[Article first published as What the Heck is Catherine? on Blogcritics.]
For many months now I’ve been seeing advertisements and vague news stories about a new game called Catherine by Atlus, releasing later this year. My initial (and continued) response to it is one of “what the hell?” combined with curiosity, accompanied by guesses as to what kind of drugs the developers are on over there at team Catherine. The imagery looks like it's sampled from those weird drug-fueled dreams you have when you’re doped up on cold medicine or pain pills after any medical procedure. Oh you know what I’m talking about, don’t play that game. Strange women, trippy hazy lighting, and half-man/half-sheep creatures trying to escape some sort of towering prison grace every screenshot and teaser. Over those these many months there remains of course one tiny problem – it's all in Japanese. I have no idea what the storyline is, what the gameplay would be like, or even simply what the hell the game is about. One lone decipherable detail shines through: that Catherine is trying to bend genres into some sort of adult-romance-horror... thing.
Yes, that sounds a little odd. Fortunately, "odd" is sometimes what I'm all about, and I'm definitely interested in knowing more about this twisted tale.
For those of us on this side of the Pacific, Atlus finally unveiled the full Catherine site in English, revealing more of the story, as well as explaining what the different game modes are. The game revolves around a guy named Vincent who has been in a steady relationship with his girlfriend Katherine for five years. While struggling through that relationship he meets Catherine (see what they did there?) and is immediately attracted to her. One bad mistake in an alcohol-fueled haze and Vincent’s life is thrown into a whirlwind of indecision, sparking horrifying nightmares in his subconscious while he sleeps. It all sounds simple enough for a drama, but wait for the horror portion: this little love triangle unfolds during a series of mysterious deaths in the area. The local news is reporting that otherwise healthy men have been found dead in their beds, dying painfully in their sleep. Among rumors that these deaths are happening to men who cheat on their significant others, Vincent’s indecision begins to have him slip into insanity. TRIPPY, RIGHT? The game follows this story through two different types of gameplay. First is “Drama,” i.e. the single player story-driven game. The second is “Nightmare,” which sees a ram-horned Vincent moving blocks and solving puzzles to try to escape a tower while fending off other sheep that are fighting to stay alive.
The Catherine site has some interactive elements too, prompting a user with a question to even enter: “Can love exist without pain?” Your potential answers of “Of course!” and “No way man!” take you to slightly different versions of the site, focused on either Catherine or Katherine depending on your answer. There’s also an interactive text feature that allows you to send texts back and forth to Catherine. The site mentions to check back every day for new messages and replies from her, which again rely on choices you make, which is enough for me to be going back to the site tomorrow.
If the text feature and the first question when you first go to the site are any indicators, Catherine’s story progression is most likely going to be open and heavily dictated by choice. And if Atlus as a developer is any indicator, those choices won’t always be a basic yes/no, but probably more philosophical in nature, bordering on “what would you do” types of scenarios. Based on the art and trailers, the animation seems like it is a good balance between anime and full CG, and the music sets an appropriate dark, seductive tone for the story’s backdrop.
The game was apparently a hit when it was released back in February in Japan, so we’ll see how it does here in the US. It certainly looks like it's something different and a good change of pace from the other games that are out there. It’s available for preorder now in three forms: the standard edition, the alternate box art if you're afraid you'll be ashamed of having it on your shelf, and the “Love is Over” deluxe edition should your tastes require some additional saucy goods. The game will officially release in the US on July 26, and it should be a good time. Catherine even texted me to say so.