For those not in the know, Play or Eject articles are simple. We look back at some of the rare or un-played titles of the current generation and tell you whether they were grossly overlooked – or whether they should remain on the shelf. This week we’ll be looking at developer Atlus Persona Team’s Catherine.
Catherine first came to my attention some time ago, in fact upon it’s release back in February 2012 (in the UK). Some of my friends were particular excited about this game and kept urging me to play it. At the time, the burning hole in my pocket prevented me – but fortunately I was able to acquire a copy at a later date. Catherine is a psychological puzzle based horror and has one of the most unusual and controversial premises for a game, ever. Catherine was described by it’s character designer, Shigenori Soejima, as “adult orientated.”
Vincent Brooks (our playable character) is at a point in his life where his long term girlfriend Katherine (yes with a K) is looking for a further commitment from him. Marriage, kids and the whole 9 yards. Vincent often takes to drinking with his friends at the Stray Sheep Bar when, one night, Vincent drinks too much and meets a girl called Catherine (yes with a C). Vincent wakes up to find that he has strayed from the straight and narrow path and cheated on his partner. The dilemma players are forced to explore is, which C/Katherine they will choose. Will the choice be that easy? Catherine is incredibly seductive and free spirited and the polar opposite to Katherine, who is honest and caring.
As a result of Vincent’s infidelity, he begins to have frequent nightmares in which he must climb his way to the top of a block-made tower. Should he fall and die in the dream, he dies in real life. You have to survive one whole week of these nightmares. Strangely, other men who frequent the stray sheep bar are having the same problem. In fact many people you meet in the real world will appear in this dream with you, only they all look like sheep (yes you read that right) and if they survive until the morning, they have no recollection of you being in their dream – just a sense of deja vu. Following so far? These people you encounter, some of which are your friends, will either aid or hinder you as it is a dog eat dog world in the land of dreams.
Now, Catherine could have you thinking that it’s just some seedy game that only teenagers and sad, depraved, lonely men will enjoy- but it is so much more than that. Whilst this game is certainly adult themed, its tone is comical and inviting to all players. This is not to belittle the importance of adultery, but to encourage gamers to play through this game and react either honestly or extremely depending on the situation and choice the player is presented with.
So how does the game play. The game is broken up into 3 sections, the main puzzle game, video sequences and a hub area were you can interact with the patrons of the stray sheep.
The puzzle element of the game is also broken up into three sections. The first ascent of the tower, the hub area (known as the landings) where you will discover new techniques that can aid you and final section – the boss level.
The entire puzzle element of the game is incredibly inventive, challenging and, quite simply, amazing. As Vincent, you will have to push, pull and move blocks around to create stairwells to reach the the top of the tower and ultimately escape your death for one more night. You’ll grab boosters, out smart enemies and make new pathways. Sounds easy, yes? Sadly not. You are on a time limit and every few seconds a whole row of blocks will detach from the bottom of the tower and fall into the abyss, making the tower smaller and smaller. Many of the levels will see other sheep also trying to climb the blocks and they will often try to prevent you from climbing, as I said, it’s every man for himself. As each night grows in difficulty, you’ll be presented with new challenges in the form of different block types. Some are solid and immovable, others are made of ice and can slide you to your demise and some even explode. This is all classic, but somewhat refreshing, puzzle play.
Once you reach the top of the first climb you’ll enter a hub area where all the (so far) surviving sheep have congregated. Here you can talk to all of the sheep. Some are incredibly helpful and you’ll discover new climbing techniques and new block patterns to help you scale the tower. As for the other sheep, you’ll attempt to help on a more personal level as many are showing signs of giving up or revealing something about themselves that you can use later on in the real world. Once you’ve spoken to all of the sheep you’ll notice an elevator in the form of a confessional booth.
Upon entering, you’ll hear a mysterious and mischievous voice tell you that you are here because someone you know in the real world wants to kill you. Every time you try to pry information from this annoying character, he throws a question at you. I loved this part of the game and if you are online you can see how other people answered via a poll. Each question registers on your characters “Chaos or Law” meter. Essentially being more chaotic or lawful sees alternative developments with your friends and patrons of the Stray Sheep depending on their demeanour.
Some questions are simple, others much more interesting and there is no right or wrong in gaming terms, you won’t be faced with a significantly different story arc or consequences if you answer one way or the other. Some questions are mundane such as “Does life begin or end at marriage?” or “Do you prefer being in quiet or loud places?” or more interestingly I was asked this “Who would be responsible if you cheated, you or the person you cheated with?”
With the latter question, the online poll revealed something very interesting. You can break the poll down into how male’s and female’s answered. It was interesting to see that whilst the majority of both men and women agreed that they were the ones at fault should they cheat, a larger group of women were more likely to blame the other person. This led to a big debate amongst my friends, which is something I was secretly pleased to see. A game that could provoke and divide people by highlighting an issue rarely dealt with in games before. Even RPGs haven’t really dealt with the intricacies of adultery in a mature way. RPG’s generally just give you the choice as to which partner you’d prefer. Dragon Age was one of the few games I remember touching upon the subject. However, if you chose one lover over another in Dragon Age, the realistic argumentative responses we would expect can be avoided depending how loyal the character was to you at the time. This was never realistic enough to me. Surely the more loyal and loving a character is to you, the more hurt they would be once you betrayed them?
In stark contrast, Catherine challenges your choices all the way. You will be judged by your partners, friends and as it turns out other players online. However,upon first playing, I began to question what actual effect my answers had. Yes I could see the chaos meter swinging but only slightly. Every answer I gave didn’t seem to have a huge effect to the meter. The reason being, as I later discovered by searching online, is that most answers are neutral. Only specific questions on the landings and in the stray sheep bar to that particular character are detrimental or quintessential. This is the one feature that screams replay value for those who enjoy seeking all possible endings.
Usually, I am one of those people who enjoy exploring all the possible endings but in Catherine, I lost interest. The reason for helping others didn’t seem to have a great reward awaiting for me or create a shift in the story arc. Actually I found my time in the stray sheep bar quite tedious after the first few nights. To me the stray sheep sections really slowed down the chaotic pacing of the game. So far we have an excruciating but fun puzzle element, which is then followed by a heavily stylistic yet imaginative animated video sequence, only to be brought down by a rather dull hub area. I believe all games should have their “quiet before the storm” moments, but if you are in control of the character, the conversations should represent an obvious but rewarding challenge. Similar perhaps to many point and click games. Why not have a conversation with another patron and discover an important clue as to why these nightmares are happening before you can progress any further? This would offer up even more potential endings should you miss that vital piece of information in your first play through. The mystery element of who wants you dead should have been heavily included in these segments. This hub area completely undermines the game’s purpose and is ultimately pointless – as you will inevitably come to the game’s conclusion without actually speaking to anyone. Why have a large section of your game that doesn’t particularly effect the main story? You will, no matter what, find out who the mysterious killer is.
In the bar Vincent can text both partners which, sadly once again, became boring after the first few attempts. You are given a list of about 4 options for each text to form the “perfect text” to both Catherine and Katherine. Obviously, texting them what they want to hear or being honest will once again effect the chaos meter. In Catherine’s case, if you play your cards right she will send you a saucy photo and for those teenagers and sad depraved lonely men, no, you don’t see anything. I often found myself skipping through the Stray Sheep sections as quickly as possible.
Catherine was developed and published by Japanese company Atlus and, like most Japanese games, there is a fair amount of bonkers thrown in. This is encapsulated by much of the dialogue and tone shown throughout the game – but particularly in the Boss levels. These boss segments generally relate to Vincent’s growing concerns. At one point in the game Katherine tells you that she may be pregnant and therefore in one of your nightmares you are chased up the towering blockade by a giant demon baby screaming “DADDY WHY WON’T YOU PLAY WITH ME?” As I have a fear of, one day, raising children myself – you can only imagine my horror at seeing this bizarre and terrifying sight. The bosses themselves often have abilities that can shake the foundations and cause blocks to fall forcing you to make new pathways in rapid time as the various demons close in on you. Your heart rate will go into overdrive, trust me. This by far is one of the most exhilarating moments in any game. The sense of really being chased whilst overcoming ridiculously difficult challenges exemplifies why this is truly a psychological horror.
In summary, the game is broken into three main segments, the main puzzle section, video sequences and the hub areas. The main levels are wonderful and the reason the game is worth playing, the video sequences add much needed narrative and quirkiness that the game itself revels in, only to be completely let down by the tedious and mundane hub areas. So therein lies the big problem. Catherine is a game divided in it’s intention. If certain elements were removed from the game this would be your not so typical downloadable arcade puzzle adventure, which would be acceptable but a shame because the tone is unlike most games you will ever play. The main theme of adultery is a positive sign that the games industry is ready to grow into controversial areas it’s just a gigantic disappointment that a whole third of this game is unnecessary.