Catherine, the first game developed by Atlus’ in-house team for current-generation consoles, is a game that I was looking forward to quite a bit. A lot of that had to do because of my love for the Persona 3 and 4 games. While I was a bit late to the party playing those games, I still enjoyed them a great deal, so when I heard that the creative minds behind those games were making something new, and different, I was already on board. Did Catherine meet my absurd expectations, or was it a bold experiment that didn’t pay off?

Fitting that a game so full of choices would have you choose between two hot covers.

Right off the bat, I can tell you that Catherine is not what you would usually expect from the Persona team. It’s not a dungeon-crawling RPG, but rather an “action puzzle game.” That’s probably the best term for it because the actual game play consists of you moving blocks in an attempt to scale a tower before the very floor crumbles beneath your feet. In that sense, the game isn’t much different from something like Tetris or Q*bert from days past. What sets it apart is the coat of paint known as characters and style. In fact, one could argue that the most intriguing part of Catherine is the story. Much has been made about the mature story line for Catherine, so I won’t go too in depth. Vincent Brooks is a 32 year old with a long time girlfriend, Katherine, who’s perfectly happy keeping things simple the way they are. However, when Katherine starts throwing around ideas of marriage, Vincent is plagued by nightmares. It’s right around this time when Vincent meets the titular Catherine and unwittingly ends up in an affair. To make matters worse, there’s a rash of men dieing in their sleep and rumor has it that it’s unfaithful men having horrible nightmares, and if you die in your dream, you die for real.

This is what nightmares are made of. Hope you're not afraid of heights. That and being chased by giant demon babies.

It’s in these dreams that the block climbing puzzles occur. While in theory block pushing and climbing doesn’t sound so difficult, and has the potential to wear thin, the game mixes things up by throwing different block types (such as spikes, bombs, and ice) at you along with sheep (other men also climbing the tower in their dreams) that get in your way. Add all of that to the time limit imposed by the tower falling beneath you and the occasional boss chase sequence, and Catherine is a super challenging game. So challenging in fact that the Japanese release had to be patched to introduce an Easy mode, which is thankfully included with the western release. There’s even a secret VERY Easy mode. Don’t get the wrong idea though. Even though Easy mode is billed as a mode for people that want to enjoy the story, the game is still very challenging on your first play through. To the point where I recommend playing it on Easy mode your first time through to better get a handle of the basics. The best thing about Catherine is that it lets you change your difficulty and retry stages as many times as you want after you’ve beaten it once if you’re obsessed with getting gold prizes and unlocking in game music and the like as I am. In fact, I didn’t get the best score on every stage my first time playing through on Easy. However, playing through on the tougher Normal difficulty, the techniques and experience I’ve picked up have led me to score perfect runs on the first 7 nights.

Above is a bit of what you can expect from the game, courtesy of IGN. I certainly wasn’t above looking at a walk through video when I got stuck.

Speaking of which, the story is told over the course of about 8 or so nights, and each night has a set of puzzles that Vincent must conquer before continuing. Each night, more elements are introduced and things get more difficult. It’s what Vincent does between his restless nights that drives the story forward. A heavy portion of the game is dialogue driven, and you often feel like you’re watching an anime rather than playing a game. It’s partially true thanks to Studio 4°C providing great anime cut scenes. The rest is told with in-engine cut scenes that go a long way to emulate the anime style. What’s really great is the time spent in the Stray Sheep bar where you take control of Vincent and can drink alcohol (which speeds him up in the dreams), listen to music you unlock by scoring well, and interact with other patrons. It’s in this way that the completely optional side stories of the other patrons are told, and the game throws you some great curve balls and misdirection to keep you guessing as to what the real cause of Vincent’s nightmares is.

In addition to speaking with other people in the bar, you'll run into familiar sheep at the altar in between puzzles. They'll tell you their woes, offer to sell you items, and give you tips on how to climb.

Another great feature of these bar segments is Vincent’s cell phone which acts as the game’s menu. From there you can save, see your scores on previous levels and even retry them, and receive and answer text messages. These texts play into a grander morality system spread throughout the game that affects Vincent’s inner thoughts and the ending of the game. Usually the meter will swing left for chaos or right for order depending on how you answer messages and questions presented throughout the game. What makes this system work is that the outcome of your choice isn’t always obvious unlike something similar in games like inFamous. It’s for that reason that I recommend answering and playing the game not as you would if you were going for all blue or all red, but rather honestly by answering questions as you actually would.The meter will swing wildly left and right, but Catherine as a game likes to point out that there is no correct answer, so that’s ok. Even better yet is that when you answer one of the many survey questions in the game, it’s compared to other players’ first time answers.

The super sexy cover for the art book and soundtrack CD that were pre-order bonus items.

I mentioned above that the game has style, and I can’t stress that enough. While the core gameplay is far removed from what you’d fine in Persona, the character designs and music are of the same caliber. The music in particular is fantastic, with Shouji Meguro providing an awesome score consisting mainly of remixed classical music that strangely fits with the horror dream world aesthetic. It was a joy to get the CD with 11 tracks from the game. The CD of course came inside the artbook which shows off the great design work of Shigenori Soejima, another Persona veteran.

When it comes down to it, Catherine offers a compelling story that consists of mature themes and characters with excellent voice work, wrapped around a challenging, yet addictive action puzzle game. There’s re-playability in that you can go for a different ending on a more challenging difficulty, along with a versus mode that unlocks upon completion of the game, a tough randomly generated version of the game called Babel that opens up as you score well on normal and higher, and the surprisingly deep Rapunzel game in the Bar that plays on the same principles of the main puzzles. I beat the main game in about 12 hours, but I’ve since put in over 20 by aiming for higher scores, etc. Catherine is a game that will give you as much play time as you put into it.

With over a hundred puzzles to fry your brain, Rapunzel is much deeper than what you'd expect from a "mini" game. For lovers of brain teasers, a lot of time will be spent playing this.

I realize that the game is not for everyone. Some may be off put by the challenge of the puzzles. Others won’t find the story as compelling as I did. But when it comes down to it, I was aware of the kind of game Catherine was going in, and it met my expectations by providing an intriguing story and fun, challenging game play. I would at least recommend renting the game to experience the story at least once, but in an industry where games that break from the norm are all too rare, this is a game connoisseurs of everything odd and unique will love.

Second Opinion by Jrow:

The story element of Catherine was only interesting to me when Catherine shows up. The plot would only progress any when she was around. For most of the nights, it’s just Vincent sitting around all mopey, talking softly and not knowing what to do and his buddies kinda just talking around him rather than at him. I really felt that the other patrons’ stories lacked any sort of intrigue and I found myself quick-reading conversations rather than hearing Justin talk about his role in a Ballerina’s death. He was about the only guy I can recall just because him and I share the same name. Now granted, you’re in a bar and the setting is inviting to many sad saps, but when the process repeats itself for many nights, conversing and responding to texts in a game becomes a tedious process. I honestly don’t know what differences there were between Night 1 and Night 7. When I would finish puzzles, I’d be excited to uncover the next part of story. After a little while, I only cared about the “Morning After” with Catherine.

The puzzle part is pretty challenging which is good, but I found the depth of these puzzles to be shallow in terms of overall execution. Ice blocks were the most unique block type, but ultimately I found myself going through the same process of pulling blocks out to complete puzzles. Make staircases, pull 4 blocks, go up, pull 3, etc. In between levels, Vincent and other sheep would share techniques. Only a handful are useful, but I was most annoyed when I was taught the “Timber” technique of making a level fall down toward you. I like that concept, but a number of times I tried it, due to the more-than-frequently used Edge rule, it wasn’t the most viable technique. Also of note, the addition of sheep being in your way was just so unnecessary and the bell sound (just in the altar area) is incredibly annoying.

Writing these thoughts, I just stumbled upon this idea. Perhaps the game’s too long. The first 5 Nights were a nice length of 3 levels per. Then from Night 6 on, they extend it to 4 levels and more. So along the way, the game’s most desirable element was a longer process to work towards. I also felt Night 8’s story element was incredibly drawn out; there were moments where I yelled at my screen telling them to get a move on, and one specific moment where I felt Vincent and the others he was talking with were just running around in circles repeating what they were saying. Amuro notes that Catherine has replayability. I agree with him, but I just find the process of replaying it to be so bothersome that I’ll get my one ending and then see how others finished on YouTube. Catherine is a good game, the animation style of both the in-game engine and animated cutscenes look great, but at the end of the day (or nightmare), I feel it missed in spots and isn’t worth keeping on my shelf.