Plain and simply, Catherine is unlike any single game you’ve ever played, as it is basically a unification of two genres: one part visual novel, one part puzzle. “That sounds like a graphic adventure,” you may say, but the two genres are so disparate that someone who walked in on you playing the two portions might not even realize you were playing the same game. On paper, this might sound like a recipe for disaster, and I’ll admit, the game gets off to a rough start. Somehow, though, Atlus makes it work. While the experience might not be for everyone (but really, what Atlus game is?), it is something, when taken as a whole, that is a unique experience worth your time.
Most of you know by now the premise of the game. Our hero, Vincent, voiced by Troy Baker, who also lent his voice to Kanji in Persona 4 (among other roles), has been dating Katherine for several years. She’s starting to get impatient for Vincent to settle down and marry her. Vince, of course, can’t understand why things can’t stay the way they are, and his life is further complicated when the mysterious (and sexy) Catherine comes into his life. Suddenly, Vincent finds himself cheating, although he can never seem to remember the time he spends with Catherine. To make matters worse, Vincent has begun to have strange nightmares, the details of which he also can’t remember once he wakes. The fact that otherwise healthy men have been found dead under mysterious circumstances after reportedly having their own recurring nightmares also makes Vincent uneasy. The rumor is that unfaithful men have been cursed with these dreams, and if you die in the nightmare, you die in real life.
The game is composed of three elements: story portions, which mix hand-drawn 2D anime-style cutscenes with their 3D equivalent; the nightmare climbing box puzzle segments; and the bar and dream landing sections, in which you control Vincent and interact with others.
The story segments are very well done for the most part; the animation is excellent, with deep (if sometimes exaggerated) expressions and gestures, especially for Vincent (I love the way he absentmindedly pulls on his ear when he’s anxious). The voice acting throughout the game is generally very good, also, although I did find the volume to be irregular. For example, in the 2D scenes, the volume will be fine, but when it switches to 3D, it can be hard to hear without pumping up the volume on your TV. The music will often overpower voices, also, and you can’t adjust the volume independently, which is a shame.
The problem some may find with the numerous cutscenes is their length, since you will have several back-to-back-to-back. My controller turned off more than once (due to inactivity) as I watched the various scenes that had me feeling more like I was watching a movie than playing a game. Perhaps this was intentional, since you are, in a sense, watching a movie via the “Golden Playhouse,” that bookends the game, complete with host, opening credits, and logo in the top left of the screen; still, some may find the long non-interactive sequences frustrating. At first, the story is slow, but as the game progresses, these segments earn their length as you become more invested in the story and characters. However, if a good six hours (very rough estimate) of cutscenes frightens you, or the story isn’t usually your favorite aspect of a game, Catherine may not be for you. You can pause and skip these scenes at any time, which is nice, although skipping them on a first play through will mean losing a large chunk of the story.
And after all, experiencing Catherine’s story is most gamers’ primary reason for playing the game; I know it was for me. Overall, the story is worth the ride, and Atlus had done some interesting things with it. Still, I feel the narrative could be tighter. For example, it gets off to at very slow start, something I know is common with Atlus titles, and which may be fine in a 100+ hour RPG epic, but which appears as wasted time in a game not even a quarter of that length. It wasn’t until halfway through (maybe even later) that Vincent really became a sympathetic character, and while Catherine worked well as the story evolved, Katherine (for me, at least) was dislikable throughout. She came off as a control freak; not only could I not understand why Vincent was dating her in the first place, but her character came off as such that I couldn’t really see why she felt she even needed him. Their lack of on-screen intimacy (perhaps a cultural thing?) also made me struggle to see them as a real couple. Perhaps less time talking and more time showing would have helped establish their relationship as believable.