I won’t be going too in-depth about this game; if you want to see a more thorough review of it, I recommend the one by Matthewmatosis. This is more a collection of thoughts about my playthrough.
To start with the negatives, this game suffered from what I’m starting to call “the Atlas problem,” of being a fantastic narrative-driven adventure attached to a game that I don’t really care about–though mind you I don’t mind it nearly as much as I did in, say, Persona 2. For most of the game, Catherine’s play segments are brief, breezy, and just challenging enough to feel like I’m doing something without being an obstruction. This comes with the HUGE ASTERISK that I was playing on Easy mode, because frankly I wasn’t playing Catherine for the game. I do think that Catherine’s mechanics are actually very strong, and I could easily see getting hugely into the systems and mastering them on all difficulties if it was my kind of game. However, I’m not into puzzle games at all, and I’m very into beating games quickly, so easy mode was fine by me.
At least, it would have been–but the other part of “the Atlas problem” is that at some point, the game is going to expect the player to master it, regardless of how involved the player actually is. Like any Atlas game, Catherine has a huge difficulty spike at the end, even on easy mode, which for me killed the game’s pacing right at the climax. It’s far from being unbeatably hard or anything–hell I probably could chug through the last six stages in a couple hours if I dedicated myself to it–but I had no interest in involving myself in the puzzles on that level, that late in the game, when the plot was starting to wrap up and I just wanted to see it through to the end. I don’t understand why the game would bother having a difficulty spike when I’m playing it on a difficulty setting that suggests my lack of commitment.
My other major complaint about the game (and yes it’s a major one though it won’t sound like it), is the bell sound effect that plays when the player is nearing the top of a stage, or at the hub in-between stages. It’s this very loud, persistent, and obnoxious church bell sound that keeps playing over and over, and I kept having to turn the volume down at those parts to keep my sanity. Considering that the game is always voiced, with probably one of the best dub jobs in video games (though this still doesn’t excuse the lack of a Japanese audio track considering the phenomenal Japanese cast), and the soundtrack is pretty awesome, this is basically a crime. Complaints about things like sound effects are the kind of thing I usually forget by the time I get around to writing about a game, so I hope my talking about it sells how frustrating I found it.
Anyways, now that I’m done bitching, let’s talk about the mechanics that were super cool. What I think this game had going for it the most was a really solid pace (up until the end). What always bothered me about the Persona games was that the parts where you’re walking around town chatting with people, and the parts where you’re in dungeons, are both very long, typically around an hour or two apiece if you’re talking to everyone. To me, it always made transitioning between the two halves of the game really jarring; especially because I was so much more invested in the parts where I was talking to people in town, so I’d often get sad when it was time to go back into a dungeon for hours on end, especially if I wasn’t satisfied with how much plot progression had occurred in the meantime.
In Catherine, the cutscenes and bar segments are typically around fifteen to twenty minutes long, and the play bits in total end up being maybe thirty to forty minutes at most. Because level progress is marked on a large map after beating each level, the player has a great sense of how long they’ll be playing levels before getting back to the juicy part of the story.
But even more brilliant still is that in between every two levels, there’s a little rest area where the player chats with NPCs who are playing through the levels as well, most of whom turn out to also be patrons at the bar. A huge amount of the character development, and even some of the best dialog, takes place during these segments–so even while the player is solving puzzles, they’re constantly getting fed little bits of story progression. A large part of why the final, difficult 6-stage gauntlet at the end is so frustrating is because there are no sheep to talk to in the rest areas, so it feels like the entire story is on hold while the player chugs through these very difficult levels.
All of the minor characters were surprisingly deep and interesting, and while I didn’t manage to keep many of them alive through to the end, I found the resolutions of their conflicts to be some of the most satisfying parts of the game. I felt there was some weight to the camaraderie that Vincent was forming with these characters, and I cared about them making it through to the end as much as Vincent did. The game’s attitude that even if someone does some bad things that they regret, they still deserve to be happy and to find their way through, is something that resonated with me and I thought was cool.
Now, let’s talk about the main storyline. I enjoyed watching the story of Catherine unfold, but I think it stopped short of resonating with me, or making me care about any of the characters. I like how the story is constantly presenting tons of ideas and quotes about the nature of love and humanity, be it through the cutscenes, the dialog of the bartender, or even quotes that show up during loading screens. However, the game doesn’t ultimately seem to do anything with these themes. I guess it works as a meditation on these ideas and an almost open forum to discuss them, but never once in the game did I feel I was posed with a real dilemma, or anything that I didn’t have a clear personal answer for. And maybe that’s fine, maybe it says less about the game than it does about me, but I was a little sad that a game like this didn’t challenge me. That said, I think if I still haven’t had any kids by the time I’m 32, this game will suddenly be a lot more interesting and relevant.
As for the two Catherines, I went full Katherine pretty much right off the bat. Mind you, I had already been spoiled to the fact that Catherine was a succubus and that she was essentially the “evil” option (even though the game pretends it’s not really about good and evil). However, I’m confident that even if I hadn’t been spoiled for that, I never would’ve had any interest in her as a character.
Catherine to me was kind of obnoxious. All of her dialog is vapid and uninteresting, and she wasn’t the kind of woman I could ever see myself wanting to be in a relationship with. I thought her hair and clothes were kinda stupid looking, and while she seemed like she’d have enough fun with Vincent that they could be happy for a while, there just didn’t seem to be any chemistry there besides that she wants his dick a lot.
But that’s where I run into a bit of a problem, because Katherine also doesn’t have any apparent chemistry with Vincent. Now, mind you I find Katherine both more attractive and interesting anyways, so even if I was coming at this from a really shallow angle, I probably would’ve picked her. However, for most of my playthrough I was operating under the assumption that Katherine and Vincent DO or at least DID have some chemistry together, and it just wasn’t being shown yet/wouldn’t be shown. I made this assumption because Vincent and Katherine have already been dating for five years, and aside from Vincent’s non-commital attitude about their relationship, which has more to do with his insecurity than with any problems he had with Katherine, there didn’t seem to be anything unhealthy about their relationship. Even though Vincent’s meetings with Catherine are always sexual and intimate, while his meetings with Katherine are weirdly distant, we can safely assume that the couple have at least been intimate lately, since Vincent believes Katherine’s lie about being pregnant.
The way my playthrough went, Vincent and Catherine really had nothing together whatsoever, and the game’s insistence that Vincent take forever to finally turn her away ended up being immersion-breaking and weak-feeling because of how I’d treated her.
The idea that Vincent would fall for Catherine never made any sense to me, because she actually represents a lot of the problems that he has with his existing relationship to the extreme. Vincent complains at the end that the reason he’d been under these delusions is that he’d felt that he was losing control in his life and decisions were being made for him. He whines about how he wishes things could just stay as they are, with him not having to make any real progress.
So with these things in mind, it’s daft to me that he’d fall for this girl when he’s had no control over any of their encounters (nor even remembers them), and when she’s showed up out of the blue trying to change everything in his life. She’s literally an amplified version of the problems he has with his existing relationship. Yes, she’s supposedly his “Dream Girl,” designed to be “just his type,” but he never seems particularly comfortable or even interested in her.
I never responded to any of Catherine’s emails, because I saw them as terrifying. I couldn’t imagine just going along with this person who appears out of nowhere, essentially takes advantage of Vince when he’s drunk (from his perspective), and refuses to explain anything. She then sends him vapid text messages about nothing and expects him to flirt back. I couldn’t buy it, so I ignored her at every turn, and responded to all the actually-relevant texts of Katherine.
Maybe my decisions are the result of being in a fairly-traditional relationship that I’m really happy with. Maybe it’s just because Katherine seemed more like my type. Maybe I’m just really ethically prudish. I picked the “order” options at least 9 times out of ten throughout the game, and I was answering with total honesty. Maybe I’m not the type to do chaotic things, or maybe my life actually IS chaos and I yearn for order. It’s possible that all of my opinions of the game say a lot more about me than they do about the game, but ultimately I feel let down that I can’t confidently say that the game made me come away with anything, or that the storyline unfolded in a way that was logical based on my choices. If Matthewmatosis’ review is any indication, the game features a very disappointing level of variance between the two story paths, so I can’t feel comfortable calling it my own bias, even if I wanted to.
In the end, Catherine is way too interesting to dislike, and even with the story being the mess that it is, the fact that it’s even a story ABOUT these subjects, told this way, with this much style and intimacy, makes it worthwhile, and I’m glad I played it. I sadly won’t play it again, but I think if I cared about the game part of it at all, I’d be willing to play through again for the story even with all of its holes, just to see what happens if I keep all of the NPCs alive. Catherine gets a recommendation from me and a score of +.