What a Difference a Day MakesI think it is important to go over the timeline of events that encompasses my awareness of Catherine. When the game was announced I couldn’t have cared less. It didn’t look interesting and the block puzzle theme was simply not my thing. I have no major love of Atlus or Persona so the development team behind the game had no sway over me needing to play the game. I admit that when it comes to Catherine I was simply not the target demographic. However, when the demo released I figured I had nothing to lose and so gave it a shot and was surprised to find myself actually enjoying the game.
I guess it is here that we can quickly run down what is actually good about the game. Namely the animation. The art and animation work done on the story segments is extremely well done. The game looks like a highly produced anime film and doesn’t cut any corners in its presentation here. Of course since the only thing the game has to offer are these story segments they had better be top-notch. There were shots from early scenes that I felt were very impressive, such as the intros swooping shot through the bar. The other aspect of the game I liked was the texting you do in the bar. While you sit around doing nothing you will occasionally get texts which you can respond to in various ways. These are constructed from a few pre-determined lines of dialogue but you get to choose the combination of lines creating some pretty hilarious texts. As far as the block puzzles go, my first interaction with them from the demo was positive. They certainly weren’t as bad as I imagined they would be and for a brief moment in time I thought I might actually enjoy doing them.
So, while I was completely apathetic towards Catherine, the demo gave me a small spark that the game would be worth my time, and I moved forward with playing it on a rather positive note. The early sections of the game were similar to my experiences with the demo, the story was moving along nicely with really good animation and the block puzzles weren’t overstaying their welcome. However, as the night went on these things slowly began to betray me…
It’s Simply a Baaaaa-d Game
The first thing that struck me was how simply awful the actual content of the story was. From the moment myself and Mike met each character we were instantly riffing on them. The first time Vincent meets with his friends he admits to wetting the bed… who does that!? And furthermore how do his friends simply let this admission fly as if it wasn’t the weirdest social interaction of the month? The story is full of weird episodes like this, which may be cute in Japan and all the Atlus loving Japanophiles will eat that shit right up, to the non-converted it simply doesn’t work. I never felt sorry for Vincent and his predicament, I simply couldn’t help but laugh at how stupid it all was. The main issue in the plot is that Vincent gets too drunk at the bar one night and sleeps with Catherine, thus cheating on his girlfriend Katherine, and the guilt and remorse he feels over this action fuels the rest of the awkward social interactions he has as he tries to keep the two girls from finding out about each other. I’m glad to see all one has to do to make a successful game is rip off the latest romantic comedy and set it in Japan and release it in the west under a niche brand title.
Here now we’ve got a recipe for disaster. Vapid characters with absolutely nothing to say, except what little gameplay there is in this game dictates that between each level I must speak to all of these people constantly. As bad as the barflys are, the sheep are even worse. While the patrons in the bar whine about their personal problems or talk absolute non-sense to make the game seem wackier than it really is, the sheep have deep philosophical discussions on the essence of fucking block movement. They sit there and extol the virtues of pushing and pulling blocks in the proper manner giving you new techniques, usually ones you’ve already been using as they’re so painfully fucking obvious. The sheep that don’t simply work on their block technique will just whine at you about how they’re going to die or threaten to kill you and make it to the top themselves. This was ok early on, but when you have to stop and talk to these sheep between each fucking level it gets completely monotonous.
Which brings us to the final nail in the coffin, the block puzzle gameplay. The way the levels work is they blocks form a tower which you must climb. Vincent can climb 1 block at a time and must push and pull blocks to form steps to move ever upward as the level falls out from under him. This in itself isn’t really a problem, which is why I was able to make it as far as I did without hating the game as much as I do. The issues don’t manifest themselves until about halfway through when the levels move much faster than previous levels. The problem with forcing you to speed up your movements in the puzzle solving area is that it magnifies the issues with the controls which I can only describe as loose and slippery. Vincent has a real fucking problem with simply doing what you want him to do and more often than not will either do nothing at all or double whatever input you wanted him to do. For instance if you want to climb up one block most of the time Vincent will simply turn toward that block rather than climb it and when he finally does find the time to climb up the block he’ll usually jump down the other side rather than stopping there. There are times in the game where you will have to climb around the edge of a block, but good luck getting Vincent to actually acquiesce to this demand. There is no button you can press to modify his movement and make him hang from the ledge, he’ll only do it if there is nothing underneath to drop down to. If there are blocks under you he will always drop to them so you’ll spend more time shuffling blocks around just to be ABLE to hang from the ledge rather than simply giving you the ability to do it at well. Even simple block movement is an issue, and since it is 90% of the gameplay it is a huge issue. To move a block you must face it, hold A to grab it and then push or pull it. Unfortunately there’s no way to get Vincent to really look in a direction without trying to move that way. If you want to grab a block that is behind you you’ll press towards it to look that way but he’ll end up climbing the block instead of just facing it, if you hold A to signal you want to grab the block in that direction, he’ll usually just grab whatever block he’s already looking at before turning to the new block, but since you’ve already initiated a movement as well you now end up moving a different block than the one you intended. All of these issues compound themselves when faced with a time limit, and god help you if you’re up against a boss.
The bosses in the game work much like the regular levels only much faster. They also have unique attacks, one can create an avalanche that knocks you down a few levels another can turn blocks into heavy stones that make them harder to move around. All of them come equipped with the most annoying sound effects and voicework imaginable. After hearing a giant fetus scream the same annoying baby talk over and over as you restart the level it became clear this game just didn’t want me to be playing it. Now, I’m sure the developers were going for some bullshit immersion system where the levels are so annoying and grating that the level of annoyance you feel is supposed to be synonymous with Vincents own feelings of guilt and regret, but that is bullshit as it comes at the expense of fun. As Mike pointed out in the podcast, if your game isn’t fun to play it doesn’t matter how good the rest of it is.
A Tale of Two Sissies
Catherine tries to spice things up by forcing a morality system into the game, but even in this there is failure. The morality meter leans either towards the grown up responsible Katherine, or the youthful fancy-free Catherine, however the meter seems to have no effect on Vincent in any way. Even if you purposefully steer him towards Catherine, you would expect him to come more and more agreeable to the idea of leaving Katherine (Since he seems to hate her and responsibility anyway) but this never happens. Vincent is always a wishy-washy pushover completely against the idea of cheating on Katherine and fearful of being caught for what he has done. I continuously sent nasty texts to Katherine and purposefully chose to be terrible to her, yet every time a story event came up Vincent was completely different trying to hide his promiscuity and keep things alive with Katherine. Beyond that, there doesn’t even seem to be any real correlation between your actions and their morality consequences. I sent a text to Katherine once that to me sounded like a real relationship ender, however it actually IMPROVED my standing with her, I assume because she was happy to receive any text at all.
Breaking Up With The Catherines
Jeff Gerstmann of Giantbomb.com gave Catherine a 2 out of 5 in his review of the game. When I heard this before playing the game I couldn’t understand how he scored it so low. My initial hour or two with the game was actually quite enjoyable and had it maintained that momentum this should clearly have deserved at least 4 stars. However, after spending enough time with the game to realize it’s utterly careless attention to control, completely vapid plot, and annoying characters I wholeheartedly agree with his assessment. As I mentioned before, if you’re already all over the jock of Atlus you will love this game. Like the sheep that Vincent is climbing the tower with you will flock to Catherine and claim it as a masterpiece of eastern game design. The stupidity of the plot and absurdity of events that occur won’t even phase you. However if you are simply a gamer with no commitment to the niche or company there isn’t much here that you’ll find worth your time. Catherine could have been brilliant had they tightened up the controls, I could have easily written the stupidity of the story off as simply “Oh, it’s Japan”, but as it tried nothing else but to piss me off at every turn I cannot in all conscience recommend this game to anyone that hasn’t already bought it and loved it.