10 Thoughts on… the Catherine Demo (Microsoft Xbox 360)

I got the chance to play Catherine at this year’s E3, and to be honest, nothing I had seen or heard about the game had prepared me for the game I actually played at that point. It’s one thing to be told about a game featuring dating simulation elements, block-climbing puzzles, demonic sheep and disembodied arms trying to stab you with a fork, it’s quite another to play such a game, and Catherine doesn’t disappoint in the weirdness in the least. Ever since, I’ve been really interested in the final product, and while I missed out on a web demonstration of the game arranged by Atlus directly (which I’m really not happy about), Atlus has been so kind as to push out a demo onto XBLA for general consumption. The demo gives a more encapsulated demonstration of the experience than the E3 demo, largely because the E3 demo seemed to be very close to the actual game… and as such, it was a bit more involved and didn’t lend well to base impressions. The demo, by comparison, gives a pretty good impression of what to expect from the full game, and if it’s any indication, the full game is a whole lot crazier than it seemed.

1.) Well, before things even get underway, the demo sets the tone right from the introductory screens: we get a sheep falling to its death by splattering across the black and white game logo, before focusing in on game protagonist Vincent, STRUNG UP TO A BLOCK WITH BARBED WIRE, as he screams out the name of the game. Nice. The demo then kicks in a jaunty jazz ditty to go along with the whole thing and it goes straight into Refuge in Audacity territory. The menu showcases the “Babel” option, IE “harder puzzles to ruin your life”, though you obviously can’t select it, and there’s no option on the menu for the multiplayer mode to speak of, oddly. The story mode is dubbed “Golden Theater”, as the game is presented as a sort of theatrical production, though you can only choose Easy difficulty to play around with. This is problematic, from my experience with the E3 release, as we’ll discuss shortly, but it gives you a good sense of what the game is about.

2.) The demo starts you off in about the weirdest possible place: in your boxers on a tower of blocks, dead in the middle of nowhere. This actually starts you off with a tutorial that explains the basics, so you can wrap your head around how things work. Climbing the towers is a matter of moving blocks into a position where they make stairs of sorts for Vincent to climb up. The stick and pad can be used to move Vince around, pressing A will latch onto a block in front of Vince to move it, pressing B will release the block, and pressing X uses items you have available, like books that clear all enemies and possessed blocks that can make freebie stairs for you to climb. You can climb around the outside of block rows as well, so you can drag a block out to an area where you’d stand, drop down, and climb around to get to a place where you can stand again, making the puzzles somewhat more complex as a result of you being given more tools to solve them. The demo also allows you to pick up the various coins and such for scoring, and even awards you trophies for completing the stages, though the effects of these things didn’t come into play in any noticeable fashion in the demo.

3.) One thing I didn’t get to spend any significant time with during my time playing Catherine at E3 was the time spent outside of the dream world. The majority of your time outside of the nightmare puzzles seems to be spent in cinematics, interestingly enough, as you see Vincent interact with the various people in his life from one moment to the next; in the case of the demo, we see a cinematic of Vincent interacting with his girlfriend Katherine, as well as a couple of his friends as the local bar The Stray Sheep. These cinematics are meant more to introduce the characters and their world to the players, and they’re mighty effective at doing so, as we learn a good deal about the characters, such as Katherine’s dissatisfaction with her relationship not progressing, and how Vincent’s friends feel about their lives, from these interactions. We also learn Vincent is thirty two years old, which is… kind of depressing for me, actually.

4.) Eventually, the game lets you loose in the Stray Sheep, and that’s when you start choosing your own interactions with others. The game allows you a few text conversations with Katherine, though a good deal more options are promised from the cutscenes after the fact, such as being able to play around with the bar arcade games (which, amusingly enough, mirror Vincent’s puzzles), talk to patrons, and so on. The text conversations allow you a few basic choices of dialogue, and you can flip between them until you have the ones you want in place before you send the message alone to the recipient. How you respond to these dialogue choices impacts the Law/Chaos meter in the game, which is a holdover from prior Atlus titles, most notably those in the Shin Megami Tensei series. In short: you make your choices, and if they bring you closer to Katherine, they’re considered to be more ordered choices, while if they bring you closer to Catherine, they’re considered to be more chaotic choices. Whichever side of the meter you get closer to brings you to that ending once the game is complete, though there’s also a Neutral ending that comes from taking a more even-handed approach to the presented questions, though this is supposedly very tough.

5.) After the conversations and cutscenes, we’re given the hint of Catherine showing up before Vincent wakes up in another nightmare, this time in some sort of prison tower. We’re shown the nightmare world by way of a forward-progressing overhead map, similar to something like Ghouls and Ghosts, where Vincent makes forward progress and moves across the map to showcase this, which is cute if nothing else. The puzzle mechanics of the prison section remain functionally similar to that of the prior section…

6.) …with the exception of the murderous pair of hands trying to kill you. In a novel touch, they’re wearing the same shade of blue nail polish Katherine wears, though Vincent points this out when it probably would have been more effective if the game left it up to the player to notice. Anyway, that aside, when running from murderous implements of destruction, the rules change a little bit. For one thing, if the murderous entity touches Vincent, he completely explodes in a cloud of viscera, so, yeah, try to avoid that. For another, the bosses can affect the environment; in this case, the demon hands kept changing the blocks into heavier blocks that Vincent took longer to move, making my upward ascent more of a challenge, relatively speaking.

7.) The one major downside I would point out about the puzzle segments in the demo is that they’re, well, not challenging at all. Granted, they’re very small relative to what you’ll actually face as the player, and they’re on Easy, but the game is reportedly very hard even with the patched difficulty, and the E3 demo wasn’t a cakewalk in the least, so the demo kind of makes the game come across as a bit less challenging than it actually is. The ability to play on the other two difficulties might have been a bit more interesting, as would have the ability to turn off the patch, which isn’t here that I could see (Atlus reps advised me holding Back when booting the normal game up would accomplish this, which doesn’t work in the demo, alas).

8.) At this point, having played through the demo twice now, in addition to the time spent with the game prior, I do have a couple minor issues to point out. For one, Vincent moves very stiffly until you get used to how he controls (you should have it down by the end of the demo), and I can’t help but think that contributes to the difficulty of the game a bit. Getting him to do what you want to do can be a problem occasionally, as I noticed after pushing a block in the wrong direction and having to reverse the move. Since you can only reverse moves on Easy, I can see how making the wrong move because of the stiffness in the controls could be an easily frustrating moment in the game, and while it isn’t likely to be constant, it happened to me twice in two different demo playthroughs, so it’s not unreasonable to assume that a few players will have this happen to them.

9.) The other significant issue is that it’s hard, from the demo, to know who this game is going to reach out to. Now, the ending cutscene shows that there’s a lot more to the game than the demo shows, including worse bosses, more things to interact with, and so on, but all the demo shows you is two tower puzzles and a cellphone response game, along with some cutscenes. The game loves its story, and I think I’m starting to as well, for sure, but it’s hard to gauge, from the demo, who the game is meant for. It’s very experimental, is the point here, and while Child of Eden is an experimental game that lots of people liked, it’s also not a game that moved a ton of copies, and I don’t know if Catherine is going to be an easy sell for many people either, because… well, it’s weird, and the demo does nothing to disabuse the player of this notion.

10.) That all said, Catherine is a very interesting experiment, from all indications, and whether it succeeds or fails, I’m sold, guys and gals. The demo is full of all sorts of nice little touches, like a brief half second focusing on an ant or Vincent’s eyes quickly changing color, that really sell the surreal nature of the experience and really give the game the suspenseful, horrifying feel it’s going for. Further, the puzzles, so far, are fun, and the fact that there are multiplayer puzzles and extra challenge puzzles beyond the main game give it theoretical replay value out of the box, as do the multiple endings promised. Look, Catherine is obviously not for everyone, and I strongly urge you to play the demo as soon as it’s made available to you, because it really should be experienced, but the game is going to be something that you’ll either love or be confused by, and there’s nothing I can say to you that’s going to sell you on the game one way or the other. It’s a puzzle game with dating simulation elements and a horror theme, okay? It’s confusing just in concept, let alone execution, and the Collector’s Edition comes in a pizza box. Just trust me, you haven’t seen anything like Catherine. Try it. Seriously.

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