the main game. It’s also possible to play an arcade version of the game when at the Stray Sheep bar. It’s these welcome extras that make a game like Catherine worth playing for hours on end.
Cheating in high definition
In typical Japanese tradition, Catherine has some eye-opening anime style cut-scenes. The art style for Catherine is colourful, but gives off a dangerous vibe. It’s no wonder, considering some of the bizarre situations that Vincent goes through in places like his dimly-lit flat. Surprisingly enough, quality of the visuals goes beyond cut-scenes. In-game visuals are just as impressive due to how similar they are to the anime style cut scenes.
The bizarre cast of characters is perhaps one of the biggest reasons to enjoy the visuals. It’s surreal to converse with some of the patrons at the pub, such as the pair of old women that spew nonsense every night. It’s also surprising to see how much the development team got away with in terms of cut-scene content. Some of them will make gamers gawk at what is happening on-screen. This is definitely a game that will not disappoint visually with the quality bar raised high throughout the whole game.
Music jukebox extravaganza
Catherine’s music has two different styles, which is fitting considering the duality of gameplay. The music in the bar is more relaxed, which makes sense as it fits the atmosphere. In contrast, the music for the actual levels is usually more lively, and each reflects the particular theme of an individual level. Music in a level where cheating men get tortured invokes shameful feelings, for example.
The music used for the levels might seem familiar to some players. This is because just about every tune is a remix of well-known classical music, a unique idea that is not used in games often, with a few exception like the Chopin-themed Eternal Sonata. What matters, though, is that the music fits in well with the theme of the game. In fact, it’s the level music that players will most likely remember, as some of the remixes are particularly catchy.
Sadly it’s not possible to listen to these remixes outside of the level, but there is a jukebox in the pub. New music is constantly being added; tracks from earlier Atlus games like the popular Persona games are on the Jukebox playlist, which is a nice touch. At the end of the day, though, it’s the superb remixes that stand out and are a delight to listen to while playing the game.
Love is clearly not over
The tangled mess that is Vincent’s love life is an ingenious plot element that turns a puzzle game into a completely different genre. Adding different end-game outcomes via choices is a genius move that ensures the game is slightly different for each individual. It’s the sort of game that might just end up surprising a few people who didn’t expect to get a specific ending on the first play through. It will also certainly raise a few questions when it comes to relationships.
Catherine has the good looks too, with visuals that do the game justice. The movement controls are frustrating at times, but the rewind function makes it less of an issue. Vincent has to suffer a lot of heartache so players can experience the world of Catherine, but at least he’s not dating a praying mantis, and it’s worth playing every second of it.