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I haven’t played a game with a story that genuinely made me feel on the same emotional level as its main protagonist in a very long time, if ever. The mature Catherine, from Atlus’ renowned Persona team, had gripped me much more than I had expected it to. When I tell you everything about this game, you have to trust me when I say that as far-out and crazy as all of its ideas, every aspect of it fits together very well to make a cohesive and unique package that puzzle game fans and possibly RPG fans will find massively entertaining, at least their first time through.
Not shying away from its anime roots with beautiful art design, Catherine tells the story of a 32-year-old man named Vincent who is committed to a woman named Katherine. Note the “K” here. Katherine shows signs of wanting marriage, and Vincent is not quite ready to do so. He downs a lot of beers with his friends at the bar in his free time, and soon after a drunken night, he wakes up in bed with another woman, who is young and beautiful. Her name is Catherine, albeit with a “C”. The following week or so follows Vincent having nightmares that he won’t survive unless he makes it to the top of various massive block towers. The story really is the main focus, as Vincent tries to get himself out of the rabbit hole that is cheating on his girlfriend, and I won’t say much more, but just know ahead of time that the game has several alternate endings, and your first playthrough should take you about ten hours or so.
Gameplay is, as expected from the Persona team, split in half, though spent over the course of about a week in-game. Each day is spent in the bar, where you can converse with Vincent’s friends, drink beer (which can actually assist your climbing speed in the puzzle sections), play a mini-version of the game’s block puzzles in an arcade cabinet, check Vincent’s phone to respond to texts, and play music from other Atlus games on the bar’s jukebox. This part of the game is admittedly relaxed, but if there’s one thing it excels at that does not surprise me at all, it’s the character interactions. Atlus’ writing and localization is just as good as ever, and the English voice cast makes the dialogue believable and engaging. Much of the game is presented in cutscenes, so if that’s a turnoff, you’ll have to ask yourself what you want to play Catherine for. The puzzles that take place in the nightmares after Vincent returns from the bar was one of the biggest draws to the game for me, and they are also engaging. You’ll naturally get used to them as the story progresses, but their difficulty wavers from hilariously easy to frustrating and controller-throwing. It’s mostly a gamble based on your attempts, learning what didn’t work, and retrying, but you’re going to be more than likely stuck on somewhere at least once or twice, and one puzzle can take up to half an hour or more if you just can’t think of a solution. One puzzle in particular near the end had me so annoyed, I honestly looked up a guide just to get it out of the way, but I never did so again for the remainder of that playthrough.
Don’t misunderstand me the puzzles, requiring fast paced pushing and pulling of the massive block towers, are incredibly well-designed and impressive, but you’re going to want to play the game on easy first to get your feet wet with the mechanics. I plan on replaying on higher difficulties, and, seeing as the game has score counters, it was made with its arcade-design for that exact reason: it is to be played more to heighten your skills and getting higher scores. It kind of feels a lot like Bayonetta in a weird way, with all of its feminine symbolism, sexual situations, and score-based arcade design. Easier difficulties are forgiving, but still challenging. Each night, consisting of usually three or more stages of blocks, ends with a race to the top with a boss, and these sections are more likely to give you more trouble. If all of this sounds complicated, it really isn’t, and I recommend trying the game out some way in advance and deciding for yourself if the gameplay is fun enough to warrant a purchase.
Towards the end of the story, I was getting a bit tired of the plot, as it has the “oh wait this is the ending but not really” syndrome of other games Atlus has made, and I didn’t care enough to find all of the endings on my own, as the particular one I received just annoyed me. I still like the game a lot, and I don’t see myself leaving my copy unplayed for the rest of its existence, but I lacked the motivation to play through specifically for the story ever again. The ending is dictated by moral questions you get asked at the end of every puzzle, as well as the texts you send during the day, and I recommend answering them honestly your first time through. A nice touch that the game has is the ability to see what other players answered on their first runs of the game, and the majorities can sometimes be humorous. You won’t hear every line of dialogue unless you start several new files, either, or hear every question, so know that going in.
The overall game runs well with beautiful presentation and inspired music tracks by Shoji Meguro, and the polish is at a high degree. Catherine has a sense of identity, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously unless it needs to, and when it does, it is handled very well. The only massive issue I came across was on one of the final puzzles: I pushed a few blocks inward in a way that caused the entire puzzle to fall down, and the framerate went into the single digits, and I had to restart the puzzle (as well as mash the pause button to even get it to register in between the single frames). This may be present in all the puzzles if a similar act is done, but I didn’t think to check. This can easily be avoided, but it’s still there. The pacing, at least before the last few nights, is rock-solid, and I certainly empathize with Vincent much through the story, but depending on what ending you get, your impression may get better or worse. There are a few modes and unlockables to the game that are there for those interested, and there are actually some revelations that compliment the story in the “Babel” mode, accessible after doing well in Normal Mode story stages, but it is difficult and will require Persona levels of commitment to get through. There’s even options for two-player modes, but I have yet to touch them.
If there’s one word to describe Catherine, it’s “complete.” There is plenty here to keep you coming back, and if all of this sounds good to you, it’s most certainly worth playing. There’s nothing like it, but it’s not going to be one of those “all-time” greats you constantly talk about when discussing games. It’s a great diversion for a weekend, a fantastic puzzle game, and great for repeated play-throughs; it just depends on how much you’re willing to do after the first one. And keep in mind: a rerelease, Catherine: Full Body is on its way, so I say keep your eye on that version as it will expand the story with a third girl.