Review: Catherine “Love Is Over” Edition (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Catherine “Love Is Over” Edition
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Atlus
Publisher: Atlus
Release Date: 07/26/11

As Atlus Japan’s first release for the 360 and PS3, Catherine is something of a big deal. While Atlus of America has been bringing over everything they could get their hands on from other developers, Atlus Japan has mostly kept to the PSP, PS2, DS and Wii, and for the most part, this strategy seemed to be serving them well enough, if their numerous releases in the Shin Megami Tensei and Trauma Center franchises are any indication. Times change and popularity wanes, however, and so, we come to Catherine a new intellectual property from Atlus, developed by the team responsible for the more recent Persona titles while being mostly (aside from a cameo by Vincent in Persona 3 Portable) unrelated to those games. It isn’t just a different franchise, however; Catherine, aside from sharing a similar art style with the recent Persona games, has more in common with the Trauma Center series, as its gameplay is based around frantic puzzle solving and quick decision making, along with some odd morality choice elements here and there, over any sort of RPG mechanics. Because of this novelty and because the game isn’t really quite like anything on the market, Catherine is certainly a charming and engaging product, and after playing it at E3 and trying the demo, as I said before, whether the experiment succeeded or failed, I was sold.

So let’s see how it all turned out.

You take on the role of Vincent Brooks, a thirty two year old man with a pretty girlfriend, a mediocre job, and absolutely no ambition to make anything of his life. As our story begins, Vincent’s otherwise comfortable life is slowly beginning to erode, as said pretty girlfriend, Katherine, is hinting she wants to get married and Vincent is starting to suffer from some… rather vivid nightmares. Things REALLY start getting complicated, however, when a young woman named Catherine enters his life with a bang, and before he knows it he’s cheated on Katherine with Catherine, his nightmares are more and more readily trying to kill him, and his life is essentially going down the toilet. On one hand, the writing in Catherine is as solid as one would expect; the character interplay is tonally appropriate, and the characters develop well throughout the course of the story. You’ll see little developments pop up about established characters, especially in the Nightmare Realm, that expand on their character in reasonable and believable ways, giving them added depth and substance beyond the character you see in the normal world. Vincent’s slow descent into hell is also pretty engaging as you go along, and the course of action you take him along to bring him to whatever point he gets to at the end of his story, though not exceptionally flexible until endgame, is pretty believable given Vincent’s insecurities about life, the universe and everything. Not that the writing is perfect by any means; Vincent can come across as needlessly indecisive as the story goes along, and the plot goes a bit crazy at the end on a level that might be off-putting given the way everything goes that leads up to it (though I found it to be fine, so maybe you will too). On the whole, though? Vincent’s mostly a relatable character, if you’ve ever been in a similar position, and I don’t just mean “cheating” either. Vincent is the sort of character who feels like his life isn’t in his control, like he just dances to everyone else’s tune… and if you know what that feels like, you can understand where he’s coming from.

See, here’s the thing: the likability of the protagonist and his cohorts is relative to the sort of person you are. Vincent is a slacker, Katherine is demanding, Catherine is clingy, Orlando blames his problems on others, and so on, that’s undeniable. These are broken people in a broken situation who are languishing in their failures and inabilities to move on with their lives. That said, I know these people. In some respects, I am these people. I do not have my life figured out. I feel like my life is run by forces outside of my control a lot of times. Further, I imagine a lot of you feel much the same way sometimes. You feel like you’re trapped in your life, unwilling to move forward and unable to remain consistent (or perhaps the other way around). Vincent’s a slacker and Katherine is a shrew? Yep, and if you change the names I know two people who were exactly like that, minus the cheating subplot. So, yeah, the story resonates to me, and I suspect it might to you if your life isn’t quite the way you expected it and you haven’t figured it out. Sure, Vincent is an indecisive twit who lets people walk all over him, but he’s also good hearted and helps people out whenever he can. Sure, Katherine is a shrew, but she also wants to see Vincent actually do something with his life and this is the only way she knows how to make it work. By the end of the game, Vincent has become a different (better is a relative term) person because of what he’s gone through, and depending on your actions, so has everyone you encounter. That’s… life. Are these fantastic characters? Is this a fantastic story? Nope. But, taking out the supernatural aspects, it is a real story, and the people in it are real people, and that resonates if you’ve been where they’ve been.

Catherine is very pretty, and so is her game (ha ha). The game alternates between in-game and animated cutscenes to tell its story, both of which look fantastic in motion. The animated cutscenes are handled by Studio 4C and don’t look the least bit out of place, and the in-game graphic based cutscenes bring art director Shigenori Soejima’s designs to life to a level beyond what was possible in Persona 3 or Persona 4, for example. The environments also strike a good balance between mundane and insane, with the real world environments looking no more out of place than anything you’d expect in your day to day life, and the Nightmare environments looking like Hell itself. That said, there can be some slowdown here and there when the Nightmare environments get a little busy or when the game is first loading up an environment, though the former is more problematic than the latter. Aurally, Catherine is basically brilliant. The in-game music is yet another fantastic piece of work from Shoji Meguro, combining some excellent original tracks with some well assembled remixes of classical pieces that combine together nicely and compliment the experience well. The voice acting is excellently put together, and the actors and actresses are on their A game here. Several of the voice cast members have appeared in prior Persona titles, including Troy Baker (Vincent/Kanji Tatsumi), Laura Bailey (Catherine/Rise Kujikawa), and Liam O’Brien (Orlando/Akihiko Sanada), though most everyone on cast is instantly recognizable to the more varied gamer. The various sound effects are also well assembled, from the wet meat explosion effects that greet Vincent’s more colorful deaths to the more subtle ambient effects in the bar and around town, and the attention to even the simple details is nice to hear.

The simplest way one can describe Catherine, mechanically, is that it’s one part puzzle game and one part conversation simulator (“dating simulator” is a bit of a stretch, since there’s no dating involved). Each day, the game will run through various cutscenes to fill you in on the storyline of the day before dropping you off in the Stray Sheep to interact with the patrons and the bar. Each night, the game drops you in the Nightmare Realm, where you have to climb to the top of the given locale to survive. When you’re watching the cutscenes you can press Start to pause or skip the scenes (THANK YOU), but otherwise you can’t really do anything but watch them. When you’re in the Stray Sheep, the left stick and D-pad move around, the right stick shifts the camera, the A button interacts with people and things, the B button cancels actions, the X button drinks if you’re in front of your drink, and the Y button brings up Vince’s phone to review texts and images. When in the Nightmare Realm, the left and right sticks and D-pad function the same, the A button allows you to grab and move blocks, the X button uses whatever item you have in your possession, and the B button allows you to drop when hanging from ledges. The game is pretty good about directing you through how the controls function, and you’ll get the basics down easily enough.

The complexities of the experience, however, are, well, a bit more complicated. While you’re at the Stray Sheep, there are various different things you can do, depending on what time it is. You can interact with each of the different patrons at the bar to find out what’s going on in their lives and try to help them out, play some Rapunzel on the arcade machine, change the music at the jukebox, go to the bathroom, play with your phone, and drink yourself stupid, among other things. Each of these things actually can have something of an impact on the game, however, so they’re not just there for show. Talking to the bar patrons can add flavor to the characters, but since many of them end up in the Nightmare Realm with Vincent, it can also help them stay alive to encourage them and help them with their problems. Other characters might instead offer up worthwhile information that fills in some background, gossip about the events of the game, or just fill in some of their own backstory. Interacting with characters causes time to elapse, however, so you might miss a chance to talk to a character by talking to someone else, so paying attention is vital if you want to save everyone you can. Drinking improves your movement speed in the Nightmare Realm, so getting hammered actually provides some use in the game, but also elapses time. The Rapunzel arcade game is a cute little retro novelty that plays similar to the Nightmare Realm challenges, but is more tactical in nature, and completing the game also fills in some more backstory to the experience.

You’ll likely get the most out of playing with Vincent’s phone during these sequences, however. Now, you can save your game at any time with your phone, but there are three other categories you can access in the phone menu: Inbox, Outbox, and Awards. The Outbox is mostly just an archive of texts you’ve sent, so you can review them if you want, but the Inbox is where all the action is. You’ll receive various texts, and while some of them are just advisements of your performance in the Nightmare Realm or game functions, texts from Catherine and Katherine are where things really get involved. Each girl will send you various texts you can reply to, and you can choose from one of a number of moral choices in the messages. Each choice can have an affect on the overall moral tone of the message, and your final response will affect Vincent’s morality. At the beginning of the game, Vincent is neutral, but by answering texts and questions in different ways, Vincent will either become more in tune with Order or Chaos morality, as Shin Megami Tensei fans will recognize. This, in turn, affects how some conversations will go, and can have big effects on the ending as well. Responding in line with how a character would most like will generate another text message and another chance to earn more morality, and responding well a second time often generates a phone call from the person in question, which, again, fills in more plot flavor. The Awards section allows you to review the different awards you’ve received for completing the Nightmare Realm sections, and you can choose to replay them from here as well should you want to get a better ranking.

The Nightmare Realm itself is where the puzzle gameplay comes in. The concept is simple: you start at the bottom of a tower, and you have to climb to the top before the bottom falls out from under you. While the game starts that simple, it doesn’t stay that way, however. As you progress through the different stages, you’ll find that the block layouts become far more complex and harder to work with, trap blocks are introduced that can kill you or hamper your play, and enemies will show up who will openly attempt to ruin your face. You can, however, also use the trap blocks to your advantage to create traps for oncoming enemies, and you can find items along the way that you can use to wipe out enemies, convert special blocks into normal blocks, make blocks for you to use, and more, so you’re not completely without help. At the end of every section of the tower you’ll face a boss monster summoned up from Vincent’s subconscious, which is usually some manifestation of his fears and worries… so, yes, you’ll be running from your girlfriend a few times. Now, the goal isn’t just to survive; you’re also scored based on how quickly you can get up the tower and by how much extra coin you acquire along the way, and the total value of the coins you find and the speed of your climb factors into your final stage ranking. Better scores mean better rewards, and getting Gold ranking carries other benefits with it.

Depending on how much time you spend on extra stuff, you can get through your first session in about ten to fifteen hours, but there’s more to the game than just the first time through. There are a total of eight endings to earn, comprised of three for Catherine, three for Katherine, and two Freedom endings, so you’ll have some work to do to see all eight. You can, however, skip any tower sections you’ve cleared with a Gold ranking on subsequent playthroughs, so it can be beneficial to be the best in your first go. There are also two additional play modes to go through after you clear the main game: Babel and Coliseum. Babel is a collection of four exceedingly complex challenges you can take on alone or cooperatively with a friend (after unlocking them by getting Gold ranks in Normal or above), while the Coliseum is a versus mode where you and a friend can go at it to see who’s the best in each of the nine stages in the game. There are also, of course, multiple Achievements to unlock, online leaderboards to post to, and hey, the Rapunzel game in the Stray Sheep also offers a whopping one hundred and twenty eight stages to clear, so for those who want to see and do everything in a game, good luck with Catherine… it’ll make you work for it.

Oh, and since I picked up, let’s talk about…

… the “Love Is Over” Edition of the game. You can still order this from a few places, including Amazon.com, and for your extra twenty dollars, you get the game…

A full artbook and soundtrack CD (though you can get that with the normal game depending on where you get it from)…

A “Stray Sheep” pizza box/storage box…

Vincent’s Heart Boxers…

Vincent’s “Empty” Shirt…

And a Catherine Pillowcase…

So let’s discuss.

The art book is nice enough, and includes several full-color and stylized drawings of the different characters in the game, though it mostly focuses on the title character. It also includes write-ups on the artistic intent of the stills, as well as a full track listing for the audio CD. The CD contains eleven game tracks, featuring a mix of classical mixes and original tunes that’s nice enough, though unlike the Persona 4 soundtracks, nothing here is going to be anything I’d listen to outside of the game. The pizza box is a cute novelty if nothing else. The heart boxers, “Empty” shirt and pillowcase are well crafted and cute… but really aren’t anything most people will want to wear/show off unless they’re big into the game, are a Large size, and (in the case of the pillowcase) never want to know what it’s like not to feel shame. I basically just picked up the package because I figured someone out there would want to see it, because I… I don’t know, “love” you people? Sure, let’s go with that.

Having said all that…

So the two biggest issues one can bring against Catherine are that the game simply doesn’t feel like a sixty dollar game and that the game is often belligerently rough. The former comes down to the fact that the game mechanics themselves don’t feel especially complex; the game itself feels like something you’d see on Xbox Live Arcade more than a full retail product, and while the game is artistically interesting, so was Child of Eden and that was at least fifty dollars. Mechanically, the game feels simplistic relative to the asking price, and that’s a problem given that the puzzle game mechanics are half of the game, especially since you can essentially skip them if you do well the first time to get to the plot, thus removing half of the gameplay anyway. The latter comes down to this: there are nine total stages to the game, with the first seven progressively ramping up in difficulty and the last two completely smacking you in the face and punishing you out of nowhere, no matter what difficulty you play on. Now, personally? I like challenging games when they’re done right. Sticking purely to Atlus games, I liked Demon’s Souls, The Dark Spire, Operation Darkness and even the Izuna games, and I played through the challenge missions in Trauma Center: Under the Knife 2 because I wanted more of the game after it was done. Hell, if we’re talking about artistically and mechanically odd games, I even immensly enjoyed Baroque, goddammit. (Nailed it!) But of those games, the first three were challenging in a specific, tactical sort of fashion that one could understand, while the last game in the list was a varied, multi-faceted puzzle experience. Catherine drops objects you don’t see coming and can’t identify as threats until its too late on your head, kills you instantly, and calls that a “challenge”, and lacks the variety needed to really stay interesting enough to justify the price.

Maybe you’re into quirky Japanese games enough to overlook the lack of variety and you have an immense well of patience, and these things don’t bother you. Well, aside from the fact that this sort of demographic is admittedly small and makes selling such a product difficult, Catherine still has some further issues to show off. The game simply doesn’t play fluidly, and Vincent can be hard to work with in more tense situations, leading to frustrating accidents and deaths you could have avoided until you get the hang of things. While it’s nice there’s multiplayer in the game, there’s no online play to speak of, and if everyone you know sucks at the game you’re not going to get far in co-op or have much fun in versus mode, which is something online would have alleviated. Also, the game has a big thing about the dynamic camera angles in boss fights, and it feels the need to shift things around constantly to show off a boss attack or what have you, which is neat looking… until it completely screws up your train of thought and leaves you scrambling to figure out what you were trying to do in the first place, let alone what you want to do next. Yes, fine, some of the attacks need this camera angle so that you can see them and avoid dying from them, but perhaps you as the developer could design attacks that don’t disorient the player? When you’re subjecting the player to a stage where all of the blocks randomly change function, the boss drops things on you that kill you instantly and are hard to avoid, AND the boss repeatedly spams attacks, perhaps constantly pulling the camera back to mess with the player can be considered “rubbing it in” a bit too much.

Catherine does manage to certainly be a memorable experience, but not always for the best reasons. The story, though weird, is generally written well enough and features a cast of developed, interesting characters that one can like if one has been in their shoes. The game is pleasant to see in motion and sounds absolutely spectacular in all respects, and the game is simple enough to play whether you’re interacting with characters or climbing for dear life. The game also has lots of interesting concepts packed into it, offers eight endings to see, multiple difficulty levels, offline co-op and challenge modes, and online leaderboards for you to play with. However, the game simply doesn’t feel robust enough to be a full priced release and the game becomes massively belligerent in the end, to a level that is disconcerting at the best of times. Further, the game is mechanically unfriendly to play in more tense situations, the game lacks any kind of online play to speak of, and the game makes progressively more frequent use of dynamic camera angles that just add to the unfriendliness of the game for no useful reason. It’s not that Catherine isn’t enjoyable so much as it is that the game just can’t pay off its potential in a meaningful way. It’s an artistically interesting experience, but a pretty and well written game does not a great game make, and if the mechanics of the experience are unpleasant, your game suffers. If you’re patient and love quirky games,

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GREAT
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: ABOVE AVERAGE
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: POOR
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Appeal: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE

FINAL SCORE: ABOVE AVERAGE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Catherine is one of those games that succeeds on an aesthetic level but doesn’t reach the mark on a mechanical one, and while it will likely appeal to the sort of person who values art over gameplay, for everyone else, it will be something of a harder sell. The story is full of interesting characters with believable personalities, and while it might not be for everyone conceptually, the writing is strong enough to carry it through. The game is pleasing to the eyes and ears, thanks to some excellent art direction, voice casting and musical composition, and the presentation is great overall. The gameplay is simple enough to pick up and understand while also offering a challenge throughout the experience in both the social and puzzle situations, and there are multiple endings, challenges, difficulty modes and Achievements to keep a player who finds the game interesting coming back for more. However, the game doesn’t feel like it justifies the sixty dollar asking price, let alone eighty for the “Love Is Over” edition, especially given the oddball nature of the provided collectibles, and the game becomes belligerent in the last few stages to a point that makes the game feel like it was developed by someone else. Even beyond that, Vincent has control and response issues at the worst possible times, there’s no online play available, and the game loves its dynamic camera angles in boss fights a lot more than the player does, thanks to their disorienting nature. Catherine is more bad than good to be sure, but it’s a hard game to recommend unless you love quirky Japanese games and have a well of patience, as its aesthetic positives can’t always cover up for its mechanical shortcomings.

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