Atlus’ summer smash hit, Catherine, has been surprising both the gaming press and fans since its announcement last August. No one would have been able to guess that the first next-gen release (or current gen really at this point) from the company responsible for a long running line of decidedly hardcore yet stylish RPG’s (Shin Megami Tensei), would be a puzzle game. To say that there was a bit of an undertone of disappointment in the editorials after the announcement would have been an understatement.
However, after its successful launch (an all time high seller for Atlus), you’d be hard pressed to find someone who wasn’t able to appreciate the game’s achievements in the medium. Combining a mature narrative with addictive puzzle mechanics, stylish graphics, and a genuine sense of involvement; Catherine is certainly far more than just a mere puzzle game.
The Golden Playhouse: A new take on storytelling
From the start Catherine lets you know that you are watching a story, and that the choices you make will affect the outcome of the protagonist’s life. Vincent Brooks is at a crossroads, and the decisions he makes here will not only decide his future relationships, but will in many ways define him as a person. Our job as the mysterious player watching this unfold, is to steer Vincent one way or another. This “Golden Playhouse” mechanic is not only a fancy way of saying “game”, it really defines the scope of the gameplay we are about to partake in.
Unlike a modern RPG or open world game, we won’t be taking full control of Vincent’s every action. Instead, the choices we make during his conversations will push him one way or another, eventually resulting in Vincent making a major decision at key points in the plot. It is important to note that you are not Vincent, you are the player, herding Vincent like a sheep in the direction you want him to go. Because of this, you don’t always have control over what he says or how he says it. Like a thoughtful parent, all we can do is push him in the right direction and hope for the best.
While that of course doesn’t mean you won’t be able to control him in the conventional sense, it does mean that the elements of the plot are going to unfold whether you want them to or not. Indeed, all of the story’s major events unfold in much the same way regardless of how you choose to have Vincent respond, the differences, as they say, are in the details. The smaller events such as text messages, character interaction, and subplots are entirely up to the player as to whether or not Vincent will experience or react to them. Though these events are usually small, they do culminate into larger repercussions in the final chapters of the game. However, it’s not as though your choices don’t matter. Catherine has no less that 8 endings and all of them are determined by your actions leading up to a turning point before the 8th day.
Gameplay: Climbing the Tower
Well, this is a puzzle game after all, and while the story is very engaging, the bulk of the game is spent doing, you guessed it, solving puzzles. Lucky for us though, this game’s puzzle mechanic is very addictive, genuinely gratifying, and only occasionally controller breaking difficult. The concept is simple, reach the top of a tower of blocks by pushing and pulling said blocks to form stairs that Vincent can climb. Additionally you must accomplish this task before the floor drops out from under you, and while avoiding the various traps that begin to appear in later levels.
Its a very clever system that lends itself to a large number of “Techniques” that allow you to deal with the increasingly difficult block configurations as they arise. Learning these techniques, and knowing when to use them can often be the difference between victory and facepalming-blood-vessel-bursting-defeat. Not all of the techniques are a necessity though, many are just in place to save you some time. It would seem that there are enough techniques to accommodate the mindset of a number of types of players, allowing you to pick 4 or 5 “go to” techniques that will get you through most of the game.
Learning the techniques couldn’t be easier; at the small landings in between the towers you always have the option of talking to a group of other characters who share techniques with you in the form of a small video. I always appreciate when important information is relayed to the character within the context of the game, rather than resorting to controller language (this game does both incidentally, but only in the beginning).
While techniques are important to successfully navigating the towers, basic stair making is the real “bread and butter” so to speak. Vincent can only move up one block at a time, so the one constant in the game is finding a way to navigate by successfully creating stairs in one block increments. Its important to think of Vincent himself as a block rather than a dynamic character when solving configurations; he takes up one block space himself and is bound by a distinct set of rules as to where and how he can move.
Gameplay: Social Elements
The second of Catherine’s two gameplay modes takes place before each puzzle round, and in many ways is equally (if not more) important. When not trapped in the puzzle crazed world of nightmares, Vincent spends his time drinking himself into cirrhosis at the Stray Sheep. Here you’ll encounter almost all of the game’s characters, and importantly, the other men who are trapped in the nightmare world.
Each of these men have serious issues that have to be addressed in order to save them from their fate in the nightmare. There’s a good deal of ground to cover with each of them though, and time within the bar is at a minimum. While Vincent is free to stay at the bar indefinitely, the other patrons come and go on their own schedule. Talking advances the time so you’ll have to juggle your conversations and know who to talk to and when.
You’re also able to receive and respond to text messages from both (K)(C)atherines during this time. Your responses will augment your alignment, and determine what future messages you receive from them. You can also use this time to drink heavily; the drunker you become, the faster Vincent moves in the nightmare. There is also the Rapunzel minigame, which can warm you up for the nightmare levels.
The Role of Choice
A lot has been said about the significance of choice in this game, some journalists have even compared it against the likes of mega titles like Mass Effect. It is of course true that Catherine takes a more realistic route to choice; there are no certifiably good or bad choices here, just the kinds of choices a person might have in real life. Games like Mass Effect have clearly defined routes associated with each response, either your going to react like the patron saint of all things good in the universe, or you’ll come of as the jerk of the century. You never have to give it much thought, response A is clearly this while response B is the exact opposite. In fact, you are rewarded for going all the way to one extreme, and punished for answering in any way to the contrary.
Catherine presents the player with relatable situations that sometimes require deep contemplation. Often times the choices in these situations are just as ambiguous as they would be in real life. As the player you find that you often have no choice but to just answer truthfully; it’s difficult to pick a clearly defined side and just stick to it. Your reward is an ending that reflects who you are as a person, and that’s a pretty powerful thing for a game. But in the end, this is still a game, and that means it has rules. In this case, those rules go to the heart of the company who created the game.
Now it should be said that Atlus should be applauded for the experience they have created with this game. When you are caught up in the web of the plot, it feels as though the game is infinitely deep, with unparalleled freedom of choice. But in actuality the game is really very simple, in at least as far as choice goes. Like all of the Shin Megami Tensei games which have come before it, Catherine adheres to the alignment system of Law, Neutral, and Chaos.
It’s important to remember that the alignment system doesn’t represent a scale of good and evil; it represents restraint and freedom. Its a system that fits perfectly with the story of Catherine, and is essentially the entire basis for the game. Katherine represents Law as Vincent’s long time girlfriend who is now looking to settle down permanently. Her pregnancy and desire to place controls over many aspects of his life are in no way negative, they just adhere to the conservative nature of Law.
On the other hand you have Catherine, who enters Vincent’s life and begins systematically undermining all aspects of establishment. Spontaneously sleeping with him, showing up in the middle of the night, sending him risque images at work; these aren’t the actions of a she-devil, just a person living like with the wreckless abandon of Chaos. Taking that alignment system into account, the choices presented in Catherine become much simpler. It’s not a matter or good or bad, its more of a matter of how much the player values personal freedoms over commitment.
In the end however, you have a lot less freedom over the bulk of the story than you may realize in your first playthough. Regardless of how you play, all of the main events where alignment is taken into account play out exactly the same; the only thing that is changed is Vincent’s internal dialog. Of course, its a testament to good writing that regardless of what Vincent thinks, the dialog that follows fits perfectly. The only major part of the story that the choices augment is the ending chapter, namely who Vincent decides to go after, Katherine or Catherine, and to what degree he is successful.
Like all of the later SMT games from Atlus, Catherine has a very distinct and stylistic anime approach with its character and world design. The characters are all vibrant and distinct while still maintaining a sense of realism. The cell-shading really superb and actually outshines the anime cutscenes to the point where I almost felt disapointed when there was a change over.
Environment detail is top notch both in the bar and at the nightmare landings. It would seem that the relatively low amount of characters on screen has freed up processing power for smaller touches that would often be overlooked. For instance, Vincent’s drinks do have animation to them, his beer shifts in the glass when he drinks, the ice in his whisky moves around, the smoke from cigarettes wisps and shifts along with character movement. They are small things, but they caught my attention as far as polish goes. This isn’t a graphical tour de force, but it is a game that hasn’t taken any shortcuts.
The game’s voice acting is outstanding, all of the dialog is delivered in a natural, fluid way that really sells the emotionality of each sentence. You really get a feeling that these are all old friends sharing a couple of drinks at their favorite bar or that. Nothing ever comes off sounding corny or awkward, and each voice matches its respective character perfectly.
Shoji Meguro has done a lot of different styles over the years, with the hip hop tinge of Persona 3, the poppy sounds of Persona 4, and the demonic chants of Strange Journey. Here he remixes a number of classical piece to create the music for each section of the tower, while creating original pieces that feel like the natural evolution of some of Persona 4’s more serious songs.
LOD: Levels of Difficulty
Now when the game originally shipped in Japan, it did so without an easy mode, and a good deal of complaints were made about the unforgiving level of difficulty. It seems that the level designers and testers got so accustomed to the game mechanics that they lost perspective on the difficulty. The US release ships with a toned down easy mode, a rebalanced normal mode, and the added ability to undo a step with the select button.
Normal mode combines just the right amount of difficulty to be challenging without ever crossing the line into frustrating, it does dance on that line a few times though. Fortunately, I found that I often died near locations that had a 1up near by, so I didn’t have to suffer that added stress of running out of lives. It freed me up to explore the situation and come up with a solution on my own, which also provided a genuine sense of accomplishment.
On the other hand easy mode feels just a bit too easy. The levels are almost half as long as they are in normal, and most have been simplified to the point where the only technique you need, is forming basic steps. This wouldn’t be a problem, except for when designers have tried to include certain block configurations that were intrinsic to the level. When you hit these points, the difficulty level suddenly sky rockets when compared to the relative mindlessness of everything that’s come before. I would have rather seen easy become slightly more difficult overall, or have these sections removed to make a more cohesive experience on that difficulty.
Since Catherine has 8 endings you have 8 reasons to play. Fortunately for those of us who have both lives, and more than just one game in our queue, all of the endings can be seen from just 3 playthroughs. Both Law and Chaos alignments have 3 possible endings depending on how you answer the final questions (they also share the ability for a 4th ending between them), the neutral alignment also has its own ending. Saving before you enter the last night of the tower will allow you to answer the final questions which augment the specific ending you receive for each alignment. To make things easier for those seeking to get through all the endings in the quickest fashion possible, the game allows you to skip the levels in which you already received a gold ranking.
In addition to the “Golden Playhouse”, Catherine also contains a number of other modes for the puzzle obsessed player. These modes include a challenge tower, with levels that are unlocked by achievements in the regular game, as well as competitive and co-op multiplayer modes.
There is also the Rapunzel arcade game in the Stray Sheep bar. It utilizes a lot of the same mechanics as the actual nightmare levels, but differs in that it places a limit on the amount of moves you can make while releasing the limit on time. There are 128 levels spanning two modes, each with its own set of endings that are determined by collecting items. That’s pretty robust for a simple minigame, but your progress is saved separately from your main game, allowing you to advance at your own pace across multiple playthroughs.
With the success of Catherine, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an indirect sequel down the road sometime. It’s possible that this “Golden Playhouse” mechanic could lend itself to its own series in the same vein as Shin Megami Tensei. Some of the mysticism found in the later segments of the game actually fit in quite nicely with the demonic nature of the SMT games as a whole. At the very least, this was a useful exercise for the Atlus team to gear up for gaming on the current platforms. I wouldn’t expect to hear about a sequel anytime soon though, Atlus is a relatively small developer, and recent announcement show that they are up to their eyeballs in Persona at the moment with no less than 3 titles on the burners.
With all the fuss over the content of games, its nice to see a developer put out a story that is unapologetically meant for adult players. That is something that not a lot of developers are doing right now.