Catherine represents an important landmark in Japanese videogames. It’s the first HD title developed by Atlus, and its complex narrative is a departure from Japan’s usual stories involving spiky haired teens. Featuring 32-year-old slacker Vincent Brooks, it examines relationships, infidelity, marriage, pregnancy and adult responsibilities. It’s all delivered through exquisite animated vignettes and a series of SMS messages that need responding to, as well as exploration of Vincent’s local watering hole. The story is excellent, with crisp writing and a perfect English localisation. The rest of the game, the bulk, is block-pushing puzzles. For those concerned by the unlikely marriage of visual novel and block puzzler, there are plenty of clever visual metaphors connecting them.
It’s unlike anything else available, which explains much of its hype and also why Atlus USA claims it to be the fastest-selling title in the company’s history; people want something fresh. By all accounts Catherine should represent a triumphant step in the right direction for an ailing Japanese industry – and it would, except for the fact that the puzzle sections are an utterly joyless exercise in tedium and frustration.
For any videogame the gameplay, by definition, is tremendously important, and even if a title focuses entirely on its story (such as with visual novels), the actual mechanics should never be unpleasant or a hindrance. Catherine’s puzzle sections have been compared to the Sokoban series, Kurushi, Q*Bert, Tetris, Crazy Climber, Jenga and even Mr Driller. The need for so many abstract comparisons signifies that it’s not really like any of these, besides the visual appearance of blocks. Players scale a tower of cubes by pushing and pulling them to make pyramid-like steps; most cubes are normal, but some crumble, are icy, explode, or impale Vincent on spikes. Some are even alive.
Unfortunately, these puzzle areas are pleasureless chores to begrudgingly work through. Much has been said regarding Catherine’s sadistic difficulty, especially since Atlus had to release an emergency patch in Japan rebalancing the game, with extra continues and a Very Easy mode. In truth it’s not so much difficult as badly designed, obscenely so in some places. For starters, several stages require you to wall-crawl around the back of the tower, except you can’t fully rotate the camera, leading to unfair deaths – especially when there’s an invisible spike trap waiting. Meanwhile on the boss stages, if you get ahead, whether a malicious tactic to slow players so the boss can catch up or simply bad programming, the camera will continuously pan down so far that Vincent is removed from view. Worse still the controls can’t be customised, and while it seems logical to push in the direction Vincent is facing to climb a block, if he’s clinging on the side this actually makes him swing around it, which is infuriatingly stupid.
But things like not being able to see your character and illogical controls are petty annoyances compared to everything else. The real problem with Catherine is that contrary to what some say, success is actually down to luck, trial and error, and the whim of a cheating AI. Some bosses employ unfair tricks: the World 5 boss unleashes a vortex of wind where as you climb higher it becomes almost impossible to avoid being instantly killed, forcing you to stick close to her. This is an unnecessary shackle and absurd design mechanic, since it encourages mediocre play to prevent the game throwing a wobbly because you’ve climbed too quickly. Stages are such a grind that there’s little sense of accomplishment, with each one completed breeding feelings of resentment rather than jubilation.
A good puzzle game (such as any of those mentioned at this review’s start) enables players to predict the results of actions. This facilitates the chaining of events and the opportunity for success through brainwork. Catherine, in contrast, obfuscates the outcome of your actions and forces you to rely on trial and error, thanks to a poor camera, increasing use of unpredictable gimmicks with each new world, and an unpleasant degree of unavoidable spontaneous death. It’s maddening just how much nonsense the game tries later on. The final levels are especially bad since block types will suddenly and randomly change to another, with little warning, usually resulting in Game Over. This school of random sudden death design was consigned to history a long time ago, and today is no longer acceptable. Skill and intellect should be the basis for judging a player, not luck.
Those struggling can of course change the difficulty to Easy, which re-arranges blocks but prevents you from unlocking bonuses, or even Very Easy which negates most puzzles, but this is a feeble solution to what are inherently badly designed levels, devoid of any enjoyment. The only reason anyone would persevere, beyond some masochistic mental imbalance, is to participate in the story, which offers plenty of moral choices and eight endings. Except there’s no way to replay cut-scenes, and viewing a different story arc requires restarting from the beginning (unless you get a perfect gold in every stage). Unfortunately it’s so excruciatingly unpleasant that after completing the game once you’re unlikely to return for the other endings. But hey, there’s always YouTube.
Tragically, the best part of Catherine is only unlocked by completing the game on Normal and attaining gold prizes from perfect play. The Coliseum and Babel modes offer multiplayer, which is considerably more fun than the main Story mode. These might have redeemed Catherine slightly, except they require so much work to access (especially the cooperative levels) that it’s really not worth bothering.