It’s 1 am. There I am in the office. Finally, after waiting all day, I can access some kind of monitor with high definition output. Curiously, I can only play in the dead of night, that’s the only time I can get a hold of this baby. I start up the PS3 and the hours pass by. The phrase “love is over” graces my screen again, but I keep going and going, slowly getting the hang of things as I desperately flail the night away. “Climb! Climb! Okay genius… How the hell do I get across this? How should I know? I’m your inner monologue, created from stress and lack of sleep. So keep climbing! You have to brave the nightmare! But darn it man! I’m tired! Sunrise is in an hour. You got through another nightmare at least. We’ll try again later in the evening.”
Hey guys, the Inverseman here again with another review. This week Atlus’ “Catherine” is what’s on the plate. This is Atlus’ first ever original title for an HD console. At the masthead is the same team that worked on “Persona 4”, so let’s see how the company’s maiden voyage in HD waters went.
Okay, so the story is set in modern-y America and revolves around 32-year-old programmer Vincent Brooks. He’s been dating a childhood friend Katherine for five years now, and Katherine’s folks have been pushing them to get married. One night, Vincent gets very drunk at his usual spot, the Stray Sheep, then meets a much younger and mysterious girl named Catherine. The two get it on, and now Vincent’s a cheater. To make matters worse, it turns out Katherine is pregnant, and men in town have been having nightmares where if you fall or die in your dream, you die for real. Guess who’s among the victims plagued by nightmares?
During the day, you’re working on Social Link stuff and chilling at the bar with your friends and at night, when no one is looking, you must confront various nightmares. It’s like Persona (3/4 to be exact) but for “grown-ups.” Each nightmare consists of a tower of blocks that you must climb in order to escape from monster that is chasing you. Sound fun? Oh man, it is! I was surprised that an action puzzle platformer could be very addicting.
Well, on the gameplay side, here’s how it comes down. You can move blocks to create your stairway to heaven, literally, and escape to freedom. The block physics make it so blocks can rest in midair as long as an edge is touching. There are lots of different arrangements and even dangerous special blocks for variation, and there are even more techniques that Vincent’s fellow flock members are willing to share. This keeps the game fresh for a long time, especially if you want to score gold rank, which lets you skip that level during subsequent playthroughs. The controls are fluid, though maneuvering behind blocks is a bit awkward and initially you may let go of a block and fall to your death, but all in all, you get the hang of it in no time. This game is no walk in the park; it’s so hard that in the Japanese release, Atlus had to patch the game to make it easier. Lucky for us we get all the bells and whistles attached. Now despite the difficulty, we get two helpful tools, an undo button you can use near infinitely and plenty of extra lives and checkpoints.
Okay man, hard game. I’ll be seeing “game over” a lot right? I’ll just give up or cave in for “super easy mode”. Wrong. Under normal mode at least, this game gives out extra lives and checkpoints like dollar-store candy after Halloween. You can easily stock up to 99 lives in a single run. The only thing keeping you back now is your willingness to go on and make it to the end of the night. This can be nightmarish if you think about it, but I’d say it adds to the game’s charm. Trust me, once you figure out a stage, you’ll be playing to go for the gold. And when you finally beat the game once, you unlock Babel, four randomized stages with online leaderboards. Multiple endings exist for you to watch and the “Rapunzel” mini-game has 128 stages that oddly resemble the nightmares hint, hint.
Storywise, the routes are pretty spelled out for you. Going to Katherine and getting married is the blue side of the “mysterious meter” while going to Catherine and cheating is on the red side, and there’s a smidge in-between for freedom from both girls. Yep, ladies and gents, the classic S.M.T style law-neutral-chaos meter. As you climb the tower, a mysterious voice will ask you personal questions about love and commitment, determining your alignment. You’ll even see other players’ responses too. (Okay, it’s not accurate statistics, but it’s interesting to see how people respond.) Your conversations with other characters will also shift the meter, guiding you to one of multiple endings. There are eight endings in all: a bad ending for each girl, a good ending for each girl and a good neutral ending, and a true ending for each girl and a true neutral ending. The first time through, I wound up “neutral” and decided to gun for the true ending for that alignment, and I must say, the ending does feel, well, neutral.
In most of the earlier Atlus titles, chaos and neutral seemed to be bedfellows that shared a common ultimate enemy. Two out of three routes have the same “big bad, kinda makes neutral not so neutral” feeling. After taking down “that person” and “that other person too” Vincent comes to his own realizations with the enemy, painting him/her to look more like someone with a few misunderstandings. Classy writing, Atlus. As you uncover the game’s mystery, there’s lots of middle-eastern mythos spiced up with a gothic church feel, jam packed with cultural/religious/literary/mythological references all over just how you like them, MegaTen fans.
The voice acting was done with much care and love. Atlus even re-synched the lip flaps in the cutscenes for the English release. We’ve got Troy Baker as Vincent, Michelle Ruff as Katherine, Laura Bailey as Catherine, and lots of other names you may know like Travis Willingham, Liam O’Brien, Yuri Lowenthal, and Erin Fitzgerald. The acting is top notch, as expected whenever Atlus does a localization. Though some may contest seeing Kanji Tatsumi be torn between Yukari Takeba and Rise Kujikawa while drinking with guys like Akihiko Sanada and Yosuke Hanamura, and plenty other VA related shenanigans, I see them as a plus. The cast fits their roles almost perfectly, so I find it hard to complain.
Visually, Catherine is a feast for the eyes with a soft cell-shaded look and animated fmv cutscenes from Production I.G. An HD game the looks beautiful and cinematic on your television.
There’s a man who I want to compose the BGM of my life, it is Shoji Meguro. The man continues to impress with his unique style. I expected as much of a modern jazz approach but the real interesting play here is Meguro’s remixing of classical music for the nightmare stages. In the beginning stages, you’ll hear the first few measures of Holst’s “Jupiter” and plenty other iconic songs and composers like Bach, Beethoven, and Chopin throughout the game. The result is a unique nostalgia of stuff you know with an Atlus spin.
Curiously, one could wonder if “Catherine” would have worked on a different console like the PC, a handheld, or even a phone. The simple action puzzle gameplay with an addicting hook could be something one could play for hours. So what makes “Catherine” something that you’d rather have on a home console in high definition? It’s definitely the presentation and story. One could argue that putting Vincent’s drama on the small screen of the DS, PSP, or phone would not allow Atlus to tap into the big guns of visual and audio style. While some components of the game could work on much simpler platforms, the rest needs the full splendor of the home console to truly be a success. It’s not 60 bucks for mere block-pushing, you get a very well presented story with tons of secrets, secrets to the game itself, and a staggering number of stages for you to tackle. There’s a lot more meat to this game than meets the eye.
There is one other interesting approach to the game. “Catherine” could be a testing ground for Atlus, to see if the PS3 and the 360 are viable ventures, especially with their higher development costs. If the game does well, they know they can go further with the next Shin Megami Tensei or Persona. If it did poorly, they would not have sacrificed the reputation of one of their flagship series. “Catherine” is a wonderful learning experience for Atlus and considering how its sales are doing (as of August 4th, Atlus has shipped 200,000 units making it their biggest launch title ever), it seems to be lucrative as well.
As a side note, I did get the special deluxe pre-order edition. I have been wearing the rather large t-shirt but have yet to find a use for the boxers and pillowcase.