Catherine has to be one of the most innovative games to come out in quite some time. It marries the interactive movie/anime genre with a life simulator and adds in a puzzle game, all wrapped around an odd and mature story from the fertile minds of the guys who brought you the Persona series. You play as Vincent, a relatively normal guy, maybe a bit of a slacker, who’s been with his girlfriend for years and who now is facing real pressure from his girlfriend Katherine to finally tie the knot. A night where he’s had too much to drink brings a younger girl into the picture, named Catherine. The story unfolds through daytime animated cutscenes, night-time interactive discussions at the local bar, and through puzzle-oriented nightmare sequences. Again, this is not a combination that you’d normally find in a game.
But being innovative isn’t enough. The game’s innovative, sure, but is it any good?
Music – The musical score is good. It remixes some of the most famous classical music in existence, and if you like that sort of thing it will blow you away. If you don’t, you still shouldn’t have any problems with how the music was done in general, as it’s still catchy and yet blends in enough and fits the scenes well enough that you should never have to care that it’s not quite your genre.
Sound – The sound is good. You can hear things moving around on the towers and general footsteps when you’re moving around.
Voice acting – The English version features voices that you’ll recognize from the Persona series, such as Yukari for Katherine and Rise for Catherine. They do a pretty good job in general, and do seem to bring out their characters and their feelings fairly well.
]Graphics – The graphics are pretty good. The details on the blocks are nice, if you have the time to notice. The anime cutscenes are well done, and the interactive portions in the bar are maybe a bit fuzzy, but are still fairly nice. That being said, they aren’t much better than what you would have seen in something like Sakura Wars: So Long My Love, and I thought that we were in the next generation already. So, they aren’t that big a disappointment, and might be chalked up to the art style.
Gameplay – And now, into one of the first of the really, really important categories for how good a game this is: the gameplay. The gameplay is divided up into three parts, and each of those parts offer a completely different experience.
The first section is the anime cutscene section, which really are cutscenes and not really any sort of game at all. You don’t get any real choices here, or at least not very often. And while whether you’re tending towards Law or Chaos will impact what Vincent thinks, it doesn’t impact what he does. So if he’s thinking that he really has to come clean about all this, he’s still incapable of actually doing it. They’re fun to watch, but they aren’t actually playing. But that’s okay.
The second section is the time you spend at the local bar before heading home for the night. This is basically a life simulator, if your life is hanging out in bars talking to complete strangers, weird people, and some of your closest friends. Everything you do takes up time, and as time advances people will come in and leave. You’ll also get text messages from Katherine and Catherine, and how you reply will affect how lawful or chaotic you are, which has an impact on what you think in the anime sections and also on what ending you’ll get. So you spend time drinking — because you’ll get trivia on each drink you finish and if you get totally sloshed you’ll have an easier time with the next phase — wandering around talking to the customers, and answering your phone. You can also spend time practicing with a video game that’s like the tower sequences and that might reveal more of the story. This is the most fun part of the game. Unfortunately, you don’t spend all that much time in it.
The third part is where you’ll spend the most time if you’re anything like me: the puzzle section. This section is basically a race to the top of a tower, except that, in general, you have to make the path yourself instead of just moving up it. And did I mention that you’re a sheep in this section? Well, not really, but you seem to be representing one and there are other climbers on the tower who look to you like sheep. So you have to push and pull the blocks around, dodging enemies like other sheep, other homicidal sheep, and ants. Yes, ants. There’s a reason for that in game, actually, but just trust me on that one. Anyway, while you’re doing that you have to make sure that you look out for the special sorts of blocks that will do nasty things to you if you aren’t careful. Oh, and you have a time limit, as the bottom blocks fall away as you climb up so if you aren’t fast enough you’ll fall off. Fortunately, you can grab pillows and other special items — but only one at a time for the items, but pillows give you extra continues — to help you along your way.
In between levels of the tower, you reach an intermediate stage, where you can talk to other sheep — who seem familiar somehow — to learn new techniques or to change your karma meter, or to buy special items using coins found while climbing the tower. Before moving on, you have to enter a confessional and answer a question that impacts your karma meter before moving on to the next level.
Eventually, you’ll reach the last level for that night, and that almost always means you’ll face a boss that will be chasing you up the tower and making your life a living hell while you try to get to the top. One of the issues that comes in here is that the camera has a tendency to at least be impacted by the boss, meaning that at some stages while you’re trying to see the way up it’ll zoom way out or turn the camera around so that you can see what they’re doing, which only slows you down. You’d better be good at this game to avoid getting rather messily smashed by them.
Ultimately, the part of the game that’s the most like a game is also incredibly hard. I played it on the optional “Very Easy” mode and still spent most of my time in those stages and still died a ton of times. Now, I’ve never been great at puzzles but that’s gotta be worse than the Personas’ combat, which on Easy wasn’t that hard and was made a lot easier if you just remembered to analyze and checked to see what Personas you really couldn’t bring. There’s nothing in this game to make the puzzles that much easier just by knowing the right things or through good preparation. Add to all of this wonky controls and wonky cameras, and you’ve got gameplay that’s more frustrating than fun. While I’m all for a notion of having a different gaming experience instead of relying solely on combat, adding the time limits and the bosses so that it isn’t an exercise in thinking but an exercise in rushing isn’t the way to go with this.
The fact that the company patched in an easier version and added the “Very Easy” version to the North American release should tell you all you need to know about the puzzle section’s difficulty. And since the rest of the sections aren’t really gamey, that’s not great for the gameplay.
Controls – The controls are poor. The PS3 controller is supposed to be well-suited for this game, and yet I still had many cases where I ruined or almost ruined a tower climb because pulling out one block suddenly pulled it two sections instead of one. Trying to face differently so that you can climb or pull a block sometimes moves you, which is really bad if that block you climb onto is one that will kill you. Sometimes you won’t grab a block when you try to grab it, for some odd reason. When you move behind the tower your controls get reversed, but it isn’t clear what counts as “behind the tower” and so sometimes you’ll end up moving the controls in the exact wrong way to get back up on the block. Also, a lot of the time you won’t be able to see what you’re doing to see what you have to do to get back on. And since sometimes you drop down completely by accident — because you’re rushing with bad controls — this might get you killed when you wanted to do something else, like hop up onto the next block. And all of this only gets worse the more time pressure or other distractions you have, like boss fights and bad camera movement.
Multiplayer – All of the multiplayer support is for the puzzle part of the game. There’s nothing for the story level or anything else. So if you like the puzzle parts, you can compete against your friends in them, which might be fun. Otherwise, you’ll just be doing things you hate with more people.
Story – This should be — and is — the big draw in this game. The story is mature and unique, and is interesting. It also plays out across pretty much all parts of the game, from the anime cutscenes to the discussions in the bar to the text messages you receive and in some sense to the questions asked in the confessional. The karma meter that determines what ending you get is nice as well, and it’s moved pretty much through your interactions as Vincent, and not at all through the puzzle sequences — which is really nice as it makes it all self-contained. And through that, you can feel like you’re Vincent and not just some voyeur watching his life.
But that’s where the problems start. The fact that where the karma meter is affects what Vincent thinks but not what he does always reminds you that you are not Vincent, even as the game in other ways tries really hard to let you act as if you are Vincent. While that might be part of the story itself, it is a bit jarring. The story is also a bit short; it takes place over something like a week of nights, and you’re just dropped into it without really having the full history. You get some as you go along, but again with only a few short days there just isn’t the time to really get the depth that you’d like, which is a problem since there are a lot of hints dropped about things that you do find out about in some cases, but which you can miss entirely if you aren’t paying attention.
There are also some issues with the ending. Without spoiling too much, the nightmare’s Vincent has been having are, in fact, from an external force. Now, it could have worked well if it had been all internal to Vincent’s tortured psyche, but this can work, too, as long as the reason the force is doing it makes sense. But when it was revealed and gave its reasons my reaction was "… Really?". It wasn’t all that impressive. And maybe it wasn’t supposed to be. But it, again, is jarring.
Now, with all of these problems the story would still be a solid 6 – 7. It’s good and entertaining and has some depth to it. But the gameplay hurts it, because remember when I said above how the story seems too short? Well, spending most of your time in the puzzle sequences makes it seem even shorter, as that’s your short break from the frustration into the stuff that ‘s really fun, and it ends far too quickly. It also hurts the fact that there are multiple endings to the story, since you likely won’t want to spend the time going through them again to see them. All of this combines to make what could be a glorious story experience one that’s “meh” at best.
Replayability – The replayability is either go through the story mode again and see different endings — solving the same puzzles along the way unless you did really well on them the first time — or play with new puzzles. If you like the puzzles, it’s replayable. If you don’t, it isn’t.
Conclusion – So, for my own personal overall score for the game, which may not match the score above, I give it 6 (out of 10). And that really hurts, because I think the ideas are brilliant and innovative and well-worth doing. But the execution is poor. I would have liked to have seen a longer story session with perhaps the tower sequences spread out more, thus allowing for a more developed story with some deeper issues, and a slower progression through all the insanity that comes up in the story, with more hints as to what’s going on before you find out. I’d also like to see easier puzzle sequences, or at least ones without a time limit and with less gimmicks. Or, to be honest, I’d like to see one of these Golden Theater games just like this one without any other sequence at all. You just go through the game as a story, alternating cutscenes and interactive scenes and deciding what type of person your avatar is, until you get to the end and see what ending you get. The gaming part would be just trying to influence the world and your karma meter to be what you want it to be, and nothing else. If they’d done that in this game, it would have been a far better game. And that’s really sad, when you think about it.