Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Second Look - Catherine

Note: The following review contains spoilers for Catherine.

In 2011, Atlus, developer behind the Megami Tensei series and Persona sub-series, released an odd-sounding game called Catherine in 2011, which detailed the story of a man going through an affair, with some block puzzles mixed in. The ideas presented in the trailers intrigued me and the result turned out be more interesting than I expected. Eight years later, a re-release with extra content dubbed Catherine: Full Body was announced, among its new features being a new character that leads to new story paths. While the game is already out in its native Japan, the announcement of the English version’s release date led me to play the original game again, both to see how it holds up and to have a comparison point for the Full Body version. After playing the game three times to view multiple endings, I can say that the game is just as good as I remembered it being, though it doesn’t quite hold up as well in some areas.

Vincent Brooks is told by his girlfriend, Katherine, that after years of dating, she wants to get married. Vincent, however, is not quite prepared to take this next step in their relationship. That night, Vincent has a nightmare where he is a sheep climbing up a tower of blocks while being guided by a mysterious voice and outrunning a monster at the bottom of the tower. The next morning, Vincent wakes up to discover that, while drunk, he had cheated on Katherine with another girl named Catherine. As Vincent tries to figure out how to fix this situation, he is met with the news that Katherine might be pregnant with his child.

Vincent Brooks, the protagonist of the story.

The story is interesting in that things in the game can change depending on your actions. While the overall story plays out the same, the ending you receive and Vincent’s inner thoughts during cutscenes are affected by a Mysterious Meter that changes depending on your actions. As mentioned above, I played through the game three times to get three of the game’s eight endings: the True Katherine Ending, where Vincent marries Katherine; the True Catherine Ending, where Vincent makes things work with Catherine; and the True Freedom Ending, where Vincent ends up with neither and pursues space tourism. Getting each of these endings is worth it, as each of them reveals more about the characters and setting, such as what influences the nightmares as well as confirming foreshadowing.

The story also presents a running theme of sheep as a metaphor. The sheep in the nightmares are presented as a play on the idea of counting sheep to go to sleep, which is even hinted at in the game, however this is later put in a different light once it is revealed that the nightmares are actually a means of "herding" society, adding a lot more depth to the sheep metaphor than is initially let on. This also puts the name of the Stray Sheep bar in the game in a different light once you learn who is behind the nightmares in the first place.

The gameplay is split up between Day and Night segments, going between them for purposes of story. During the day, the primary gameplay takes place in the Stray Sheep bar, where Vincent drinks with his friends after work. During this time, you can talk to other patrons and answer text messages from both Katherine and Catherine; the way you respond to texts and answer questions from some of the patrons can have an effect on the Mysterious Meter, which goes between Order and Freedom, so you must choose your answers carefully depending on whether you’re aiming for a specific ending. Each of your actions also affects the passage of time, including when some patrons leave, though there exist guides on how to most effectively manage your time.

The Meter that determines how the story plays out.

Nighttime gameplay largely consists of block puzzles, though each one is separated by landings where you can talk to some of the other sheep. Talking to sheep allows you to learn useful techniques for how to traverse these puzzles, though some may ask questions that have an effect on the Mysterious Meter. As some of these sheep are also bar patrons, talking to them during both day and night can affect whether or not they die in the story. The most important questions to answer, however, are in the form of the Confessionals, which show up at every landing and lead to the next puzzle. Your answers to the (mostly randomized) Confessional questions are reflected afterwards in a pie chart that tells you how other players answered; seeing which way the chart sways can be very interesting to look at, some even being close to an even split, though one has to wonder how much the chart is affected by those answering the questions in a certain way to see specific endings.

Based on how the questions are worded throughout the game, some of which can get oddly personal in the Confessionals (your underwear preference of all things can affect the Meter), it’s clear that the ending you get is meant to be influenced by your natural responses, which is a path I would encourage on a first playthrough, though guides do exist on how to get each of the other endings if you wish.

As previously mentioned, the bulk of the nightmare segments are presented in the form of block puzzles, which are traversed by manipulating blocks to ascend the tower. Once one understands the concept of edges, that being that a block cannot fall as long as its bottom edges are touching another block, a lot of possibilities are opened up, especially once you learn more techniques from talking to other sheep. That said, the puzzles can actually be pretty tricky, especially since you are on a time limit, as layers of the tower gradually detach themselves from the bottom and into the abyss. There's also a number of different block types to keep in mind, with a new one introduced each night to keep players on their toes, such as Ice Blocks that cause you to slide around or Monster Blocks that have a mind of their own. A more benevolent block type is the Spring Block, which bounces you up five steps, assuming you have a ledge to grab onto at the end of your ascent.

You will also hear "Edge" and, in Tower of Babel Mode,
"New Record" a lot.

Fortunately, there are a number of items that can be found to help with climbing the tower, each of which provide their own benefits. The most important is perhaps the Mystic Pillow, which is your primary source of extra lives and how many you get depends on the difficulty. One thing to keep in mind is that, aside from Mystic Pillows, you can only carry one item at a time, which may influence how you go about traversing the puzzles.

Holding Select (Back on the Xbox 360 version) on the main menu while highlighting Golden Palace unlocks the Very Easy difficulty, patched in after Japanese players complained about the puzzles being too difficult even on Easy, which provides increased chances of stumbling on the Power Drink item. I played on Very Easy for this reason, as the Power Drink allows you to climb three steps on the tower upon consumption, which can get you out of a lot of jams. The puzzles turned out to be a little tougher than I remembered, however I got better at them on each playthrough to where I used a stocked-up Power Drink more as a last resort than a crutch.

You will learn to love this item.
Left: Power Drink, lets you jump three steps at a time
Right: Energy Drink, lets you jump two steps at a time

Another way to speed up the puzzle segments is by drinking in the bar during the day, or at least enough to fill up a meter in the corner of the screen. The more you drink, the faster Vincent moves in the nightmares, however you can also learn some interesting things about alcohol the more of it you consume. For example, I didn't know how to properly clean a beer mug or the possible origin of the cocktail's name until I played this game.

Vincent (bottom right) talking and drinking at the bar.
The alcohol meter is in the bottom left corner.
Counter-clockwise from Vincent: Orlando (Liam O'Brien),
Jonny (Travis Willingham), Toby (Yuri Lowenthal)

The nightmare stages are back by an amazing soundtrack by Shoji Meguro, consisting of arrangements of classical music that better suit the pace of a video game. Some standouts include "The Hut On Fowl's Legs (Baba-Yaga)" from Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, "Revolutionary Etude" by Frédéric Chopin and “Symphony No. 9 In E Minor ‘From The New World’ 1st Movement, 3rd Movement Scherzo (Molto Vivace)” by Antonín Dvořák. At the end of each nightmare stage is also a rather perfect and fitting use of "Messiah 'Hallelujah Chorus'" by George Frideric Handel.

Another point of praise is the voice acting, which still holds up today even though the voice actors have had a lot of experience since then. As the voice of the main character, Troy Baker’s role as Vincent Brooks is a standout, as he gives a believable performance of a 32-year-old man thrown into a very fantastical situation. Michelle Ruff and Laura Bailey are also great as Katherine McBride and Catherine respectively, especially the way the two play off each other in one scene later in the game. Though the game is overall well-casted, it would seem that the recording was done a little cheaply, since you can hear a noticeable hissing every time someone says an “s” sound, which I hope to see rectified in the Full Body release.

As with some other Atlus games, cutscenes are divided between scenes rendered in the in-game engine while others are rendered in traditional animation. The animated sequences by Studio 4°C still hold up rather nicely, as they are very expressive and display emotional range that would not be possible in CG. On that note, while the CG sequences are still okay, they don’t seem to hold up as well since current standards make the characters’ movements seem a little stiff, especially with the more limited facial expressions. As with the voice acting, the Full Body version seems like a good opportunity to redo these animations a little to bring them up to modern standards.

After eight years, the original Catherine still holds up as a solid experience. Though some technical aspects don’t hold up as well, the game still tells a compelling story of one man’s mistakes and his epiphanies as he survives deadly nightmares. The block puzzles remain a fun part of the experience, though you would not be blamed for wanting to play on the Very Easy difficulty just to get past some of the more challenging puzzles. If you haven’t played Catherine yet and/or are anticipating the upcoming Full Body version, I would still suggest giving the original version a go, especially if you are a fan of puzzle games and/or other Atlus games.

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