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Catherine import review

The marketing campaign in Japan for Catherine, the first HD title from the makers of Persona, focused on the game's characters and story. The game's debut preview in Famitsu was entirely centered on the characters, while leaving the important details –even what genre the game was – out. Trailer after trailer focused on the main character of Vincent and his tragic entanglement in a love triangle. We now know why Atlus placed the focus where they did. The story of Catherine is an amazing achievement. Its tale is a profound, Haruki Murakami-inspired coming-of-age story that addresses important sociological changes happening in Japan and the rest of the world. Unfortunately, the game that must be played in order to experience the story is a simple puzzle game irreparably marred by anachronisms and poor design choices.


Catherine opens on Vincent, a 32 year old man, having a conversation with his long-term girlfriend Katherine. Vincent seems content with his life: he has an attractive girlfriend, decent friends, and a stable job that keeps him in beer with enough money left over to keep his phones and gadgets state-of-the-art. Katherine is not nearly as fond of the status quo; she says her parents have been reminding her that she's not getting any younger and that its time for her to settle down. Vincent doesn't want to make a commitment and simply says, “Isn't having fun the most important thing?”

The opening scene makes it clear that Catherine isn't treading old territory with its story. The characters are adults, and they have to deal with the all the issues contemporary young Japanese adults cope with on a daily basis. Make no mistake about it – the setting for Catherine is modern Japan, and no amount of western names and half-hearted allusions to the prices of goods in dollars can change that. The worries of Katherine's parents may seem old-fashioned in many modern western societies, but not in Japan, where women working and choosing not to get married young –or at all – is treated as a national crisis on TV in newspaper op-eds and bestselling books. The clothes of the characters are unmistakably Japanese (most actually bear a suspicious resemblance to the fall 2009 line-up at Japanese retail giant Uniqlo), as are the character's cell phones (no iPhones seen here). Even Vincent's apartment is Japanese, from his desktop computer on the floor to the fluorescent lighting fixtures.

If you're still planning on importing despite Atlus's recent announcement of a North American release this summer, you'll need a fair amount of Japanese ability to enjoy the story. Those with a couple years of college study may be able to get the gross details of the game's story, but only those speak it proficiently should consider importing.

That Atlus would set the game in modern Japan, then pretend they didn't seems odd until one realizes that it's a convenient fig leaf to hold over the serious issues the story lays bare. Vincent's world is turned upside down when he meets Catherine, a coquettish blonde who seems to be exactly what Vincent wants: someone to have fun with. Unfortunately, things grow more complicated when Katherine tells Vincent that she's late and may be pregnant. Vincent's world is collapsing around him – he must choose between his carefree lifestyle and actual adulthood and the responsibilities that go along with that. The player chooses what path Vincent takes using a morality system far more subtle than seen in most games. Instead of choosing how to react at big moments, the player dictates Vincent's response to seemingly insignificant questions posed by NPCs. These questions shift the game's morality meter, and that in turn dictates how Vincent reacts to unexpected situations.

The rest of the gameplay isn't nearly as progressive. While Vincent is choosing between Catherine and Katherine, he's also having strange dreams. Meanwhile, young men throughout the city are dying in their sleep. A popular urban legend holds that these men fell while climbing in a dream, and when they hit the ground, they died in real life.

Each night after falling asleep, Vincent enters a nightmare world filled with anthropomorphic sheep who resemble his friends and acquaintances in the real world. He, along with all the other sheep, is forced to climb up a wall of moveable blocks. The meat of Catherine's gameplay revolves around pushing and pulling these blocks into position in order to create a staircase that allows Vincent to ascend to the top. Despite the game's amazing story, at least fifteen of the twenty hours it took us to complete the game were spent climbing blocks. The reason it took us so long is the game's brutal difficulty. While a patch is slated to relieve that issue (Japanese fans loudly pressured Atlus to address the problem after the game's release) it was not available during our time with the game.

Normally, difficulty wouldn't be an issue. Modern games like Super Meat Boy have proven the worth of masochistic difficulty. However, Catherine's underlying mechanics can't support such difficulty. The lack of an auto-save feature is compounded by the game offering players limited lives, and no continues. Once you lose your lives, it's back to the titles screen, where you have to reload and sit through whatever dialog sequences and cutscenes lie between the save point and the actual level on which you died. The difficulty is compounded further by the addition of enemies which bring a bit of randomness to the game's puzzles.

We often found that after we'd solved a section of a puzzle, our path would be blocked by enemies upon retrying the section. With no alternative solutions, we'd be forced to sacrifice a life and hope that the enemy AI behaved differently the next time (sometimes it would, sometimes it wouldn't). Progression relies upon controlling how the wall of blocks collapses. Because of the game's limited field of vision, there was no way to know whether a move that allowed us to progress in the moment would lead to a no-win situation ten minutes later, and the sheer randomness of enemy behavior meant that trial and error wasn't even a reliable method of progression. Things got even worse during the game's boss sections, where the game wrests control of the camera from the player during massive attacks.

Between the arbitrary difficulty and limited lives, Catherine feels more like a port of an old-school arcade game than a modern AAA title. The inclusion of an 80s style arcade demake of the puzzle sections seems to indicate that Atlus knew quite well that its game would be perceived as such. As amazing as the game's story is, it's hard to recommend throwing down $80 plus on an import copy of the game, when the English language version is just around the corner and will probably include the upcoming difficulty patch on the disc.

Mar 8,2011

22 comments

  • F4G1TR0N - March 9, 2011 12:57 a.m.

    Mmm this is a major let down :( specially on how interested in it I am
  • claytonmiller - March 9, 2011 1:08 a.m.

    Well, seeing as how the American release should have the difficultly patch pre-installed, I'm not as worried about it being impossibly hard.
  • Mamudo - March 9, 2011 1:45 a.m.

    Still excited for the English release.
  • CoryM1134 - March 9, 2011 3:13 a.m.

    I assumed it would be this way from the full access preview, but I really can't believe that a modern game is held together by arbitrary sheep dream puzzles. There are infinite other ways they could have creates challenge than make the player climb a tower every few minutes. I still want it.
  • Amnesiac - March 9, 2011 3:18 a.m.

    If the story is that good, I'll suffer through the gameplay, especially if they do tone down the difficulty.
  • mrmorozov987 - March 9, 2011 3:42 a.m.

    So, Gamesradar covered this practically unheard-of, Japanese import, who's only defining feature was it's morbid obsession with sex, more than any game in recent memory, all so it could get a 5 in the end? You can't see it, but I'm giving my shocked face right now.
  • ricochetguro - March 9, 2011 4:13 a.m.

    This is probably the worst review/score I've ever seen.
  • CH3BURASHKA - March 9, 2011 4:18 a.m.

    Without reading the article ('cause I won't!) 5 seems way too low. People have been surprised by the gameplay, but I would hardly call it terrible; it's just unexpected. Think what you will, and I will get back to you in a couple months, when the US port comes here. You're still wrong, though.
  • ricochetguro - March 9, 2011 4:19 a.m.

    *edit The score is so below what the review text describes it as. I've played the demo and I like the challenging difficulty so I'm not too worried.
  • Cyberninja - March 9, 2011 4:36 a.m.

    if GR is going to do import reviews again it should be games that have no chance of being released in the U.S. like criminal girls or alikbras trip.( I know i spelled the 2nd one wrong)
  • ElMikkino - March 9, 2011 5:08 a.m.

    Maybe it would've been better if it was a visual novel, or something like that? Though, that would be kind of...expected.
  • Imgema - March 9, 2011 9:37 a.m.

    I can't get it with some developers... why bother doing videogames? If its movies or anime that you really want to make, why waste your time (and ours) doing boring, unremarkable gaming sections? Why don't you just release a DVD with the story in it? Why so many bad games with rich cut-scenes and videos and interesting (for those who care) stories? I miss the days when games were games, not just interactive movies... Now its like those cheesy 90's FMV "games"... Only with higher production values and better visuals.
  • veryweirdguy - March 9, 2011 10:30 a.m.

    This comments section is like a who's who of angry internet videogame nerds. "I refuse to read this article, but you're WRONG." ...seems fair. Be interesting to see how the Western market reacts to it on a more general release. So far, it sounds like a bit of a disappointment.
  • MasterV - March 9, 2011 11:02 a.m.

    @Imgema Yours is actually the first comment I've seen that I can wholeheartedly agree with. This hasn't happened in a VERY long time. Kudos to you sir/madam.
  • ichigoame - March 9, 2011 12:06 p.m.

    yeah as long as the patch comes out,I still want to buy the game
  • Memph - March 9, 2011 1:02 p.m.

    other than the game's marketing and imagery relentlessly hinting that there will be boobs in it, i cannot fathom where any interest in this 'game' has come from tbh. it took one look at a few screens of the playable sections to clearly see it was nothing special for anyone not a feverishly rabid animé fan, especially to play it for it's 'amazing' story in japanese. /shrugs
  • erreip199 - March 9, 2011 3:18 p.m.

    So if this game is truly about the story then id rather watch it on youtube rather than bother playing it
  • reson8er - March 9, 2011 3:44 p.m.

    I'm more curious as to how the team that make the Persona series, one of the most progressive JRPG series ever, decided that they would tie such an antiquated (sorry puzzle game fans!) method of gameplay to their game. They had to know people would expect a certain level of "WTF" but a puzzle game? I can see that working for a sequence or 2 but not an entire game. And if you ARE going to make your game mostly about blocks, it should be addicting and captivating on its own. I will probably pick this up, as I love Atlus, and the promise of an awesome story and difficulty patch is good, but I can't shake the feeling that ultimately the Persona team dropped the ball on this.
  • crumbdunky - March 9, 2011 3:59 p.m.

    Seems a pointless exercise reviewing the game when no one will import it anyway and when it DOES arrive it won't be quite the same thing anyway. Seriously, just how many people will import it knowing it's coming out here with patches and in our language? It'll need re-reviewing and I imagine the AI will be more standard and the save/continue system overhauled meaning a much more interesting and better Catherine.
  • philipshaw - March 9, 2011 8:27 p.m.

    I will just wait for the US version

Showing 1-20 of 22 comments

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