Let me just say this up front: I have never beaten a more frustrating game than Catherine.
I have played more frustrating games, certainly, but I got really frustrated and stopped playing those games. Because they were frustrating. Somehow, Catherine manages to stagger drunkenly along a thin line between controller-breaking, rage-inducing uber-frustration and enough delicious plot dangled in front of you to keep you playing.
Catherine was released back in 2011, and it was the first “next-gen” title developed by the Persona Team. I was pretty stoked about it when it came out, because I love me some Persona, and I was expecting more of the same. For those of you who haven’t played a Persona game, they are a fascinating mix of dating/school sim and hardcore dungeon crawler, in which you go to school and hang out with your friends by day and fight monsters by night. I absolutely love Persona 3 and 4, and they are hands-down some of the best games ever released on the PS2.
Catherine…is a very different game. You play as Vincent Brooks, an unmotivated 30-something who lives in a dingy apartment, drinks a lot, and has been dating a woman named Katherine for about five years. One night in his usual boozy hangout, the local dive bar called The Stray Sheep, he gets a little too drunk, meets a sexy little blonde named Catherine, and ends up taking her home for a one-night stand. That’s when the nightmares start: surreal dreams in which Vincent is forced to climb an impossibly tall tower with a bunch of humanoid, talking sheep who are all actually other men who are having the same dream. Sound weird enough, yet? Because it’s even weirder in practice than it sounds in theory.
The first thing you will notice about Catherine is that it is a really great-looking game. Sure, at this point, it’s last-gen, and it doesn’t do anything to really push the graphical capabilities of the PS3, but it’s incredibly stylish. There are quite a few excellent animated cutscenes by celebrated Japanese animation house STUDIO4°C, probably most famous for their work on the Animatrix. The in-game engine uses very crisp cell-shaded graphics, and all of the character models are really top-notch. I particularly enjoyed how well-animated the facial expressions on the character models were. It really made the cutscenes a joy to watch.
Which is good, because this game is at least 50% cutscenes. You are going to spend a lot of time watching the same people sit and talk to each other. In a lot of ways, this game was essentially an interactive anime soap opera. More than that, it was a really good anime soap opera, with a lot of unexpected twists and turns. The characters were interesting and varied, and their struggles seemed believable and real. I was really invested in Vincent and his relationship troubles, and I attribute much of this to the uncommonly excellent voice acting. I honestly cannot think of a single other game I have played where the voice acting was this strong across the board. Most games have one or two stand-out performances that make the voice acting tolerable, but Catherine’s voice acting was 100% awesome 100% of the time. Atlus really went out of their way to hire the best of the best in the industry, and it shows. Vincent, for instance, is voiced by Troy Baker, who you might recognize as the voice of Booker DeWitt, Joel from The Last of Us, and Hawkeye in the latest iteration of the Avengers cartoons. Michelle Ruff, who voices Katherine, has a Wikipedia page that could double as a list of anime classics, and has been in everything from Chobits to Trigun to Ghost in the Shell. Even my favorite voice actor Liam O’Brian makes an appearance!
So Catherine looks great and sounds great, but if that’s all it’s got going for it, Atlus should’ve just made an OVA and been done with it. How does it play?
The game is divided into nine days and nights. Each day, you watch a handful of cutscenes in which Vincent interacts with his friends and his girlfriend, Katherine. These cutscenes always culminate in a trip to the Stray Sheep, the bar at which Vincent and his friends hang out. You get to assume direct control of Vincent while he’s at the bar, and you can talk to other patrons, send texts to your girlfriend(s), drink a variety of alcohols, and play an arcade-style minigame (I love when video game characters get to play video games, it’s so meta). Each night, Vincent enters the nightmare realm, and you must help him conquer a set number of puzzle levels in order to survive that night’s ordeals.
So ask yourself: are you the kind of gamer that enjoys games with cutscenes? If you’re not, this isn’t the game for you. All of the daytime portions of the game consist of cutscenes and dialogue. Even the bits where you get to move Vincent around in the bar, you’re pretty much just moving him from one dialogue event to another. Every once in awhile, you get to chose how you will respond to something that someone says, but mostly you’re a passive receptacle for the admittedly interesting dialogue from other characters.
There are some fun little interactive touches: you get to check your in-game phone for texts and choose how Vincent responds to them; you get to order drinks for Vincent and get him drunk; and you can choose what music plays in the bar on the jukebox. But mostly what you get to do in the bar is listen to other people talk.
The meat of the game happens at night, during the nightmare sequences. And those puzzles…fuck. Man, fuck those puzzles.
It’s actually pretty difficult to explain the gameplay in the nightmare sections of the game. Just take a look at this video.
The object of the puzzle sections is to climb the tower as quickly as possible. You can only climb one block at a time (without a powerup, anyway), so the puzzle is figuring out how to manipulate the blocks in order to make stairs you can climb on. As the game progresses, more obstacles get thrown in your way, everything from murderous sheep, to blocks with spikes that shoot up and murder you, to enormous bosses that follow you and try to murder you. In short, everything is trying to murder you, and the only way to escape death is to outclimb it.
It’s actually pretty rewarding, once you get into the rhythm of it. Once you have a modicum of mastery over the controls, you kind of feel like a badass. The problem is that these puzzles are punishingly, retardedly, unimaginably difficult. And this is not just me being a pussy gamer. Catherine is renowned for it’s extreme difficulty among gamers, to the point that Altus actually released a patch after the game’s launch that added extra retries and a “Super Easy Mode.”
I was pretty proud of myself for playing the game in Easy mode, which sounds funny to say, but even on Easy mode, there were levels that I had to play fifteen or twenty times before I got through them. The game’s level of difficulty is a little weird, though, because it never becomes unplayable. You have so many retries that it’s almost impossible to get a true Game Over screen – I never saw one once.
I had 99 retries for most of the game. After you’ve played the same portion of the same level over twenty times and fallen to your death or mudered slightly differently each time, though, you get to the point of throwing your controller at something. Or someone. I broke finally during the last night’s levels. Near the end of the game, “mystery blocks” are introduced, blocks that don’t reveal their booby traps until you step on them.
So you never know if that block you need to step on in order to keep going is going to support your weight or break or even stab you with a million pointy knives. Or maybe eat you! Because that’s a thing. Blocks can eat you.
So this was the point at which I turned on Super Easy Mode. In Super Easy Mode, you have access to a power up that allows you to climb three steps at once, which makes the game a cake walk. I used the power up in one area of one of the final levels that I just could NOT get past, mostly because all of the video playthroughs of the level that I could find seemed to hinge upon stepping on a block that just did not seem to exist in my game. After playing through that portion of the level 24 times (I counted), I screamed, waved my arms around a lot, and reset the game on Super Easy Mode. After using my cheating cheatery cheater powerup to get past that portion of the level, I am proud to say I did not use that power up again, even in the final, insanely frustrating boss battle in which I had to play the final portion of the level 31 times. Let me say that again: I had to play the final portion of the level THIRTY-ONE TIMES on SUPER EASY MODE. WTF, Atlus?
So I suppose the question is why? Why did I keep playing this sadistic game until the very end? That’s…a very good question. The story was excellent and I was genuinely surprised by some of its twists and turns. I liked Vincent, even though he was a totally incompetent shit in all aspects of his relationships. I could have watched a playthrough online, though, and experienced the story that way. However, one of the really cool things about Catherine is the way it handles its multiple endings.
It’s not a new thing for a game to have multiple endings. Games have been doing that since Chrono Trigger. And Chrono Trigger has like thirteen endings! Catherine only has nine. Catherine, however, determines how you get your ending based partly upon how you answer pointed relationship questions throughout the game. At the end of every level of the nightmare tower, Vincent enters into a little confession booth where he is presented with a question about relationships that he must answer. (These questions are slightly different every time; there were a few times where I had to reset my game after answering a question but before I had saved, and the next time I went into the confessional, I was presented with a different question.) The questions read like a surreal Cosmo quiz, things like “Is romance annoying? I hate it! or I Wuv it!” or “You must kiss one of these. Choose: a cephelopod-like alien or a beautiful corpse.” Your answers determine your positioning upon a spectrum of Order and Chaos, which in turn determines which ending you get.
I was genuinely curious to find out which ending I would get by answering each question honestly.
(For the record, I hate romance, I would rather kiss a living alien, and I’d rather have a short and full life.)
The other cool thing that the game does with your answers is that it shares them with the Playstation Network. So after each level, you get to see a graph representing the answers other players gave on their first playthrough. It’s a cool little feature, one that I didn’t ever know I wanted in a game, but now that I’d seen it, I’d like to see it more.
I ended up getting one of the “bad” endings, which I won’t spoil here, and it was pretty lame considering all the work I put into the game, but it was still a really cool experience.
So there were a lot of things both to love and hate about Catherine, but one thing I haven’t touched upon yet is its somewhat problematic representation of women. I realize that the preceding sentence has probably raised some defensive hackles, but I’ve just got to say, this was a really weird game to play as a woman. It was entirely about love and relationships, but from a firmly male perspective. The game does not pass the Bechdel test, for one thing, but I don’t feel like that’s the real issue here. Vincent, our main character, IS a man, and the game is presented from his perspective entirely, so it makes sense that the player wouldn’t be privy to any dialogue that didn’t directly concern Vincent or his situation. It also makes sense from a narrative perspective that the player doesn’t get to see any aspect of Katherine’s or Catherine’s lives that isn’t related to Vincent, because again, the game is completely about Vincent’s journey.
That being said, the game seemed to have a really weirdly conservative picture of how relationships should work. The binary nature of the questions meant that either you were a good person for liking marriage or a right bastard for disliking the concept, which sort of sidesteps the entire continuum of potentially healthy human relationships. It also set up a binary between the two extreme female archetypes of virgin and whore: the idea that women come in two flavors, fun-loving sexpot and practical, frigid bitch, without really an in-between option, and which would you prefer? Neither Catherine or Katherine seemed like a real person in the same way that the male characters did, and although I feel like the excellent voice acting helped to make them seem at least believable, they still came off as caricatures.
Honestly, neither relationship was at ALL healthy, even though I felt like the game “approved” of Vincent and Katherine’s relationship. But Vincent and Katherine had really serious communication issues from the very beginning, even before Vincent started messing around, and they didn’t even seem to like each other very much or have anything in common. Catherine at least seemed to share some interests with Vincent (namely drinking) but their relationship was also plagued by communication and consent issues. Honestly, even though I got a “bad” ending, it seemed like one of the best possible endings for Vincent, because it seemed pretty clear to me from the get-go that Vincent ought not to be with either of these women, nor any woman, til he gets his own shit sorted.
So should you play this game? I do not have a resounding “yes” to give you, but nor do I have an emphatic “no.” As much of a pain in the ass as this game was, I feel like an awesome badass for conquering it, even on Easy/Super Easy Mode. I ran a motherfucking gauntlet, and I made it through. The voice acting, graphic design, and story are definite selling points. But this is absolutely not a game for everyone. Or even most people.
But I’ve got to say, I’m really glad it exists. I’m glad someone pitched a crazy-ass game about marriage and relationships and murdering sheep, and someone at Atlus was like, “Yeah, that! Let’s make that game.”
I’m glad that’s the kind of world we live in.