Catherine is a rather odd game to review. It released back on July 16th, 2011. The marketing campaign behind it was rather apocryphal. Atlus decided it best to shove the game’s more sexual elements out in open during trailers and more specifically the cover art.
After all, the game is available on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 and the cover art for each was provocative in a different manner. The PS3 version showed off Catherine unstrapping her dress with the main character in miniature form in her cleavage. The Xbox 360 version has Katherine on all fours seductively with the main character yet again in miniature form hanging on to her behind.
Marketing of this manner is very cheap. It attracts people towards your game that otherwise wouldn’t ever give it the time of day. That is the problem though. Other games that exploit the sexuality of video game characters do end up pushing these elements.
Most recently, the Suda 51 and James Gunn collaboration, Lollipop Chainsaw has used Jessica Nigri to their advantage. Jessica Nigri cosplays as the main character in the game, a cheerleader, and attends events in said costumes and showed up in a recent exploitative trailer that announced a special edition of Lollipop Chainsaw including a life size robot of the protagonist and “she does what you tell her to do”.
In that case it is fine because that game is meant to be over the top and un serious. This campaign was a detriment to Catherine. Surely it did attract the overly horny teenagers/young adults, but it also turned off gamers whom have stuck by Atlus and were hoping for a more serious game.
This ended in disappointment with the horn dogs being disappointment in the outcome of the game and anyone else not in that group were less endowed to buy it due it making them feel dirty. It is an absolute shame because Catherine is the absolute definition of a mature video game.
The mature rating has existed in the gaming landscape for over a decade, but much like the R-rating in the film industry, games don’t necessarily reflect that. Many games simply strive to be as shocking, controversial, or hyper violent as possible. They know that gamers want violence sprinkled with sex and in any medium these two elements always sell a product.
Too many mature rated games are in actuality rather childish drivel. They do not put their mature elements to good use. This complacency with remaining this way has give video games a bad name amongst non gamers, especially those puerile and nonsensical politicians.
That is why I take solace in Catherine’s existence. To play Catherine is to undergo a transformation; one in which the player swiftly overcomes their preconceived notions of what they believe Catherine, or more generally, video games to be capable of.
Without spouting endless superlatives let me begin with the premise. The plot of Catherine revolves around a man by the name of Vincent Valentine whom has been in a relationship with Katherine for ostensibly a few years at the start of the game. Katherine asks Vincent to marry her.
Naturally, Vincent is apprehensive due to his fear of commitment. He is rather quick to forget about the previously stated question. Vincent is hum drum man. There is nothing special about him. This is what makes him so identifiable as a character. Far too many video games that make attempts at engrossing stories tend to have characters that aren’t believable.
That is just fine, however something can be said of a superbly written story with well realized, identifiable characters. It helps strengthen the connection to the character and makes emotional moments that much more impactful.
Vincent also does exhibit some childlike qualities, as do all typical “grown” men. This leads to the crux of the games story. This man ends up meeting another very seductive, tantalize woman by the name Catherine. Catherine is such an engaging game thanks to several elements, the first of which being the writing.
This game contains exemplary writing. Every line of dialogue being spewed from a character’s mouth sounds natural because it fits their personality. There was a movie released a few years back called Juno. I often love to praise this film for its acting/dialogue, sounding completely normal. Each person felt like they were having real conversations as opposed to reading their lines. The best voice acting is the acting in which you can not tell the actor is doing so at all.
Even some of the most beloved films in the public consciousness fail to have characters feeling real to the same degree as Juno. Catherine is essentially the video game equivalent of that. It may not be on the same level as Juno and it is also not the best flowing dialogue in gaming(that award goes to the Unchartedseries), but it is up there.
Aside from the dialogue and characters is the symbolism, moral ambiguity, and thematic elements. This elevates the game to a status well above many others in its field. The two pillars of gameplay are either climbing up a series of steps or talking to people at a bar. A fairly decent amount of narrative and exposition is expressed in these bar sequences.
The most engaging activity to partake in here is replying to text messages. Catherine has a morality system that comes into play when Catherine or Katherine texts Vincent and he replies to their messages. It becomes far more than choosing two options on obviously opposite ends of the spectrum. Three or more options are typically available at one time. Some of these are outright obvious as to which side of morality they fall in whereas others are quite ambiguous and not so black and white.
It doesn’t end there either because responses are not one sentence. Vincent is usually required to answer in paragraphs. In this case, each sentence has its own set of options for response, leading to interesting results. Talking to people and helping them solve their issues is also a good time waster(both in the real world and in the game world).
Aside from conversing with people about socially relevant issues and intrinsic real world fears, one can also get drunk. This spills over into the other pillar of gameplay by improving the speed at which Vincent moves up the steps. An arcade machine is also present and can played through. This arcade machine plays exactly like the nightmare puzzle sequences within Catherine, only it is a bit simpler in terms of obstacles/enemies and is wrapped up in an obviously different story about some inutile princess.
This serves as a good way to come to grips with the mechanics without having to waste time failing in the main game’s puzzle sequences. These nightmare puzzle sequences occur at night after Vincent has waded through whatever he wanted to do at the bar.
It’s these sequences where Catherine comes into its own and is elevated from a superbly written story of romanticism and moves into a complex, morally ambiguous game with thematic elements and sexual promiscuity at the forefront. The beginning levels do start out feeling quite facile, allowing the player to come to grips with the innerIt quickly ceases to hold the player’s hand early on. Once this hand holding ends,Catherine transforms into a difficult, sometimes perplexingly frustrating puzzle experience(These puzzles are the basis for the two player vs. mode. A race against another player in nightmare like puzzle sequences). Serious critical thinking is required on the behalf of the gamer to make it through. No matter how frustratingly devious the puzzles become, the player is compelled to continue because of the satisfaction that comes with conquering these challenges and continuing to experience the story.
The nightmare sequences are usually filled with symbolic representation of Vincent’s real world pressures. Some are actually quite simple to examine. One puzzle has Vincent climbing as usual while followed by a woman dressed in a bride’s gown and carrying an enormous fork in an attempt to kill him. This clearly signifies Vincent’s fear of commitment. He is running away from marriage because it requires a huge commitment and sacrifices to be made. Our protagonist is not ready for such a daring task.
This is why he chooses to run away. I may be making a stretch, but the fork is presumptively tied to cake. Forks are tied together with cakes because that is the utensil people use to eat these cakes and a cake is served at weddings after the marriage has already been solidified. To Vincent, the solidity of marriage spells death. This immature “adult” can’t handle such a weighty proposition.
This would explain why the woman would be trying to kill him with a fork of all things. It reminds him life’s end. Another puzzle sequence is simply a disfigured baby following our hero through to the top of the stairs. It can safely be assumed Vincent hates children, thus explaining the baby’s rancid appearance. Catherine takes place across a week and several sets of stairs are climbed each night. At the top of each set of stairs, the player is asked to walk into a confession booth. In here, Vincent will be asked a question and must pull a string answering one way or the other. Some of these questions may be mundane, whereas others might leave you thinking. A less obvious symbol is that of the stairs themselves. The stairs signify Vincent’s journey to adulthood, pressuring him to make tough life decisions with consequences that be dealt with.
Catherine’s superb writing, symbolic representations, moral ambiguity, sexual promiscuity, and maturity are worthy of praise. This combined with the well designed puzzles requiring experimentation and critical thinking creates an elevating experience far beyond the reaches of what many video games achieve. Add in the fact that there are a total of twenty endings and what we are left with is a momentous game that must be played by any one considering themselves a gamer. The only flaw I can think of that exists in the game is the disparity between the extremely quiet in engine cut scenes and the loud anime cut scenes.
(Version reviewed: Xbox 360)