7th August 2011 - Atlus, a game studio most well known for their soul-crushing RPG, Demon's Souls in 2009, and most loved by “games are art” individuals for its Shin Megami Tensei Persona games back in the last console generation for its bold tackling of complex issues including sexual identity, have now returned to this generation with their newest title, Catherine. Catherine is probably going to get a lot of weird looks from non-gamers and customers alike in any current game retailer because the box art is evocative of what Fox News would arrogantly call a, “porn simulator,” or some heavily sexualized game to be played just for the cheap titilation. Good news is this isn't a crude lowbrow piece of trash. On the contrary, this self proclaimed “erotic horror” game might be the most mature and insightful to date on the subjects of sex, romance, and marriage.
You play as Vincent Brooks, a 32-year old man who is perfectly fine where he is. He's got a job that keeps his apartment rent paid, has several friends who hang out with him every night at the Stray Sheep bar if they can help it, and has been in a steady relationship of five years with his girl, Katherine. For those keeping the time at home, it takes about five minutes after you press Start for this steady existence to crumble apart. Katherine starts pressuring Vincent for commitment, to cope he has a couple of drinks at the bar, meets a cute blonde named Catherine, one thing leads to another, and Vincent wakes up next to her in his apartment, but not before having a bizarre nightmare of him climbing a tower of blocks and talking with sheepmen. As if that wasn't bad or bizarre enough, the local News Station is continuously covering stories of the deaths of young men, all of whom have two things in common: they have been unfaithful to their girlfriend or spouse, and they all died in their sleep.
The game is divided into three parts, Anime style cutscenes of Vincent talking to his friends and the girls, slow but relaxing sections in the Stray Sheep Bar where you can respond to text messages Vincent receives on his phone, have a few drinks, and talk to the bar patrons, and the meat of the game: the hectic Nightmare levels where you must ascend a tower of blocks and reach the top. First thing to be said is that the cutscenes of Vincent's mundane life are used a bit too much. It isn't as bad as some of the Metal Gear Solid games, and in design terms the cutscenes are used responsibly, but they paint our hero as an indecisive fool so much that there was more than one time where I wanted to punch him in the face. Then again, if Vincent was one who was quick to act, then the game would be over in an hour and there wouldn't have been any development arc so take the good with the bad I suppose.
As for the actual interactive parts of gameplay, the Nightmare levels have Atlus' trademark difficulty and will have even the most hardened players pulling their hair out by the end of things, except for Atlus veterans obviously. The objective is simple enough, you must push and pull blocks in order to create stairs and ascend to the top of a large tower as fast as possible. Sounds simple enough, but as the game progresses, so does the variety of the towers. Eventually you'll face spiked blocks, blocks that can't be moved, blocks made of ice, blocks that move on their own, and boss encounters where the game is particularly overt in making a certain Atlus meme even more apparent. Thankfully the game as a whole is hard, but it isn't as soul crushing and aggressive in terms of progression as Demon's Souls. There is a distinct curve and feeling of progression without the whole game just turning into the equivalent of trying to break a block of cement with a twig.
Juxtaposing perfectly with the stair climbing hell that are the Nightmare levels, the nights in the Stray Sheep Bar are an opportunity to take a break yet still be a part of the game. As mentioned before, you are able to respond to text messages sent to you by both Catherine and Katherine. How you respond and how you answer certain questions and perform certain actions all tie into an ongoing Alignment Bar. I'm hesitant to call it a Morality or Karma Meter because it doesn't measure your actions on strict ideas of Good or Evil. Instead one side leans towards either someone who is towards commitment and marriage, where the other side is more towards playing the field, one-night stands and the like. It is used to an interesting degree and doesn't moralize one outlook over the other, and leads to the game having multiple endings. Of course if you're already married or in a relationship I recommend they not be present for certain questions, otherwise I cannot be held responsible for what may or may not get broken after the fact.
The Gamebryo Engine flexes its HD muscles in Catherine and to its credit, everything is very fluid and responsive. Also, it must be said that the Anime artstyle used for the cutscenes are high-quality and gorgeous. Unfortunately, the game also has cutscenes in-game, and whenever this happens, it looks just a little bit off. Seeing a 2D animated image of Vincent talking seems just right, but seeing the whole presentation in 3D cel-shaded polygons makes his change of emotion a bit too static and unreal, to state an example. In terms of aesthetic, Catherine is vibrant, but sinister with its atmosphere, has an adult tone but doesn't go completely into dry grim depression, and manages to invoke investment in the struggle of Vincent's situation, while also not condemning his actions.
Musically speaking, Catherine is beautiful. Shoji Meguro's reworking of classical music help give the game a feeling of the uncanny during the nightmare sequences, as well as a feeling of still tranquility during the day. In terms of voice acting, everyone is top-notch, especially returning talent from Persona 4, Troy Baker, as the voice of Vincent, and the English translation is seamless.
Despite every excuse to dismiss this game, Catherine has genuinely managed to impress me. Playing it on Easy straight through, the main campaign clocks in at about 13 or so hours of gameplay, finishing the single-player unlocks a Competitive and Co-Op mode against randomly generated towers, and for those who love replay value, there are multiple endings to be seen. If you have the opportunity, import this game as soon as you can. I could go on about how Catherine delves into its own subject matter but the real treat is experiencing it yourself.
Catherine is nearly perfect for a game that could have gone so wrong in so many ways. The puzzles are challenging, the sound and voice quality is top notch, the story is engaging, and with all of the extra replay value, it almost comes off as a rip-off at its current retail price. Buy it, play it, get a copy for your friends who are single, and enjoy.
AAG SCORE: 9.0/10
+ Deep examination of adult subject matter
+ Great story
+ Great musical score and voice-acting
+ Challenging yet engaging gameplay
+ Visually unique
- Few too many cutscenes using 3D models
- May be too hard for some
Reviewed and Written By Tyler Chancey