Your dreams are about to become nightmares.
As a game reviewer there are few times when you can honestly say something was the first time you felt a particular way for a game. It's often just hyperbole or something being a bit overblown. But this is definitely one of those times when it's genuine Catherine has got to be the first time that I was so confused, enthralled, horrified and simultaneously unable to look away from a video game. It really is just that sort of game.
Catherine follows the protagonist Vincent through the trials and tribulations of one really hellish week. What starts as a single nightmare and lunch with his girlfriend rapidly spirals out of control. Every night these dreams get worse, leaving him exhausted during the day. As such his sleep deprived, alcohol addled mind isn't exactly handling the fact that he's cheating on his girlfriend very well. His whole world is falling apart and he's being told that if he dies in his sleep he dies in real life. Sweet dreams!
The story for this game is, to put it lightly, pretty screwy. Vincent is an inherently likable protagonist who has fairly normal problems. He really cares for his Katherine, his girlfriend of many years, but he is afraid of commitment and the idea of having to settle down. Heck he even seems to be weirded out about the idea of moving in together. This is something a lot of guys can understand even if they don't panic like our boy Vincent does and, when paired up with his otherwise normal nature, makes him easy to empathize with. A likeable, easy to sympathize with main character? I... I don't know what to say...
As this is a romantic drama, during the daytime at least, the women are just as important and luckily they're very well written. Katherine is the serious type but not exaggeratedly so. She's at the age where she wants to get married and settle down which isn't a lot to ask. While a bit of a nag that only seems to be the case because she really cares for Vincent, even going so far as to clean up his place when she comes over and he's not there. This is a tough balancing act but the game nails it right on the head.
Catherine on the other hand is quite the fun loving individual. Vincent meets Catherine at his favorite bar after a night of heavy drinking and he wakes up in bed next to her with no memory of their... canoodling. While she wants to be in a relationship with Vincent, going so far as to threaten him if she finds out he's cheating on her, she gives off a weird vibe. Super hot she may be but she also feels kind of dangerous and somewhat stalkeriffic. But her ideals of having fun, not being tied down and living life are the sort of thing that would appeal to quite a lot of people (read: guys).
All of the supporting characters are fairly well developed. At night Vincent hangs out at the Stray Sheep bar where he can interact with the patrons as much as he likes (more on that later). This, and the cutscenes that occur before you're given free roam of the place let you see what each of the characters is like. All of them are fairly well developed and act as voices of reason one way or the other in Vincents morality play.
Morality, surprisingly enough, does play a role in all of this. You're not just on a set path here, you can influence the way things turn out. To a degree. Vincent can either follow the blue morality, which seems to represent order, or the red, which represents chaos. The ordered path is the way that society expects you to act be responsible, get married, raise a family and be stable / dependable. Chaos on the other hand is all about doing what you want. Wanna go out and drink with friends? Have fun. Want to hook up with a hot chick? Done. Shirk your responsibilities? Go for it.
The game tests your moral stance in so many instances it's not even funny. You are given questions while in the dream world, at the end of every puzzle, that influence it but these are only the obvious ones. While in the Stray Sheep and interacting with your friends you can also influence it by what you tell them. Encourage someone to settle down and watch your blue go up. Extol the virtues of a harem and watch your red go up. It's a fairly subtle system that really bases who Vincent truly is on more than just a few choices. You're shaping who Vincent is over the course of the game and who he will be in the future which gives it a much greater impact than such systems in most other games.
You will also communicate with your dueling female acquaintances via the use of your cell phone. Each message is composed of two to four sentences you pick from a number of pre-set dialogue options. Mixing and matching these allows you to pretty nicely tailor your messages to how you, the player, are feeling. It's possible to send a message that gives mixed signals, some choices being nice and some being mean, to avoid any sort of morality shift. This even further enhances your ability to shape Vincent by his responses to people.
But we haven't really talked about the major bulk of the game yet and there's a reason for that: the puzzle sequences in Catherine are both a huge hallmark of creativity and its only real failing.
First let's talk about why the puzzle tower sections are awesome. The game is fairly simple in theory pull on blocks to create stairs so you can climb to the top of the tower. But as soon as you finish the first few puzzles things just absolutely go crazy. You start having to push blocks so that they hang in thin air (so long as two of them are touching, even if just the edges, they stay airborne). Then things start chasing you, other climbers start pushing you out of the way, a variety of different blocks with different properties get in your way and it all just kind of goes to hell.
There are two types of stages: races against the stage and races against... things. The races against the stage have you running away the bottom of the stage as it collapses out from under you. These stages are, by and large, very fun levels. You may fail a few times, get confused as to how to proceed or be stopped by the other climbers but it's not too bad. Death is possibly but not common. So long as you keep your cool, remember the tips the game gives you on how to climb effectively and stay on your toes you'll be fine.
Then come the pursuit stages and it all goes to hell. The point of these stages is that some issue of Vincent's is pursuing him as he climbs and will kill him if it catches him. So now you're trying to outrun some gigantic horror from the depths of your own worst nightmares while moving blocks. Oh and they have special attacks they use on you such as reversing your controls or turning all blocks into heavy blocks (making them move slower). If you can't plot out a path a few seconds after you reach a new level then you're going to die. It's simple as that. Even with the ability to undo moves on the Easy and Normal difficulty you will find yourself boxed into a corner time and again. So you will die, lose a life and then have to try again. And again. And again. There is a way around this choosing to retry the level will allow you to go back to the beginning with the path you already know and try again. This gets around the "running out of continues, goddamnit" issue but not the frustration of getting caught up time and again.
As is par for the course with Atlus games the graphics and sound are a joy. All of the cutscenes are done in a lovingly rendered, semi-realistic anime style that gives you lots of eye candy while forwarding the plot. The in-game graphics look like a HD version of the models from Persona 4 giving them smooth animations and movement but nothing too highly detailed. It keeps the game flowing smoothly though so it works out. One thing that is highly detailed is the nightmares that chase Vincent those things are so disturbing on so many levels that its apparent someone had a very fun time designing them.
All of the voice work is of high quality from Katherine's complaining to Vincent about not taking care of himself to Vincent's constant internal monologues the actors have put themselves into this. The only quibble is with Catherine herself who has the voice of a teenage girl. It fits the characters personality to a degree but on one hand you have a man in his early thirties and the other is a sex goddess, climbing all over him speaking with a sultry teenage sounding voice. It can feel weird at times. Shoji Meguro's work rounds out the experience, providing aural enjoyment with your eye loving.
It's always nice to see a game developer breaking from the mold and Catherine does that in a huge way. Unfortunately the difficulty is going to alienate a very large amount of people. Tacked on with those who were alienated already when they found out this wasn't an RPG and it's not looking good. We only hope that this game will find the crowd that enjoys both the aggravation of the challenge and the developing storyline that forms the core of Catherine. There is a hell of an experience here if you only have the patience for it.