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Catherine: First Impressions

February 19, 2011

PS3 Box Art

Fanboys the world over were heartbroken when on August 30th, 2010 it was announced that game developer Atlus had its majority stock acquired by the mobile content provider, Index Holdings. Paranoia promptly ensued over the future of Atlus’ much beloved Shin Megami Tensei franchise. More shocking to some was the idea that a mobile content provider would pull the plug on Atlus’ projects and condemn their beloved games to the hellish limbo of cellphone applications. While these fears are greatly exaggerated, many fans have been eagerly anticipating the release of Catherine, a project that was first hinted at in Persona 3 Portable and has supposedly been in production for quite some time. Due to the nature of Catherine’s development, many feel that it could very well be the last original title that Atlus creates.

This has led to some very high expectations for the game which were shared by yours truly. Little was known about this game at first and each and every trailer really kept upping the ante. Curiosity in the game hit an all time high before reaching a resounding and deafening “huh?” once we got our first look at the gameplay. To get an idea of how the game is played, check out the following footage from Level 2 of the Japanese demo.

Does anyone else feel like this is a step backwards for Atlus? This feels like an HD remake of the kind of game they would have made 20 years ago for Gameboy.

Atlus released the original Japanese version as "Puzzle Boy."

Like their block pushing, anthropomorphic tomato epic, Kwirk!

Now, perhaps I’m being a little too harsh, after all the game has some good things going for it. The art design is great, the animation is beautifully rendered by Studio 4°C, the music is catchy and the overall atmosphere of the game is very compelling.

Catherine Artbook Cover

It also invested a lot of its marketing in boobs.

The story (Or as much of it as my moon-rune illiterate self has gleaned) focuses on Vincent Brooks; he’s a shiftless bachelor who is feeling pressured into marriage by his longtime girlfriend, Katherine. He eventually meets a prettier, younger woman named Catherine (not a typo) with whom he spends the night. After this fated encounter Vincent experiences vivid nightmares in which he is being chased up giant staircases by otherworldly horrors. Prior to these events, young men in Vincent’s neighborhood have been turning up dead in their beds. Vincent’s meeting with Catherine seems to be connected to these killings and a mystery unfolds. I’d be lying if I said this story didn’t intrigue me, as stories about dreams and nightmares have always held a lot of appeal to me personally.

Actual Promotional Art

Also, boobs.

Still, this doesn’t feel like the kind of game that was in development for as long as they said it was and somehow I don’t think this game has nearly as much replay value as Atlus claims. Sure, I’ll buy the company’s claim that the game has over 20 hours of gameplay, but from what I’ve seen in other demo videos it looks like much of that gameplay is taken up by repetitive trial and error as your character dies repeatedly. Initial reviews coming out of Japan seem to verify this, as the main complaint against the game is obscene difficulty made worse by the tedious and repetitive nature of the gameplay. Games used to rely on this sort of design in the 8-bit era because there was no other way to extend the game’s longevity given the capabilities of the hardware at the time. Ask yourself if this is a trend in gaming we want to go back to.


The answer is no.

I get the feeling that someone at Atlus probably wrote a very cool story about dreams and reality but when the time came to pitch it they realized they had no idea how to make this into anything other than a visual novel. That’s how this game feels to me; it’s a visual novel with a puzzle game forced in to pad out the length. This kind of game is not inherently bad and there’s nothing wrong with puzzle games in general, but it just doesn’t seem like something I’d expect from Atlus. This is not to imply that I want Atlus to make the same games over and over again.

Persona 3 CoverPersona 3 Fes Cover

P3P cover

Because they've already done that before.

What I do want Atlus to do is to keep pushing the envelope and make unique games. Catherine is certainly unique, but only in that it applies a high definition experience to a genre best played on cellphones. It’s very possible no one did this before because it was just a very bad idea.

Something very telling about the demo that sums up my feelings on this game is the sequence at the end where we catch a glimpse of Vincent playing an arcade game called Rapunzel, which is essentially a practice mode for the puzzle stages. That made me realize something: this is not the kind of game you throw down full price on a special edition for. This is the kind of game you either play for fifty cents a pop at a pizza parlor or download for $15 on PSN or XBLA. Frankly, it’s just Donkey Kong with more gameplay mechanics and a more involved storyline; god knows, even that’s been done already.

Donkey Kong 1994

Seriously, if you haven't played Donkey Kong on Gameboy, check it out!

So far, the reviews for the game coming out of Japan are fairly mixed and reviews on Amazon seem to be consistently average. I’m not terribly optimistic about the possibility of an American or European release at this point and I don’t know if it would be a good investment for Atlus to do so. The diehards have probably already bought import copies and the niche that this game appeals to just doesn’t seem to be enough of a market force to warrant a full overseas release. Atlus might want to consider a digital release as it would cut enough from the retail price to goad some of the more hesitant gamers into giving it a try. All in all, I’m willing to write this off as one of those weird experimental titles on Atlus’ behalf. If it does well, that’s great; more money can go into production for new games. If not, there’s always Persona 5.

Game Over Screen

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