Since getting first-wind of it in mid-2010 I have been excited about Catherine. Combining puzzle elements with some dating-sim decisions the game has become something of a morality tester for those who have been playing it over in Japan. Earlier this year my heart broke when Atlus said it wouldn't be bringing it to America, though it seemed that they were merely playing with my emotions as a release date had been announced for Summer 2011 (July 26, specifically). At E3 this year I got heart-on with Catherine, and discovered the dangers of being a man in lust.
Speaking with Michael Meeker, the Assistant QA Manager & Editor at Atlus, the game is at-heart a full-on puzzler, but according to Meeker its true core is in its atmosphere, filled with horror and mature eroticism.
"When you say 'adult' people will just think blood, guts and boobs everywhere," said Meeker, "but it's more about coming to terms with who you are, which is a very mature question for someone as they grow up." In regards to the moral questions asked throughout the game Meeker claims the reasons for their existence is far more deeper than one may think. "It's not so much good versus evil, but rather law versus chaos. Law generally sticks with the girl you currently have, whereas chaos has you doing your own thing."
At the Atlus booth the full game was being showcased, but due to high demand you were only given the chance to play a couple levels. To get myself more familiar with the game I had chosen to do the tutorial levels and one of the first boss battles. In the game your character Vincent start out in the Stray Sheep bar, where you are contemplating either marriage with Katherine or ditching her for Catherine, the new woman in the protagonist's life. You send text messages to various people, talk with other bar patrons and have secret dates with Catherine.
When you go home to sleep you enter the Nightmare world, where everyone is a sheep. (Even Vincent is sporting ram horns.) In this world the puzzle elements of the game are awaken, as you must climb to the top of the level by pushing, pulling or ridding the boxes in your path that will help to reach the summit quicker. Time is not on your side, however, as the boxes disappear below you, and if you don't reach the top in time you will plummet to your death and have to start over again. There are checkpoints, though, so you might not have to start all the way at the beginning. Players can also collect power-ups such as extra boxes and pillows (representing extra lives), and if you play in Easy mode you'll have the option to go back a step if you mess up moving the boxes.
Once you reach the top of the summit Vincent will find himself surround by other sheep, who'll claim they're humans and that he himself is a sheep. At this section you have the option to save your progress and converse with the other sheep, but in order to leave to the next level you must enter the confessional booth and answer a morality question. How you answer will determine the difficulty of the gameplay, and the questions are tricky. For example I was asked if I preferred older women or younger women, and because the question wasn't specific (i.e.: three years older or three years younger) I had no idea that choosing the latter would make my difficulty spike up a bit when I picked it. Catherine doesn't just play with your fingers and brain, but it also likes to mess around with your moral conscience.
The boss battle I faced had two protruding hands holding a fork chasing me up the tower, and when it struck the boxes it made them more heavier to pull and push around to climb up further. The amount of time I had to reach the end of the level was probably sliced in half during the boss level, as the hands would violently swipe away the boxes and try to stab Vincent with the fork to kill him. Once you beat the boss level you'll wake up in your bed, and start the day anew with more decisions to make that will either help or hinder your gameplay experience.
So far Catherine is exceeding my expectations. The gameplay is very fast-paced, as the title wants you to think quickly in order to make the right choices to survive. Moving around the levels is also a cinch, with Vincent able to climb, jump off and even hang off the boxes in order to maneuver through the level. Be warned that the control might be a tad too sensitive, as one wrong flick and you'll find yourself falling to your death. The anime look is also spot-on, and the FMV sequences by the folks at Studio 4°C (who have animated such titles as Mind Game and Detroit Metal City) are gorgeous. Some may be turned off by the game's appearance, sadly; a shame as they could be missing out on one of the best titles of the year.
Although the game is filled to the brim with Japanese culture Meeker says that there has been no problem promoting the game outside the Land of the Rising Sun. In fact because people already knew of the game's existence the word on Catherine is spreading.
"Introducing new people to it I think the sheer weirdness quotient really outweighs the Japanese stuff in it," admits Meeker, as the game is filled with strange characters, sheep and quirky conundrums.
With its complicated storyline and moral-testing puzzles Catherine is looking to be one of the most unique games of the decade, and with it sporting both over twenty hours of gameplay and multiple endings gamers will have many reasons to come back and play again. Come July 26 those that throw caution to the wind and play the game with their true self will find themselves screaming at the TV as their anti-hero Vincent constantly dies in front of them. Find out next month when Catherine hits stateside if love really is over, and decide whether or not you prefer to stay with Katherine or leave her for Catherine. For those wondering about Michael Meeker's preference, he said he'd rather stay with Katherine.
"She's got that maturity that I like more," Meeker said, adding with a chuckle, "I can't stand Catherine's drill hair."