Atlus games don’t offer your average experience. Whether they are challenging morality in the Shin Megami Tensei series, challenging your sanity in Demon’s Souls or going for plain quirky in 3D Dot Game Heroes, Atlus games never fail to push boundaries for games and gamers alike. With Catherine, Atlus ups the ante and risk by creating an adult themed horror/puzzle game that relies heavily on story and challenging puzzles.
Vincent is a 32 year old software engineer with a decent life, but when his long-time girlfriend Katherine starts talking about marriage, his quaint world gets thrown upside-down. He starts dreaming of an endless staircase of blocks that change and the fear of falling feels too real. In his dreams he is told he is there for a reason; someone he knows put him there and if he can’t make it to the top he will die like the rest of sheep who inhabit his dreams. To make matters worse, after a heavy night of drinking, Vincent wakes up next to the very alluring Catherine, as his girlfriend Katherine starts dropping hints that she is pregnant. Now riddled with guilt and a fear of falling, he must face his nightmares if he has a chance of getting out alive.
Catherine is a story heavy game that relies upon the mystery surrounding the dreams and the moral conundrums Vincent gets himself into. Played out in gorgeous anime and almost identical in-game footage, the characters are more than two-dimensional knights trying to save the world. Bigger questions of morality and the views of society play out as you navigate the everyman’s day. Outside of the puzzle nightmares, the main gameplay revolves around Vincent’s favorite bar The Stray Sheep, where he talks with friends, questions other patrons and constantly is barraged by text messages and cell phone calls. How he interacts with others and answers their questions registers on a morality meter, which affects how he reacts around him and ultimately which of the multiple endings you get. For a dedicated player,this extra interaction provides clues and understanding to the nightmares you must face when you leave the bar.
The nightmares are where the true platforming of the game exist. In the Vincent’s dreams he must quickly navigate a pile of movable blocks that go beyond the definition of puzzle. Different blocks behave differently; from trap blocks to crumbling blocks to spring blocks, Vincent has his work cut out for him as he needs to move fast to avoid the bottom rows from dropping and avoid the other sheep that constantly get in the way. Early in the game, it is tough to navigate the basic blocks, and it only gets harder. Luckily, there are platforms between levels where you can interact with other sheep, sometimes gaining valuable techniques or items to tackle the next level.
At the end of each platform, you are questioned by a guiding voice that once again affects your morality meter. But these questions are meant to see how you fit into society, not necessarily good or evil. Does life begin or end with marriage? Do you blend into or stick out from a crowd? At the end of each level you must face off against a boss, who chases you up the pile, randomly changing blocks and generally trying to kill you if you lag behind. Even though you are given extra lives, this game is brutally hard. Even on Easy, you only gain the ability to undo one previous move, so easily-frustrated players will want to throw the controller at the screen. Once you complete each level you are given a score based on your performance, and can retry levels via Vincent’s cell phone in the real world. If that isn’t enough to challenge you then you can face off against other players in Vs. Colosseum mode or co-op it in Babel mode with larger towers of blocks.
Catherine is more of an experience than a game, and the random player won’t know what the heck is going on. This game is beautiful, challenging and deep on a level no other game attempts to go for, but ultimately may alienate more people than it wins over.
Pros: Original story and gameplay, challenging puzzles
Cons: Ridiculous difficulty, may not appeal to everyone