Catherine: Atlus' Funky Love Story
Life is scary sometimes. It’s full of twists and turns, and you never really know what to expect. In videogames, we often seek a reprieve from the real world: being a chiseled manly marine with a big gun or an assassin with a steely resolve to kill. Not often are we thrown into complicated, adult situations such as in Catherine.
This game tells the story of a mid-thirties slacker named Vincent who is on the precipice of a big life decision. His long time girlfriend wants to take the relationship to the next level with marriage. In response to this seemingly unexpected conversation he runs off to drink with his friends, gets black out drunk and wakes up next to a gorgeous blonde stranger. Atlus, the development team behind the JRPG series Persona, brings us a game off the beaten track to focus on a more serious side of interpersonal relationships, while bringing a healthy dose of fan-service.
I should clarify that Vincent is dating Katherine, and is cheating on her with Catherine. Confusing, right? With the consecutive nights of drinking, the stress of cheating on a long time girlfriend, and the Nightmare visions into the wee hours of the night, Vincent gets more and more stressed as the story evolves.
There are a few titillating twists (pun intended: there’s fan-service aplenty) and every choice you make will change the outcome of the story, with 8 different endings. The main story averages around 10 hours, but there is seemingly endless replay value when trying to get the different endings and exploring the optional mini-game and trial modes.
Much like the Persona series, the eight days that the game Catherine takes place during is split up into phases. During the day various cut-scenes thrust players into story developments between Vincent, Katherine, his friends, and his inner self (looking at you Persona fans). While at night Vincent hits his favorite local bar like clockwork: the “Stray Sheep”. I see what you did there, Atlus.
During this phase the player can choose to drink, talk to the patrons, view and respond to incoming texts sent by his two lovers, and you guessed it, drink beer. Almost everything you do during the bar phase will make time move by, forcing players to decide on what is most important to them.
As the night comes to a close, Vincent enters a nightmare where everyone he meets is a sheep. The Nightmare phase is the meat of the gameplay; Vincent will climb a wall of blocks to escape his death, using various techniques given to him by the other sheep to climb the walls each night. Players will need to scale the cliff to ascend to higher levels and escape the nightmare dream, moving onto the next day. If you take too long to climb, you’ll slip off and fall to your death. There are boss levels at the end of each night that reflect the inner fears and demons that Vincent is refusing to face in his waking life. These include a baby, Catherine in a bride’s gown, and buttcheeks with a mouthful of sharp teeth lining the crack. Yes. You can’t make this stuff up.
As players move through the game the cliff becomes harder and harder to climb and you’ll need to use your wits and techniques to make the right moves and move the right blocks to complete the level successfully. Blocks are arranged so that you’ll need to use specific strategies of movement, often detailed by other clever sheep people (sheeple?) that are forced to climb with you in this hellish dream-world.
Gameplay keeps you on your toes, and while I definitely felt rushed to complete the levels before falling to my doom I didn’t really need to play a level more than once to complete it.
One of the faults in Catherine is the archaic morality bar. We’ve seen this kind of thing in Infamous, Mass Effect, and Fable. What these games fail to understand is that morality is different for each person and that it’s unfair to lock players into a wrist-slapping system that decides your character’s overall fate. As you make decisions in Catherine, a bar will appear and will move seemingly to good or evil based on whether you continued to cheat on your girlfriend or whether you tried your best to make amends with her.
In the surreal Nightmare, you’re moved into a confessional and the player is asked questions like “Would you ever forgive your cheating spouse?” or “Would you ever lie to a friend?” These answers also effect the morality bar. I thought that this whole system was unnecessary and preachy. While I did like to be challenged with yes/no answers to difficult life questions I didn’t like the fact that if I could shoot for entirely good or entirely bad morality based on my answers, that I could simply reset and start again. Players could simply reload the game if they moved the bar in the direction they didn’t want.
Catherine is a strange, refreshing tale that shines like gold in an industry that praises repetitive, formulaic titles. Taking on the role of Vincent and forcing ourselves to make hard decisions, we can view ourselves in a mirror. Do you prefer the steady, comfortable life of relationships? Do you prefer the adventurous and exciting life of lady-slaying, or man-slaying? Would you rather just focus on yourself, or maybe some combination of the three? Oh, and also enjoying challenging puzzles while climbing your way through your own nightmares.