By Michael DiMauro
Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 and 4 were both beloved Japanese Role Playing games for the PS2, so when Atlus and the development team behind those games announced that their first game on a modern console would be a puzzle game, it left many people confused. The good news is that many of the things that made the Persona series wonderful are still intact.
Catherine, at its core, is about relationships and one man’s struggle with the decision to either settle down to a quiet life or to live outside of society’s rules in exchange for a life of freedom. Somewhere in there, is a puzzle game as well. You play as Vincent, who is being pressured into marriage by his long time girlfriend Katherine (with a K). After a night of heavy drinking, he wakes up next to Catherine (with a C) who seems to embody a carefree lifestyle that is the exact opposite of what his current girlfriend espouses. While Vincent doesn’t remember anything from the night before, he has never cheated, and is instantly thrown into a moral quandary.
That’s when the nightmares start.
During the day, Vincent goes through sitcom-level shenanigans as he tries to keep his two love interests from finding out about each other. At night Vincent climbs. The puzzle game begins as Vincent – in his boxers and with unexplained sheep horns – is presented with increasingly complicated block towers that he must Q*Bert his way up. Most blocks can be pushed and pulled, and they will defy gravity as long as they are touching an edge of another block. Vincent can also hang off the edges of blocks to climb like a spider around obstacles. The nightmare world sets up a very specific set of gameplay rules, and sticks to them as it builds upon what you’ve already learned and introduces to you new gameplay concepts.
As you are making your way up the block towers, you will occasionally find items that you can use to make your climb easier. You can only carry one at a time, and they vary from giving you a short burst of strength that allows you to jump up two blocks at a time, to allowing you to place a block wherever you need, to giving you an extra life. As you get further into the game you will encounter sheep-men on the climb, some of which are very aggressive and whose only purpose is to make sure that you plummet to your death.
Each nightmare consists of a few different levels with a landing in between each, where you can buy items and spend some time with your fellow sheep-men. Most of the other climbers are lost in their own problems, but a few have banded together to share strategies. These interactions are worth seeking out as the techniques discussed will end up making the climbing puzzles much less frustrating. Even so, it is easy to see how fans of the Persona series could be disappointed in the choice to abandon the standard RPG for a puzzle mechanic that while being interesting, is indeed the weakest part of the game.
Every evening Vincent hangs out at the local bar with his friends and the various patrons. Some of the best moments of the game come as you are allowed to roam the bar, free of any sort pressure, talking with different people. You are free to play with the jukebox, have an adult beverage, or take a turn on the Rapunzel arcade machine – which works as a practice mode for your late night climbs. It turns out Vincent isn’t the only one having nightmares, and there is even a rumor that unfaithful men are being cursed, and dying. Vincent receives text messages from both Katherine and Catherine while at the bar, and his responses help to determine which of the eight endings you will get.
Similar to the Persona series, Catherine’s cutscenes are beautifully rendered, but now the in-game engine is gorgeous as well. The cel-shaded characters are wonderfully stylized and exaggerated, not only in their look, but in their animation and facial expressions. The Persona team’s transition to HD graphics is an absolute pleasure to behold.
The story of Catherine ends up being very linear, and this is disappointing because it feels like the game gives you the tools to lead the story down several paths. Katherine’s character is objectively a complete drag. The audio cue when you open up one of her text messages is literally an exasperated sigh. Despite how rude you are to her in your text messages, Vincent will end up feeling like he needs to stay true to her right up to the end. If the game had presented a few redeeming qualities for Katherine, then Vincent’s feelings of ambiguity would have made much more sense.
There is a lot to love about Catherine. You will be hard pressed to find another game that is willing to tackle infidelity as its core theme, and be so bizarre and fantastically goofy at the same time. The game oozes with style and personality and presents you with an off-kilter world that is wonderful to get lost in. The puzzle aspects of the game may be its weakest point, but they are by no means bad, and shouldn’t stop anyone from picking this game up.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Catherine provided by the reviewer. It is also available for the PS3.