Catherine is the latest game from Atlus, and is by far their most original and ambitious project since Persona 3. It's a story driven puzzle game, if you can imagine that, but it contains so much of the charm Atlus is known for, that fans will feel right at home from the start. The game tells the story of Vincent Brooks, a simple man who has a job, a girlfriend, and a bunch of friends to go drinking with. His girlfriend begins to question whether their relationship is moving forward, implying she wishes to be married. While all of this is happening, Vincent meets a girl at the bar, and suddenly wakes up in bed with her the next morning. On top of his new burden, rumors are floating around about young men who wake up mysteriously dead. Vincent begins having nightmares about climbing complex walls of blocks, occasionally running away from morbid creatures. While it may strike you as a strange plot for a video game, it's extremely well written, well paced, and it leaves you caring about the characters from the start, despite the game being a fraction of the length of the brand's other games.
The gameplay in Catherine is split into two portions. The game is split up into days, similar to the Persona series, and each day includes a different series of events, fleshed out through cutscenes both animated, and in-game. After the cutscenes end, usually at the end of the day, Vincent is at the Stray Sheep bar, drinking with his buddies. This is the first part of the gameplay. Vincent is able to talk to his friends, as well as strangers who come to the bar almost every night. They come at different times, so talking to some may mean missing the conversations of others. Each character in the bar has their own story, and you can only learn about it if you speak to them often. Vincent also receives text messages while at the bar, and the player can respond to them using different dialogue options.
Many of the dialogue options in Catherine lead to a change in Vincent's morality meter, which ultimately decides the ending you will receive. The second portion of gameplay involves Vincent's dreams, where the puzzles take place. Vincent must climb a series of puzzles every night, usually ending in one that involves running away from a boss. The gameplay here can get extremely difficult on the normal and hard difficulties. The normal difficulty, however, allows you to undo your actions, albeit limited to about 9 times per section. In these portions, the player has to push and pull blocks to form pathways up to the top of each level. The blocks defy gravity and connect at their edges, and there are some special blocks like ice blocks, bomb blocks, and spike traps. Vincent can only climb up one block unless he is augmented by special items. He can also hang from blocks, which allows him to travel around the puzzles. These portions are really well designed, and in the later stages can be extremely frustrating, but satisfying to finish.
There are a few problems, however. You can't really see the back of the puzzle, which can be frustrating since Vincent's controls reverse when he's on the other side. Also, checkpoints make the game a bit easier, as you can respawn there when you retry, but in one case in a later boss level, I reached the checkpoint as the blocks under me were about to fall, leaving me forced to restart the level. Another thing, which really isn't a problem but would have saved a lot of frustration (especially in hard mode) is that the game doesn't tell you if you're out of possible moves. But like I said, this isn't exactly a problem, but more so a design decision. Also, some of the morality meter questions are unclear, and neither of the options seem to be good or bad, but there's usually another opportunity to get your moral points back.
The game was developed by the Persona team at Atlus, so it retains much of the same art style and morbid themes that the Persona series is famous for. This was an excellent choice by them, since that style fits Catherine so conveniently. The music was done by Persona composer Shoji Meguro, and is a crazy mix between pop, jazz, hip hop, and classical. Amongst the original tracks, there are rearrangements of classic classical scores, from composers, such as Gustav Holst, and Frederic Chopin. It's a very nice soundtrack. Overall, the presentation is unmatched by most games on the market today.
Catherine feels like it was made with a lot of love. The presentation is excellent, the gameplay is very original, and the plot is genuinely interesting. Despite the handful of problems it has, it's a must have game for anyone, and an experience you won't soon forget.
Overall Score: 8.5/10