Every once in a while, there comes a game that grabs one’s attention and holds it long before the title ever comes out. Any hardcore gamer has had at least one title that they’ve waited months on end for; whether it may be a Final Fantasy game of their youth or modern shooters of the current generation. For this Mash Those Buttons staffer, Atlus’ upcoming title Catherine has been something I’ve followed since its announcement years ago.
Starkly different from any game out there, Catherine is an incredibly bizarre and surreal experience straight from the game’s opening. Playing out in a sort of late-night television movie format, the story is introduced by a host who touts the tale as a horror love story. As the plot unfolds, the protagonist is actually sent text messages by said host and even has a narrator relaying information to the player. It’s a strange bit of fourth wall breaking, but interesting for sure.
As far as the actual plot goes, the game follows protagonist Vincent as he deals with his personal woes. A computer programmer by trade, Vincent is stuck in an emotional quagmire with his long-time girlfriend Katherine. Having been together for five years, Katherine wants a stronger commitment from her boyfriend and has begun to talk about their future. Vincent, feeling cornered, is stressed by his situation and goes to discuss the matter with his friends at the local bar.
After his friends depart, and a few too many drinks, Vincent is approached by a beautiful and seductive young woman named Catherine (that’s with a C, people). One thing leads to another and our protagonist finds himself involved in a physical relationship that only adds to his existing troubles. Torn between two women and his own inability to simply come clean with his mistake, things seems like they couldn’t be any worst for Vincent. Unfortunately for him, that’s when the nightmares start.
While Vincent deals with his own complicated situation in the real world, sleep only brings more misery as Catherine’s unlucky protagonist finds himself stuck in a deadly nightmare world. Surrounded by other unfortunate souls (each seen as strange sheep men), he is tasked with climbing a massive, crumbling tower lest he fall to his doom and then die in the physical world. Each night, the player must safely guide Vincent up this tower long enough to hopefully wake up alive the next morning.
While the plot of is obviously far different from any game out there, Atlus fans will be familiar with the bizarre sort of storytelling on display here. The team behind Catherine is the same one responsible for the recent Persona and Shin Megami Tensei games. Both series are known for their unique plots intertwining the real world and the strange; the team’s latest release is certainly no exception.
The game play in Catherine basically boils down to two settings: the physical realm and the nightmare realm. While the story follows Vincent through his daily life, the player is only given control in the real world during the segments in the Stray Sheep bar. In the Stray Sheep, the player can talk to other characters, respond to text messages from Katherine/Catherine, and play an arcade game that serves as a sort of primer for the nightmare world’s mechanics. Answers given in conversation or in response to text messages affect Vincent’s inclination towards either side of a law/chaos meter. This meter slowly moves from one inclination to the other and is a reflection of Vincent’s stance on his situation. Being flippant towards Katherine will move the meter more towards chaos while being a responsible boyfriend will push it back towards law. Wherever the meter stands at the game’s conclusion will determine which one of the four endings the player will receive.
Once Vincent is done socializing with his friends and fellow bar patrons, the player can choose to retire to the evening and head off to the nightmare realm. This part of the game is the core focus of the action in Catherine and where the player will spend most of their time. At the most basic level, this is a puzzle game with an emphasis on quick thinking and constant movement. Vincent is able to pull blocks out, shimmy around edges, and use items from his inventory to progress up the tower. At certain intervals, he is also able to safely talk to other sheep-men seen scaling the tower who may share additional techniques with him. Each night has a series of levels to complete and every level can be replayed for a better time or score.
While block-pushing puzzle action may not sound like thrilling or intense, the development team behind Catherine has done an excellent job of keeping the action frantic and nerve-wracking. As Vincent works his way up the tower, the blocks beneath him will collapse and other sheep ascending the tower may try to knock him off. The blocks are usually packed together in such a way that the player will have to painstakingly pull out the right ones at the right time or possibly end up getting himself stuck. If this weren’t enough, many stages in the tower have Vincent being actively pursued by a boss monster based off his own real world troubles. Nothing says “fear of commitment” like being chased by a giant demonic infant screaming out one’s name.
Although Catherine was critically well-received in Japan, there were some strong complaints regarding the game’s difficulty. Many players felt that the game was just too tough and that there were several stages where the challenge ramped up unpleasantly. In bringing the game over to North America, Atlus has gone ahead and made several alterations to the title. The overall difficulty has been revamped and individual levels reworked to make the game more playable and less frustrating. Atlus’ Head of PR Aram Jabbari has assured us that the game is no less challenging with the changes made, only less overwhelming.
Outside of the game’s singleplayer, there is also a decent amount of multiplayer in Catherine. Outside of leaderboards, the game also includes three multiplayer modes with one unlocked at the start and the others available once the game has been completed. Two of these modes, titled battle mode and coliseum mode, have players competing against one another in the tower. Victory comes to either whoever reaches the top first or, better yet, messes over the other player and makes them fall to their death. The game’s other remaining mode, Babel, is a cooperative scenario where two players try to get as far up the tower as possible. Should either player be left behind or fall off the tower, then it’s game over. Unfortunately, the multiplayer component is not online enabled and is intended for local play.
When Catherine was announced years ago, there were many who never thought the game would find its way to our shores; myself included. The adult themes, puzzle focused game play, and altogether bizarre presentation just made it appear like something that would stay in Japan. Much to our (pleasant) surprise, Atlus is bringing the game to North America. Readers can expect a full Mash Those Buttons review on Catherine upon its release on July 26.