There’s a certain genre of anime that always seems to attract discussion: not quite horror, not quite drama, not quite mystery, but a bit of all three wrapped up with philosophy and creepy underpinnings. Boogiepop Phantom and Lain are some of the most famous examples.
Well, good news, everyone! Atlus decided to add to the genre… with a video game.
Catherine is pretty much the closest you will ever come to a playable anime. With gorgeous cel-shaded graphics and anime cutscenes by Studio 4C, it nails the unique aesthetic of the artform. But where it really shines is in its surreal plot and frank tackling of themes previously untouched by video games.
Sometimes You Wanna Go Where Everybody Knows Your Name…
Vincent Brooks is your stereotypical 30 year old schlub – languishing in a dead-end job, spending every night at the bar getting wasted with friends, and drifting along in his long-term relationship with Katherine, an ambitious and responsible fashion CEO. When Katherine starts talking marriage, Vincent is initially resistant, whining to his friends that, “Why can’t we just keep going the way things are?” But things soon come to a head after he has a drunken one-night stand with a mysterious, sexy blonde known as Catherine. Things soon spiral out of control as Catherine gets more possessive and starts showing up at the most inopportune times… even in Vincent’s bed first thing in the morning. Vincent soon finds himself juggling two women at once and struggling not only with keeping them apart and ignorant of each other, but also with which of them he wants to be with.
If that weren’t enough, Vincent also suffers from a series of surreal nightmares in which he must climb a tower of blocks alongside a strange group of sheep… sheep who end up bearing a striking resemblance to the other patrons at Vincent’s favourite bar. Over eight nights, they must struggle to reach the top floor and freedom, often pursued by hellish visions of their innermost fears. Worst of all, they know that falling means death… and there has been a rash of mysterious deaths in the waking world…
Gameplay is split into two parts: the bar and the dreams. At the bar, you can interact with patrons, talk with your friends, play a mysteriously familiar arcade game, and most importantly, text the two women in your life. Texts are sent by cycling through a preset selection of phrases; what you choose will have an effect on your “morality meter” (or, more accurately, whether Vincent values freedom or order more) and affects which woman Vincent ultimately pursues and wins. The dreams, on the other hand, are more or less a puzzle game involving climbing a series of blocks to the exit; Vincent must push, pull and stack blocks correctly to help him ascend the tower. On some levels, he is pursued by a “boss” who will attempt to kill him or drag him down into the abyss… and game over.
No, I Don’t Want No Scrub
The core of Catherine – the bloody, beating heart, if you will – is its narrative. The plot of Katherine/Catherine and the plot of the nightmares, and how they interact, is told mostly through a series of lengthy cutscenes. In fact, the game is much more heavily weighted on cutscenes than gameplay, but oddly enough, this does not detract from the experience but instead heightens the sense of watching and interacting with a classic horror anime. Some cutscenes are depicted in actual hand-drawn anime style, often depicting some of the creepier or more dramatic moments. The rest is showcased through beautiful cell-shaded graphics which, in some ways, are even better “anime” than the anime itself.
The main characters and the bar patrons are all interesting, if occasionally unlikeable (intentionally), and you really become interested in their struggles… but they’re not the real focus. The story, as presented, is really unique amongst video games in that it really is less of a story about the individual characters and more of a thought-provoking look at society, relationships, and commitment. There are a lot of really difficult issues here, issues that grown-ups have to tackle. Some of them are explicit and obvious, such as commitment issues (a running theme is Vincent’s struggle with “taking the plunge” with Katherine), fidelity, sexuality, and balancing a desire for excitement with a need for stability. Other issues are more implied; it’s never stated, but Vincent is clearly an alcoholic, and depending on how you respond to blonde Catherine, he could be a rape victim as well (raising challenging questions about why he and everyone else thinks of the situation as “cheating” rather than being assaulted). The game does not offer any easy answers… those answers it does offer are those that Vincent, with guidance and choices from the player, comes up with on his own.
The game does offer multiple endings and storylines based on the texts sent and certain choices made during the dream sequences. So far, I have only played through the Katherine storyline so am not able to weigh in on other routes such as Catherine or True Freedom. Having said that, one thing I noticed in my playthough is that the “morality” meter, which guides the final plot, was not as well expressed in the narrative as it could be. The things you choose to text seem to have little short-term effect on Vincent’s choices, attitudes, or the immediate story; only in the long-term does it suddenly all come rushing in at once. For example, I had been consistently “behaving” myself in texts: reassuring Katherine that I was ready to talk marriage, rejecting Catherine as politely as possible, etc. Yet he was still whining for 2/3 of the game that HE WASN’T REAAAADDDYYYYY and that he didn’t know what to do, to say nothing of his increasingly embarassing efforts to keep both women in the dark about each other. Then suddenly, in the third act, it was like all my texts had sunk in at once and he was all, I LOVE KATHERINE AND NO ONE ELSE; the shift was nice, and I was glad to see my own input being accounted for, but I wish it had been handled a bit more subtly. It was like spending all of Mass Effect picking I HATE ALIENS options only for Shepard to continue spewing pro-alien propaganda until the final battle where s/he suddenly shanks Garrus in the back and starts holding “Earth First” protest rallies.
Oh yeah, there’s a game attached to this plot, isn’t there? To be fair, the actual meat of the gameplay (the block tower puzzles) sometimes seems to be almost a weird afterthought… not that it’s not well done, but more like it’s a mini-game series within the larger narrative. I almost feel like Atlus just had to pick some sort of actual “game” for the dream sequences, and it could have been almost anything; the choice of a Q-Bert style puzzler seems almost arbitrary and not particularly matching with any of the narrative themes.
Having said that, if it is an afterthought, then it is a very well crafted, engaging and addictive afterthought, and it does a great job of conveying the horror element in the game. The levels and rest areas (where you can save and talk to other sheep) are imbued with a pseudo-Christian aesthetic that gives things a religious tint, which adds to the strangeness and terror of the place. The character designs of the enormous bosses are compelling and make sense with Vincent’s state of mind (one great example: a demonic Katherine in a wedding dress chasing him down and shrieking, “YOU CAN’T ESCAPE!”) The block climbing is brilliantly simple; you can climb up one block at a time and thus need to pull or push blocks into an appropriate staircase. Easier said than done, however, and you will definitely be stumped on some of the later levels, particularly when you have a murderous, demonic girlfriend chasing you! The result is highly addictive stuff, to the point where I was still pushing blocks in my mind a few days later.
There are, however, some major problems with the puzzle sections. One is that it’s often very difficult to see what your movements will do to the board as a whole. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve pushed out a block only to see most of the rest of the level falling into the abyss a few seconds later. It’s very easy to shove yourself into a corner where you can’t escape, and if you’re particularly unlucky you may have to restart from the beginning (as checkpoints don’t “reset” the board when you restart). Another problem is that, while the controls and camera are perfectly fine 90% of the time (except on an Xbox 360; analog stick + this game = pain), it all goes to hell if you have to start climbing around the rear of the tower, as you often can’t get a good view of your character and the controls are reversed. Lastly, while the puzzles are enjoyable, it’s frustrating to have to go through them again if you want to play another plotline. While you can skip levels, you can only do this if you got a Gold Trophy, which can be ludicrously hard without walkthroughs. It’s certainly keeping me from leaping right back in to romance blonde Catherine.
Talk Adult to Me, Atlus
In the end, though, the discussion over whether Catherine is a good game or a bad game is almost academic, because most of all, it is an important game. It’s a game that really earns its Mature rating, not just because of gore or sexual content but because of its willingness to deal with issues like commitment, freedom and what it means to be an adult. It doesn’t talk down to its audience, and it takes creative risks just like some of the seminal classics of surreal horror anime. It deserves to succeed based on that alone, even with all its minor and major flaws, if only to show game companies that yes, we like meaty, mature plotlines and difficult themes. It easily could take its place among the classic horror/psychological dramas of anime. The fact that it has addictive gameplay on top of that is almost icing on the cake.
So, if you are a fan of mature anime and mature gaming, definitely give Catherine a look. It really is like nothing else out there.