E3 2011: 10 Thoughts on… Catherine (Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony Playstation 3)

Catherine, at first glance, looks like another weird game from our friends at Atlus, but it’s more than a game that trades on its visuals and odd artistic style. With an art style that evokes memories of Atlus mainstay franchise Shin Megami Tensei, the game has a distinctly supernatural air to it, and that’s pretty appropriate given the bizarre subject matter. Figuring out what Catherine is supposed to be is another matter altogether, however. It is one part puzzle game and one part dating simulator (of sorts), so the game doesn’t really fit into any sort neatly understandable niche, and to say I’ve been exceptionally curious about the game since its announcement would be an understatement. Atlus USA is taking a pretty big risk bringing the game stateside, and a bigger one plastering the game all over the E3 advertising materials as they are, so when given a chance to really play around with the game at their booth this year, I jumped at the chance.

1. The artistic style of the game switches back and forth between rendered cutscenes and in-game visuals a good amount, and interestingly enough the transition between the two is largely not easily noticeable, which speaks well of the in-game visuals. The visuals use a cel-shaded style that’s very appealing to look at, even when it’s of the main chacter running around in his underwear. But, more importantly, the visuals work great at establishing the appropriate moods, be they subdued and low key bar chats or terrifying races against disembodied body parts hungry for blood, and that’s no mean feat.

2. The storyline is actually very in-depth, and while the basic concept is easy enough to digest, the game isn’t as simple as it seems. The deal is that Vincent, the main character, is engaged to Katherine, a responsible, somewhat frigid adult-minded woman. He ends up cheating on her with Catherine, a free-spirited, bubbly young woman, who comes with her own baggage. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he ends up in the position of not being able to actually choose one, and, oh yes, he’s being hunted in his dreams by things that want him dead. So it’s really good times all around for Vincent. The game is rather cutscene heavy, if the demo is any indication, as there was a good half an hour (seriously) of cutscenes between one point of interaction and the next, so for those who are interested in the storyline, that will be great, but for those who want to play the game, it’s going to be a bit harder to work with the game, though you can skip cutscenes if you wish.

3. The game is divided into eight days, per Atlus reps, of which I spent a good amount of time with one. The one day itself took a good hour or so to plug through, which bodes well for the game, as it implies that (should the other days be equally lengthy) the game will have a good amount of weight to it. Additionally, with the various options available to the player, there will be multiple endings available to the player, once again taking the form of the Shin Megami Tensei Order/Chaos aspects we’ve come to expect.

4. Part of the game day will take place in Vincent’s normal life, where he’ll go through his day, talking to friends and strangers and, later, frantically trying to sort out the mess his life has become. Aside from watching through the cutscenes, Vincent can also talk to various people, which can get him conversation points that also impact his morality in the long run to allow him to get one of the available endings. You can also do various things, such as drinking, that will change up how things go at the end of the night, depending on how you want your puzzles to feel.

5. Which brings us to the nighttime puzzle sequences. Basically, the game requires you to climb Vincent up a tower of blocks to get to the top, avoiding violent death and falling to your demise along the way. The block tower isn’t in the correct shape to bring you upward on its own, of course, but you can climb around the edge of blocks to move into a better position and pull out blocks to make a new path as the situation merits along the way. You’ll also have to avoid enemies along the way, as well as other sheep who are trying (and often failing) to avoid their own demise, so it can get pretty hectic after a short amount of time.

6. You have tools to help you out along the way, as well, though. You can find pillows to give you additional tries to get to the top, checkpoints to prevent you from having to start over, gold coins that allow you to buy blocks and other useful tools, and books that clear all of the enemies from the screen as needed.

7. You’ll need those, however, because aside from the enemies you’ll face and the sentient body parts that want you dead, you’ll also have to contend with traps along the way. There are breakable blocks that crumble when you step on them, blocks with spikes under them that will kill you instantly, and other messy tools of death. The bosses you face can also mess with the stages, and of course, the stage is also crumbling as you scale, so time is of the essence.

8. The game, according to the Atlus reps, will come equipped with the lower difficulty patch already built in, but for those who want a punishing experience, holding Back/Select when booting up will apparently disable it. Thank God for that, because this game is not friendly in the least, and you’ll spend a good amount of time puzzling through the towers to reach the top before you successfully clear a stage, if my time with the game (and the time of those I watched play) is any indication.

9. The game will also offer two additional play modes that are included in the Japanese version. One will allow for four uber-tough additional Tower sequences that will punish even the best players, for those who want a real challenge. The other will allow two players to go head to head in the storyline Tower sequences, allowing you to compete with others to see who can survive the Tower the best. Both should add some replay value to the game on top of playing through the main storyline and seeing all the endings.

10. Catherine is a hard game to pin down, and the Japanese press hasn’t been especially kind to it either from all indications, so it’ll be interesting to see how it performs when it comes out stateside. Even without playing through a complete build of the game I can safely say it’s not going to be even remotely widely accessible, and even fans of Atlus’ other works will find this a bit off the wall at first. That said, there’s clearly an interesting game underneath all of the weirdness, and it’ll be interesting to see if Atlus can bring the experience together in a way that makes for an engaging product at the end of the day.

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