Demo Impressions: Catherine

As several staff members have an interest in Catherine, we are offering multiple opinions on the recent PS3 demo.

Impressions by Chris:

This week Index Holdings released the free playable demo of Catherine on the Playstation Store and Xbox Live in Japan. Like the good Atlus fan I am, I checked it out dutifully. Before the demo, it wasn’t entirely clear to me what sort of game Catherine would be, aside from some sort of puzzle/action game with boxes, some climbing mechanic, and horrific and nightmarish bosses.

After playing the demo, the sort of game it was became pretty clear. The narrative frame of the game is executed in a very Japanese adventure game style – which is to say it has anime movies, fully voiced cutscenes of characters talking on and on, and occasional interactive decision-making (in this case, in the form of replying to mail messages from your girlfriend on your phone).

The actual gameplay occurs whenever the main character has nightmares. It’s a stage-based, score-driven action puzzler where you race against the clock to climb a tower of blocks, all the while picking up various tokens and powerups. As time counts down, the bottom of the tower starts to give way, and if you don’t climb fast enough you’ll fall to your doom.

The gameplay involves pushing and pulling certain blocks to create footholds and paths to progress higher in the tower. Pushing a block completely off the structure has the potential to collapse an entire column, which might alter the structure such that the tower might become unsolvable later on as you go further. Figuring out how to best manipulate the blocks to create the fastest path without altering the structure is the main goal of the stages.

Overall, I found it fun but not particularly addictive. Even though I got poor rankings in the two stages in the demo, I’m not particulary compelled to return and better myself. The concept is certainly original, but it just doesn’t feel extremely engaging. However, the tone and execution of the narrative are far more compelling. A cross between modern Persona games (in music and art direction) and Haruki Murakami novels, the story presents the tale of a man approaching mid-life crisis having to deal with his long time girlfriend wanting to get married. The writing is surprisingly realistic, and tackles themes of his insecurity along with the temptation of infidelity while mixing it up with visuals right out of Persona’s nightmare worlds.

Considering the game’s relatively high price tag of 7800yen on both PS3 and Xbox360 platforms, I find it hard to take the plunge myself, or to recommend someone else to. The demo didn’t seem like it was quite enough to convince me that there is enough variety or value to justify the price. It’s certainly an interesting and unique title, and one worth keeping an eye on, but I’m not quite ready to open my wallet for this one yet.

Impressions by Trevor:

Like Chris, I’ve been interested in Catherine since the first announcement, and the Haruki Murakami comparisons I’ve been able to draw have had me prepared to pull out my wallet for the game from first sight.  The main character is of a similar age and station with many Murakami protagonists. He’s unmarried, he’s directionless, he’s uncommitted, he’s a bit of a hipster, he spends a lot of time at a bar, and he (apparently) plays a lot of an arcade game (a variation on Murakami characters’ love of pinball). Plus, he finds himself drawn in unexpected directions by threatening and/or mysterious women – and he dreams of tie-wearing sheep. The character, his anxieties, and his world are more compelling to me than anything I’ve seen in videogames in recent memory.

The actual demo, however, is fairly puzzling (sorry). I find it inexplicable that an adventure game with the amount of care and polish put into its development has been married to a puzzle game that I wouldn’t even purchase on a download service.  The puzzle portion is amusing enough, certainly, and carries a certain amount of tension, but it’s just not very compelling, and not nearly as exciting as the “fluff” of the game (the art design, the story and its implications, the characters). The full game will need to bring a high level of cohesion and continuity between the story and puzzle sections, because otherwise I feel that the full experience will be jarring and unfulfilling. And this isn’t helped by the fact that the background music in the puzzle game lifts several sections directly from Holst’s “The Planets.” What?

Additionally, the puzzle sections seem odd in the amount of audiovisual polish that has been laid over relatively abstract mechanics.  Pre-release media of the game shows an in-game arcade machines that closely resembles the puzzle sections, but with a simple and early 80s-ish graphical style. I’m a lot more interested in trying this version of the puzzles than what the demo served me, though it’s evident that Vincent’s addiction to the faux-retro game structures his dreams. (Surely we’ve all dreamt of falling, rotating blocks after a few too many rounds of Tetris.)

Impressions by Jeff:

I’m not feeling quite as cold as my comrades on the gameplay of the Catherine demo, with one big ol’ caveat: I’m hoping that the difficulty of the game and the complexity of the puzzles, especially when played for score, will ramp up significantly as the game goes on. Confine it to Hard mode, if you must, but I think it’d be a terrible waste of potentially interesting mechanics if the game only intends to ask the player to test the limits on a repeat play for score. I like score attack games as much as the next arcade rat, but it’s not as interesting if I don’t actually feel threatened by the obstacles I have to thwart to boost my score. My deaths in the time I spent in the demo were caused by mishaps experimenting with controls or mechanics, not because of the environment itself.

Of course, we only got to taste one part of the game in the trial version. If the team’s previous efforts, Persona 3 and 4, are any indication, the “hanging around at the bar and drinking with your friends” sections of the game should be at least as much of a focus of the final product as Vincent’s nightmare world, but in the demo, we only really get to mess with the game’s cute way of picking from a dialog tree for sending text messages. (Vincent erases a line he’s just typed, mumbling to himself, and replaces it with another one when you press the cancel button.) Demos which section off a small slice of the tutorial-packed first level and then show you the more exciting and expansive details of the game in a trailer are a pet peeve of mine. You don’t gotta give it all away for free, but would it kill you to include a little more of the cool stuff you get to do in the final product?

Even if they’re lifting very heavily from master literary recycler Haruki Murakami, it’s refreshing to see Atlus tell a story about ordinary thirty-somethings, rather than magical teenagers or soldiers. Since that’s the most exciting part of the game for me, and since my Japanese knowledge is limited to the top 20 most overused phrases in children’s cartoons, I think I’ll sit on this one until the inevitable American release comes around in six months or so. I’ve hardly a shortage of other games to play in the meantime.

Impressions by Yang:

I wasn’t sure what to expect with the Catherine demo. The initial Soejima character designs shown by Atlus months ago had perked my interest, but somewhere along the way, I lost track of the game’s development. I was still in the grips of Gundam Musou 3 last week when Toni reminded me of the demo’s release. I’d heard mentions of its story being wrapped around a puzzle game, but had no clue how it would work out; now I would be able to see for myself whether or not Atlus could pull it off. After trying the demo, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.

The introduction was a well put-together spoof of a cinema studio opening, and throughout the demo, I felt that Atlus did a good job of transitioning from animated sequences to in-engine sequences while presenting the story. The game runs on the GameBryo engine, which shows up in the start-up logo sequence, and gave me a fright as it conjured up images of Bethesda’s Oblivion abominations. Thankfully, we get none of that in Catherine. I’d also like to mirror Jeff’s view that it’s nice of Atlus to give us a story centered on 30-somethings rather than the usual teenagers-saving-the-world pap we’re accustomed to seeing.

As for the gameplay section of the demo, I found the puzzle aspect to be simple, but enjoyable. I can’t say I’ve ever played anything similar to it, but it certainly wasn’t difficult to pick up and once the tutorial prompts ended, I found myself doing my best to keep the combo going and grab all the coins I could manage. As for Trevor’s comment about the musical bits lifted from Holst’s The Planets, I too found it surprising, but in a good way. Here you have a dreamscape where Vincent has grown ram horns, carries a pillow, and is being chased up a tower of blocks by an unseen monstrosity [that may or may not represent a deep psychological block that hampers his relationship with Katherine]; things are meant to be wacky, jarring, and out there so how better to accentuate that than with some classical music? Based on what we know of the pre-order pack-in CD, there will be more pieces of classical arrangements, and I look forward to hearing them in-game.

Overall, I had a good time with the demo. My first time through, I got Bronze on both puzzle stages, and I didn’t get far with the cellphone-reply section, but on my second pass, I achieved a Gold and Silver, and managed to unlock an extra bit of interaction with Katherine by being sympathetic towards her concerns about their relationship in my cellphone responses. I think fans of Atlus’s usual RPG offerings need to approach Catherine differently and adjust their expectations accordingly; instead of going on dungeon romps in-between your story sequences, you have puzzle gaming interludes and what seems to be a slightly more involved adventure aspect. I found it to be a refreshing change of pace and I look forward to the final release in two weeks, though I may have to postpone my import until after a certain Koei release in March.

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