Some great ideas, executed not so well. That summarises Catherine in a nutshell for me. It’s a pity because I admire Atlas and their willingness to go off the tried and true path. Like other Atlas titles (notably the Persona series), Catherine is divided into two distinct styles of gameplay. We mostly watch, visual novel style, the protagonist’s intense social challenges in the day, and then take full control of him during his dreams at night in a series of puzzle challenges.
These puzzle stages in the nightmare realm consist of the protagonist climbing a large tower in sections. Each section might see you encounter 10 to 20 puzzles of varying difficulty, with one or two checkpoints per section. The most annoying of these stages by far are the “boss” encounters – essentially chase sequences where you are pushed to climb the tower more quickly than usual. These stages showcase the game’s best feature – its visual design – while also introducing random elements that make things more challenging, not to mention frustrating.
The puzzler half of the game is a fairly well executed, original concept. Any puzzle game that doesn’t resemble Tetris or Bejeweled automatically deserves some credit in my books, and this is a good effort (albeit not one that holds a candle to ChuChu Rocket or, my personal fave, Bombastic). It can be extremely satisfying to overcome Catherine’s unique brand of brain teasing, and especially towards the end of the game I got a solid feel for how to handle most challenges. There are two issues with this side of the game that hold it back from being excellent for me. First, the difficulty level is quite staggering on normal difficulty, so I felt the need to resort to a walkthrough in a few later levels to avoid frustration. Secondly, there are a few elements of Catherine’s puzzle rules that even now I don’t fully grasp and feel rather unintuitive.
Despite some frustrations, I think the puzzle side of Catherine is mostly a success. It’s definitely solid enough that it would work well in tandem with a fun and engaging story… and unfortunately that’s where the Catherine’s main faults lie.
The story’s weaknesses really shows when compared with another Atlas series, Trauma Center. Both games/series riff on TV genres: Trauma Center has a medical drama/soap vibe, while Catherine adopts a horror anthology format. The Trauma Center games are entertaining thanks to a brisk pace and the continual introduction of new characters/plot elements. Catherine gets off to an intriguing start but the plot slows down in the second half, and the ending I found utterly underwhelming (at least the ending I got, ‘Katherine – Good’ – there are eight possible endings).
The problem for me is that the game’s story is built around choosing between two women, Katherine and Catherine, both of whom are varying shades of creepy and unpleasant. While you can make choices in such a way as to reject both of them, I believe this only affects the ending. We’re supposed to empathise with the main character in his struggles to either: a) have a fling with a woman who makes threats on his life, or b) marry a frigid and passive aggressive woman. What sort of a choice is that? The blend of horror and romance in Catherine just doesn’t sit right when we are continually made to feel afraid or suspicious of the romantic interests.
Ultimately I respect Catherine’s attempt to do something different, but I don’t think it delivers on its promise.
One final post-script observation; there are several references to the Ghosts ‘n Goblins series in Catherine. In nightmares, the protagonist Vincent wears boxer shorts just like Arthur. Before each new puzzle stage a map appears showing Vincent’s overall progress, exactly like in Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Finally there’s a nifty 8-bit arcade game in the bar Vincent frequents; the game is titled Rapunzel and retells the classic fairytale from the prince’s perspective. The damsel in distress trope, a cartoony horror aesthetic and the vaguely medieval setting feel like another Ghosts ‘n Goblins callback. What does it all mean? I have no idea, but I like it.