- CLR Rating:
Release Date: July 26th, 2011
Platform: Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Developer: Atlus Persona Team
Publisher: Atlus Games
Genre: Psychological Romance Thriller/ Allegorical Puzzler
ESRB: M for Mature
Catherine . . . the Great?
Unfortunately for most of us here in the west, romance isn’t really available in the world of videogames. For the most part, if you see anything that concerns itself with the affairs of the heart in a game, it’s either A) background information for a lead character, B) a subplot to a larger game (such as in Mass Effect or Harvest Moon), or C) simply nonexistent. Instead, we usually get endless variations on the same thing – Murder!
In Japan, things are a bit different. There, the Dating Sim genre (itself a subset of the Visual Novel genre) has built up a strong following, even amongst the menfolk. These are games that explore the exciting world of . . . having long conversations with a girl. Buying her gifts. Listening. Being agreeable.
Yeah I think I’m starting to see why these games don’t garner much interest here. After all, when you realize that most games are about letting the player perpetrate verb actions without consequence, choosing from a selection of flowers doesn’t really compare to the ability to cause head explosions in the latest adrenaline soaked Warathon, does it?
If you’re the type who’d rather make war instead of love, Catherine, a game almost entirely about one man’s romantic entanglements (and ability to destroy his own liver with booze), should catch your attention. Why? Well, it’s completely, 100% bugnuts insane for one thing. Oh, and it also happens to be an incredible achievement in action puzzle gameplay, and is probably the most human game you’ll play this year.
Even if you do spend most of it playing as a guy who’s sprouted ram horns on his head.
Catherine certainly doesn’t sound that weird at first. In fact it’s a setup that’s so mundane it could almost be boring:
We follow Vincent Brooks. He’s 32, has a decent job, a neighborhood pub, his own apartment, and a longtime girlfriend; Katherine. He’s a decent enough fellow, still hanging out with childhood buddies, and faithful to the woman he loves. Most importantly, Vincent’s finally at ease with his life, and doesn’t want anything in it to change. All in all, a completely average guy leading a completely boring life.
But then Vincent starts having nightmares. Night after night, he’s chased by horrors up an unending wall and surrounded by talking sheep before gasping awake in what he hopes is only terror sweat. Oh, and Katherine wants to get married, because she might be pregnant. This might even have been bearable, but then Vincent wakes up next to a cute blonde he doesn’t even remember taking home with him last night. The new girl has the homophonic name of Catherine, and she might just be the one behind a series of strange deaths that have been occurring around the city as of late.
Make no mistake, Vincent is about to have the worst week of his entire life.
Atlus’ Persona Team have crafted in Catherine, perhaps the ultimate anti-Dating Sim, whilst retaining the fundamental interest of the genre. For one thing, the game centers around a trying period in what is an otherwise stable long term relationship, rather than on the pursuit of young love and first romance. For another, it’s fundamentally (and quite surprisingly), a puzzle game more in the vein of Q-Bert and Intelligent Cube than a drawn out string of text boxes.
You see, the reoccurring nightmares that plague Vincent are really the meat of the “game” portion of Catherine. In them, you’re tasked with scaling a wall composed of square blocks. Vincent can only climb one block at a time, and so must push and pull these blocks to form steps and bridges that allow him to move up the wall as quickly as possible, because the wall itself is crumbling into an ever expanding pit of death even as it’s scaled.
If that sounds incredibly simple, well, it’s because it is, at least at first. It actually gets quite challenging as the nights go by and you progress. The wall layouts get more complex, the blocks become dangerous and fall off faster, and Vincent ends up pursued by the monstrous re-imaginings of his daily fears and anxieties. Things like the gigantic hands of Katherine, or a forty foot Frankenstein’s infant.
The makers of Catherine are keenly aware that dreams, and thus nightmares, are only important because of the context they contain in our personal lives. If you’re attacked in a dream by a gigantic baby, it’s weird. If you’re a guy genuinely worried by the prospect that you’re not prepared to be a father when you’ve impregnated your girlfriend, it’s terrifying.
So in order to give the otherwise nonsensical puzzling fun of the wall climbing (and the even more bizarre platforms between them containing herds of confused sheep) such all too important context, the other half of Catherine consists of Vincent’s daily life. Each day begins with a series of cinematics, via either the in-game engine or with some beautiful animation from the studio 4° C, and they concern the pertinent parts of Vincent’s life. One day it’s Katherine’s intent to marry, on another it’s Catherine’s jealous boyfriend threatening to kill Vincent for stealing his coquettish paramour.
Following these cinematics is essentially, a Cheers simulator, as Vincent whiles away the remaining hours between day and hesitant sleep at his local pub, “The Stray Sheep.” Here Vincent drinks with his supporting cast, including his peanut gallery of friends who comment on the events of the day, and various other patrons and workers who wander in (many of whom also appear in the nightmares as sheep). Downing drinks earns cute real-life factoids about sake and beer, the jukebox holds an excellent jazz score, and you can respond to texts from the two ladies vying for Vincent’s affections. These text responses have the largest importance; they affect a meter that governs Vincent’s internal monologues, and eventually how the story plays into one of its multiple endings.
These moments in the game’s real world are what make Catherine truly worth playing. They’re charming and personable and ground the game in familiarity. Vincent’s problems are the kind that, even if you don’t share them, you can recognize. His friends (though all Bishonen stereotypes) are down to earth, and the drunken texting all too exact.
Conversely, it’s the nightmares that undoubtedly prove to be Catherine’s “make or break” point for the player. Not because of their themes, which present a fitting allegory to coping with the issues of the mind; the blocks subtly representing the overcoming of personal doubts, while the monsters bluntly reinforce this subtext. No, it’s not the content of the dreamscape, but the delivery. Specifically, it’s the choice of using puzzle game mechanics.
Either you like a game of Tetris, or you don’t. If you can’t stand it, it’s not because the game is made poorly or doesn’t have enough features, it’s too simple a game to actually have those sorts of flaws. It’s just a matter of taste, and so it is with the puzzle-climbing in Catherine. Personally, I enjoyed the climbing and thus the game, actually finding it quite addictive.
Well, up to a point anyways.
As Catherine progresses, it unfortunately runs into some problems. Primarily with its plot, which while admittedly bouncing violently between the outright bizarre and touchingly boring, at least flows well enough for most of the game’s initial fifteen to twenty hours. But at the end everything is revealed in a long stretch of exposition that occurs after the core romantic dilemma is resolved, and this is followed with a series of overly long, stymying puzzle levels. The pace becomes interminably glacial and you’ll wish it would just end already.
Oh and as I’m sure you’ve noticed with these screenshots, the game follows the styling of Japanese anime heavily; if you can’t get behind this medium you won’t make it far in Catherine. In fact, much of the dialogue and characterization are very oriented toward Japanese cultural values, despite what seems like an attempt at a more universal appeal. When characters have names like Toby and Erica act far more like a Takashi or an Emiko it ends up creating a bit of an awkward cultural dissonance that can get disconcerting.
But if you can get beyond (or enjoy) the anime trappings, the occasionally odd translation or misplaced cultural gaffe, and you enjoy the puzzle game, you’ll find in Catherine a fine little tale. Its clever use of exciting gameplay to stand in for personal emotional struggle keeps the game from getting dull, and so it sneakily moves in a story about love, emotional betrayal and personal maturity. It’s a rare accomplishment to see a game even attempt to tackle such themes. It’s even rarer that they prove as effective as they do here.
The Dating Sim genre probably isn’t coming to America any time soon. The walls of text, the limited and frankly boring “gameplay” just don’t work to our sensibilities very well. Not when plenty of games offer constant face punching, dragon slaying or laser shootouts.
However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get some romance in our lives. Catherine, if nothing else, proves that it is entirely possible to make a game in such a genre and keep it from ever falling into the bed death of endless text boxes and dialogue trees. Hopefully, even if it doesn’t do well enough to spawn sequels, it can inspire others to try and make their own unique interpretations of the all too common complication that is love, and bring such works into our lives.
For if a life without love isn’t worth living, isn’t a medium that fails to explore love’s avenues not worth examining?