Catherine is a very strange erotic horror puzzle/adventure game developed by the team that gave us Persona 3 and Persona 4, and published by Atlus (in Japan and America, anyway). Now, to be completely honest, I freaking love this team. I consider Persona 4 to be one of the best games of all time. It is certainly the best game on the PS2, in the running for best JRPG I have ever played (currently it is tied for first with Chrono Trigger), and tied for 3rd (again, with Chrono Trigger) on my list of all time favorite games, ever. Persona 3 wasn't too shabby either (I would definetly rank it as among the best RPGs on the PS2) being as it had one of the single greatest endings I have encountered in a game. It also seemed from all the pre-release info to both have unique, daringly different gameplay (something I love in a game), and heavy themes of sexuality (which it really doesn't all that much. More on that later). Obviously, my expectations for the game were very high. Does it live up to my mile expectations? Short story: Jump down the big TL;DR for that. Long story: Keep reading and I will tell you, silly!
A man in his underwear with sheep horns climbing a single, gigantic tower. Freud would have a field day.
The game starts out with our protagonist, Vincent, a thirty-something software engineer, being forced to climb a gigantic tower made out of blocks in his dreams. If he falls, his is told he will die by a sheep who is also climbing the tower. With no other option, Vincent climbs the tower and heads towards freedom. He wakes up with no real memory of what happened in his dream. Later that day, he meets his girlfriend of 5 years, Katherine, a thirty-something manager at a company that makes clothes. Apparently, all (or nearly all) or her friends are getting married and her parents are pressuring her to marry. She also seems to fear that she will be Christmas Cake soon, if she doesn't marry (at least from what I saw). Vincent, comfortable with the way things are, is a little nervous, what with all this talk of marriage and responsibility. He goes out drinking with his buddies at a local pub a transsexual friend of his from high-school works as a waitress (which he apparently seems to do every single night. How he manages to keep a job, or even any money in the bank, with habits like that is one of the game's greatest unsolved mysteries). Feeling stressed, both from his job and his relationship with Katherine, he stays after his friends have left and meets a lovely
Proof positive that having an awesome 'fro still makes you about a million times sexier.
The next morning, Vincent wakes up, relived that it was all just a dream. Something is off though. For one thing, the his bed appears to have someone else in it. That someone being Catherine. Naked. Who apparently had sex with. Multiple times in fact, even though he remembers none of it. Looks like his relationship with Katherine won't be improving anytime soon... Anyway, obviously distraught, he confesses his infidelity to his best friend, Orlando, while at lunch. Later, Katherine tells him that she is very late this month. Also, cheating men are apparently dieing horribly in their sleep after having odd dreams. Things proceed to go downhill for ol' Vincent from there. More people die, more parts of the tower is climbed, telling either of the C/Katherines about the other is put off, rumors are heard, red herrings jump around like mad, and Catherine is slept with more.
This butt monster thing is not even the craziest boss in the game. Can you say"baby with a chainsaw"?
The story is very well written and well paced. It bears a large resemblance the classic Clint Eastwood thriller Play Misty for Me (at least the end), if Clint Eastwood had an epic fro, was a programmer, had Freud-tastic dreams every night, and all the female characters had C cups or larger. All the characters are well written and intriguing. They actually feel and act like real people and have real problems, even though most are damaged goods in one way or another. The main characters are all standouts. Vincent is a nice guy who doesn't want the status quo to change, who really does love Katherine, Orlando can act a bit like a jerk at times but is obviously hurting from a very messy break-up (which makes him avoid any real long time relationships with women), and Katherine is loving and caring to Vincent, despite her fears about losing him and never getting married. Surpsingly enough (at least to me), the story concentrates heavily not with sexuality, but with relationships. The topic is explored very deeply, both the hurt and pain they can cause them, as well as the joy and happiness they can bring a person as well. Vincent's relationships with both Katherine and Catherine, his desire to both make them happy and not hurt them, his indecisiveness regarding his relationships, and doubts about both marriage and fatherhood are the real driving force of the story and all are explored in a very mature way. The fact that such complicated themes are explored at such length and with this skill is probably the best thing about the entire game. We have never had a game (at least to my knowledge) that has really explored these themes, and with this skill. I would go so far as to call this game the first mainstream (well, as mainstream as an Atlas game is) romance video game (i.e. the romantic relationship is the real focus and driving force of the game's story). This might very well be one of the most unique stories in a game yet.
Shut up Toby. Nobody likes you. Not even your friends. They just pity you. Sit in the corner until you can figure out how to be less annoying. >:(
Gameplay wise, the game works well. There are two different modes of gameplay: wandering around the bar and interacting with the characters sprinkled about, and climbing the tower. The bar sections are rather straightforward. You can walk around and talk to characters in the usual JRPG way (i.e. listen to people talk, occasionally make a choice between two different options). You can play a miniature version of the climbing sections in an arcade cabinet called "Rapunzel", change the music on the jukebox, check your phone and answer texts using a very strange, yet well crafted system, or drink at the bar (which is actually quite useful, as the more drinks you drink, the faster you are in the dream, for another unknown reason). The climbing sections is probably where you will be spending most of your time. You see, the tower that Vincent is supposed to climb is made out of a rather large variety of blocks that can be pushed and pulled around in order to climb higher. These sections control pretty well (just avoid using the joystick. Stick to D-pad instead), and can be very mentally challenging. You will die and get stuck often (if you play on easy, you get an undo button, which can be very helpful though), but the mid-level checkpoints are well placed, there are save points and places to buy useful items between every level, you can get helpful hints fairly often, and the game is very generous with lives (I had maxed out my lives by the games midpoint), so it is unlikely you will ever get frustrated. The game itself can have a very wonky difficulty curve at times. One night I was getting my ass handed to me left and right by the puzzles, until the boss, which I breezed through without loosing a life. On the last night, it took me nearly 45 minutes and many lives to complete each of the early levels, but I beat both forms of the boss (2 levels) within about 10-15 minutes, and with only dieing once per form.
Having Vincent's Alcoholism intervention in a bar was probably not the smartest move...
The game's graphics look very good. While the game doesn't have the greatest lip synching, everything has a very unique look that fits well with the game, and the cutscenes (especially the anime ones) can look positively gorgeous at times. The character models all look great and fit the personalities of each character. The bosses look menacing and creepy, like Freudian nightmares should. The backgrounds and environments all look nice as well, even though they aren't anything to really right home about. The music is good, though not up to the standards set by Persona 4, the sound effects work, and the voice acting is top notch (which it very well should be, since they seem to have recycled around a third of the actors from P4 and P3. I clearly identified the voices of Akihiko and Adachi, and could have probably have come up with more if I wasn't so darn lazy). Overall, very solid on the technical side of things.
Yo dawg, I heard you like games...
Catherine has one of the most unique stories in the game, which is more than enough for me to recommend it to anyone, but is also a darn fine puzzler to boot. The game is destined to become a cult classic, so pick this one up now before the only new copies available cost $80 on Amazon, like nearly every other game Atlus puts out. Seriously guys and gals, you don't want to miss this gem.
Play me out ELO!