Pick your poison, boys.
I must have asked Kyokai to review this MONTHS before the actual game was released here. Anime may be our main gig, but a bit of game-related content can’t hurt. Besides, Catherine is practically a playable anime, so it fits in with Metanorn’s image. I know a lot of otaku were excited for this game (fellow Metawriter Jrow has also been playing it). Now that it’s out, it’s time to evaluate how much the game stands up to all that hype. There aren’t any spoilers here, so no need to tread lightly.
Catherine is an interesting puzzle/dating sim fusion developed by Atlus, the masters of importing games from glorious Nippon. They’re the people who brought us Persona, Yggdra Union, and Odin Sphere. Catherine actually resembles Persona quite closely in nature if you just replace the fighting with puzzles. Atlus advertised it like crazy when first announced, and has since had people drooling over it and waiting eagerly for the release date. The preorder bonuses were yet another perfect way to lure people into buying it, promising gamers with shirts, boxers, art books, and even a pillow with Catherine herself emblazoned on it.
While originally advertised as primarily a risque dating sim sort of game with a morality system and alternate endings, it turns out that’s more of a side thing. The meat of the gameplay is pushing around blocks. Now you may wonder HOW THE HELL those two would ever end up in the same game, but there’s a reason. When the main character Vincent is awake, he interacts with his long-time girlfriend Katherine. Things are a bit rocky though after having a one night stand with a younger, cuter girl named Catherine. During the day, you deal with the drama and watch a truckload of cutscenes. When Vincent falls asleep, he is haunted by nightmares in which he must move blocks and climb them before they disappear under his feet.
It’s a bit disappointing, but the gameplay is where Catherine falls a bit flat. When you boil it all down, Catherine is just a glorified puzzle game with cute girls parading around to keep your attention. You’d better be prepared to push around a lot of blocks just to see those sexy cutscenes. The block puzzles are well designed and really test your problem-solving skills…but they simply aren’t that fun. The puzzles are more frustrating than fun, to the point where you will find yourself actually dreading them to a certain extent.
Catherine was so hard they had to release a “super easy” patch for the Japanese version. While your average gamer can beat it on Normal, expect to do so at the expense of dying a lot. Mix that with the inconsistent placement of checkpoints that cause you to have to traverse the entire level if you die a few steps from the finish line, and you too will find your patience wearing thin. Keep in mind that switching t an easier difficulty doesn’t magically make the game fun. It makes it a bit less stressful, but the charm of climbing a tower of blocks still wears off rather quickly.
The best part about the puzzles is how good you feel after completing one. All the frustration almost seems worth it when you weigh it against that feeling of accomplishment at the end. In these “after-puzzle” real world sections, you can walk around the bar and talk to customers about their problems. I end up savouring these moments before I’m thrown into the black, swelling abyss that is the block sections. There’s also a morality bar, but it’s pretty black or white. As in you’re gonna either be a saint or a total dick. There’s no middle option. It’s a pretty shallow morality system, but not unlike what you have to do for InFamous…it’s all or nothing. These interactive moments make up about 1/5 of the game in terms of gameplay, and they have very little impact on the game aside from the ending you get.
You see blocks more than Catherine. I guess you could say you got..*puts on glasses*..cockblocked. YEAAAHH
The real pull to the game is the storyline and interesting packaging designed to try and trick you into thinking this isn’t just a game where you shimmy around blocks in your undies. No, no, it’s not a puzzle game! Here, look at this babe! See, you’re talking to her, so it’s a dating sim! It’s a bit of a shallow illusion, but it does seem to make all those grueling puzzles worth it.
Vincent has to choose between settling down and marrying her girlfriend or sticking with the cute girl he had a one-night stand with. It’s a well-told story with a lot of suspense and an air of mystery to it too. More than once, Katherine nearly bumps into Catherine – and I can promise that you will be going “ohshitohshitohshit” during these panic-stricken moments. This fairly normal drama element is combined with the supernatural element of Vincent’s crazy dreams, as well. It makes for a wild ride of twists, turns and well-written confrontations. You won’t be skipping any of these badboys.
Gameplay aside, Catherine certainly looks like a winner. It has a mix of fluid, anime-style cutscenes alongside the CGI. The CGI parts still retain that anime look without being flat or too cartoony. The movements are usually very smooth and natural, but there are a few jerky instances. For example, Vincent tends to walk around either like a nervous drug addict in withdrawl or a lanky teenage not used to his growing body when you control him. They’re not jaw-dropping graphics or anything, but it’s a perfect style for this kind of game. The graphics take a little bit of a dip for the block puzzles, but I doubt you’ll be spending as much time scrutinizing the graphics as you will be clambering away from a butt-monster. (Yes, a butt monster. Don’t make me go into detail.)
Catherine both looks and sounds great in Japanese and English. They did not skimp out on hiring decent voice actors. If you import the Japanese version, you will hear the likes of Miyuki Sawashiro (Celty, Saeko) and Hirata Hiraoki (Gojyo, Kotetsu Kaburagi). However, most of us who can’t read or understand enough Japanese will be stuck with the localized version in english. At first I was sad to hear there was no option for japanese audio in the game, but I quickly got over it. The English dub is spectacular, even for picky people like me. I’m not very familiar with dub actors, but luckily almost all of them were actors in the third Sengoku Basara game! Troy Baker, Laura Bailey and Liam O’Brien all play Mitsunari, Oichi and Ieyasu respectively in Sengoku Basara 3. And they’re damn good. Video game voice acting is usually subpar, but Catherine has some of the best in-game acting I’ve ever heard. Even the NPCs have great voices that are full of vibrancy and emotion.
As for the music, it’s not exactly the sort of thing you’ll have on your iPod, but it really works for the game. Dark songs for the near-death experiences, more upbeat songs as you race to the top for survival and more low-key songs for those nights you just chill at the bar. All in all, a solid soundtrack. It’s a shame it’s covered up by an annoying bell half of the time. The bell lets you know you’re almost at the goal, but it mostly just increases your heart rate and makes you screw up in anticipation. So do the noises the bosses make. I’m pretty sure it’s intentionally there to increase the challenge, but it’s annoying as hell to have some smartass baby screaming orders at you. I really could have gone without it.
The whole game is such a struggle to get through, I don’t know if I’d ever want to replay it. Ever. It takes only 10-13 hours to beat on Normal, and then you can play the Rapunzel mini game (which is the same as the block puzzles, except a time limit is replaced with a move limit). An extra challenge mode is also unlocked. If you really want to, you can replay it all and try to get a perfect score on every stage. But dear God, WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT? Once was enough! If you really like this game, there’s definitely enough replayability to keep you hooked in the extra modes. You can do it all again and try to go for a different gal, or just be an anal perfectionist and get 100% in everything. As for me, replayability is largely determined by how fun it was, and it wasn’t fun enough for me to even touch those levels again.
That’s why there’s an undo button.
Overall, Catherine is a puzzle game with a plethora of bells and whistles to try to distract you from this fact. It’s not a bad puzzle game, per se…but the predominant feeling while playing is that of frustration instead of fun, and that shouldn’t be what video games are for. No matter how hard you wish this were an amazing, unique experience…it’s really only half of the awesome game I thought it would be. Even for a puzzle-game fan such as myself, the puzzles were the biggest weakness while everything else was polished and praise-worthy. I highly recommend playing the demo to see if you like the block puzzles first, and then buying it if you really want to find out about the story. Otherwise, just play Tetris and then watch anime every 30 minutes and you’ve got the exact same experience, only cheaper.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
-Graphics are sleek and have a nice anime style
-Voice acting is great
-Puzzles are well thought out
-Story is great, so is the script
-Illusion of choice having a huge impact due to oversimplified morality system
-Puzzles just aren’t that fun
-Daunting to play. Very few checkpoints
-I had nightmare about blocks every night after playing it
Graphics and Sound: 8/10
Play Time and Replayability: 6/10