Last year, word came out of Japan that Atlus was putting out an erotic horror game by the name of Catherine. Of course, this got the attention of quite a few North American gamers, both for the publisher and the subject matter. The videos leading up to the game’s Japanese release didn’t do much to quell curiosity and even after it came out it continued to get looks with the ultimate question being “Would it come out here?” Luckily for all of us, the answer was yes.
I was able to sit down with Atlus at E3, as well as attend an online press demo of the game recently and have managed to both play the first boss battle (and died, often!) as well as saw about the first hour of the game. So sit right back and get comfortable while we dive into Catherine’s world, which deals very heavily with psychology, the nature of relationships and commitment and aspects of dreaming and fear. The demo I saw at E3 essentially picked up during the third day of the game (about 30 minutes in, give or take) while the demo we saw during the online press event contained the first hour or so of gameplay, or about the first two days.
Catherine begins with some very stylized animation which flash between different settings from romance to comedy to horror before we find out that this is a picture on a television. In fact, the entire game is a TV show named Golden Playhouse, hosted by Trisha. One thing that was interesting here is that while many games today have boob physics, Catherine has hair physics. Yes, folks. The future has arrived. At any rate, Golden Playhouse is currently showing Catherine an ‘unconventional horror romance’ about a young man named Vincent. Set in a slightly-futuristic version of Chicago, Vincent is a computer engineer in his early thirties and likes things easy and uncomplicated. He’s not ready to settle down, he enjoys his five year relationship with Katherine and wants to just keep right on going. The problem is, Katherine is pushing for a commitment of some sort, and Vincent really doesn’t like this. It’s stressing him out so bad, in fact, that he has a nightmare where he’s wearing only his heart-covered boxers and holding a pillow, and must climb a block tower which is slowly crumbling away beneath him.
This, of course, is mostly a tutorial level to get you used to how things work. You move using the face buttons or analog stick and can pull or push blocks as needed to create your stairs. If you pull a block into where you are, you hang off the edge of the block and can move from side to side to get back on solid ground again. As you go, the levels below you slowly drop off into space. Also, if you move a block so that another block is no longer connected to anything, it will fall until it makes a connection. While it may sound simple, it most definitely is not. There are items that you can pick up along the way which can do anything from creating a block, clear the level of any NPCs, or even turn all blocks into ‘normal’ blocks. This means, of course, that there are non-normal blocks, and these may include ones that are heavy and hard to move, ones which fall away beneath you, exploding blocks, spiked blocks, and so on. Also, you can push more than one block at a time, unless it’s an immovable block or otherwise cannot be moved (such as being blocked by an NPC).
Once completing the tutorial level, you’re asked a question. The answer to this question changes a meter which swings between law and chaos, or between selflessness and selfishness. While the answers you give to these questions (and many others) do not actually change the game play, they can affect other character’s stories, as well as most definitely impacting which of the game’s multiple endings you receive. While in the game, you can receive texts from other characters on your cellphone, and you can decide how to respond to them with multiple choice answers for each section of the message. In fact, during the first day you get a message from Katherine saying that she’s out with friends, and most of them are married and have children, which makes her wonder if she’s missed out. You’re given the choice to answer her starting with a) Does it bother you? b) Don’t overthink it and c) Can’t be bothered now. After some deliberation, Atlus PR manager Aram Jabbari (who was driving the demo) responded with c, and formulated the following response:
Can’t be bothered now.
My brain is full of stuff.
–INSUFFICIENT BRAIN POWER TO CONTINUE CONVERSATION–
It seems Vincent has an odd sense of humor, for sure. Again, all of these decisions impact the balance between law and chaos and which ending you get, which means that there’s a ton of potential for replay value, especially given that the game is estimated to take eight to fourteen hours on a single playthrough. Granted, that’s not counting trying the different difficulty levels, the in-game arcade game (which has its own achievement and special ending) or retrying the levels to get better scores.
During the second night (and the second nightmare), a few things are revealed. First, there are a total of eight towers, which means the game lasts eight nights of Vincent’s life. However, each tower does not necessarily have the same number of levels. After successfully climbing each tower you’re given the ability to save and talk to your fellow sheep while in the nightmare. You can learn techniques for tackling the towers here, as well as find the dream selves of people you’ll experience while at the bar during your waking hours. Once done here, you’ll move to the confessional where you’ll be asked another question which will move the meter. While the next level is loading, however, you’ll get to see the results that other players have given to that poll (if you’re online via PSN or Xbox Live), or those that a group of Japanese gamers gave on PSN (if offline).
Just in case you think that this is too easy, you’ll have boss levels periodically. The bosses are all personifications of Vincent’s fears, with the first one being Katherine’s hands holding a bloody dessert fork (she was eating dessert while talking to Vincent in the opening cinematic). Later bosses will be different and will have different abilities as well. Not only that, during later levels you’ll run into other sheep while climbing. Since everyone is trying to climb to survive, the NPC sheep have the ability to block your path, take items that you were moving towards or otherwise impede your progress. Of course, you can always push them off the blocks if you feel really cruel, but there’s no telling if that will impact their story or not…
Once you make it through the second night, you wake up in your bed…only to realize there’s a naked young woman in bed with you. This, of course, is Catherine. In a flashback you find out that after a night of drinking, your friends left you at the bar, and you meet Catherine there. It’s lust at first sight (or love or like as she claims) and one thing leads to another. While all of this is going on, there are rumors and news stories of men in broken relationships ending up dead. The question then becomes ‘How is all of this connected, and what does this mean for Vincent?’.
As the game opens up and moves forward, you can explore the bar itself and talk to a number of different people. You can also drink (which directly affects your speed in the Nightmare levels) or play an arcade game in the corner called ‘Rapunzel’. Rapunzel is essentially a very stripped-down version of Catherine‘s Nightmare levels, only without a timer. The game features sixty-four levels and as mentioned before has its own achievement and secret ending if you manage to persevere. Each thing you do in the bar, however, takes some time away before you drift off to sleep, perchance to dream badly.
Catherine has many ties to the Persona series, which is somewhat obvious given that the game’s score is composed by Shogi Meguro (of Persona and SMT fame) and the game itself is developed by the Atlus Persona team. In fact, Vincent’s first appearance was in Persona 3 Portable as a cameo, worried about his pregnant girlfriend…
There are animated sequences through the game, which are done by Studio 4 Degrees Celcius, known for a number of movies, anime, games and music videos including Rogue Galaxy and “Breaking the Habit” by Linken Park. The game’s dialogue is in English only, and when asked about this the comment was that there were a number of limiting factors which required that they drop the Japanese voices from the game. That being said, the English voice acting is incredibly good and in fact Atlus has gone the extra mile and re-synched the animation to match the new voice acting, so it even looks like it was designed that way.
The game itself does feature the Japanese patch which was aimed at lowering the difficulty of the title, as well as some minor tweaks in areas where the Japanese audience felt that there were a disproportionate amount of deaths. That being said, even normal difficulty is challenging, and when asked, I was told that Hard Mode has some cases where it’s more unfair than Demon’s Souls was, which should most definitely tell you something about the challenge possible in this game. When you’re tired of playing alone, you can play multiplayer with another person in either Babel or Colosseum. Babel is a co-op mode where you try to get both players to the top of the tower; if one person dies, the game is over. You start with one level available, and can unlock more based on your gameplay in the single-player mode. Colosseum is two-player versus mode where you try to cause the other player to die, with the first to two wins taking the match. This mode is unlocked after you defeat the game, and again, more levels can be unlocked through gameplay. While there is online leaderboards for multiplayer, there’s no actual online play, with multiplayer strictly local but not split-screen.
Atlus let us know that the PS3 and 360 versions will be identical other than possible region-locking on the Xbox 360 version (for those players in Europe, where there are no plans to release the title). There will be no DLC for the title, and if you want the “Love is Over” special edition, you had better pre-order it now, since Atlus is only going to build that version to pre-order demands, and that’s it. Of course, if you’ve been around Atlus titles for any length of time, this is nothing new. Atlus is planning on release demos on both platforms, which should be identical to the gameplay in the Japanese PS3 demo, although no date has been set for this.
All in all, this looks like a very intriguing game and most definitely quirky, which fits Atlus to a ‘T’. Catherine is due out for PS3 and Xbox 360 on July 26th.