Catherine Demo Impressions

2 Mar

The Gaming Liberty today broke the news that ‘Catherine’ – the latest game from the creators of the Persona series, is getting a Western release. This is great news, considering the Persona series, particularly the two latest entries, are some of the finest examples of the JRPG genre to date. Catherine is a departure from that format, and is not part of the Shin Megami Tensei series. Instead this is a puzzle game in which players control lead character Vincent as he attempts to survive his bizarre dreams.

Gameplay is extremely difficult, for a demo played at the easy level it is quite a challenge to get through. Guiding Vincent through his dreams is basically a dash up a stairway of blocks. These blocks can be moved and are often more of an obstacle than a step. The closest comparison I could think of was Kurushi on PS1, but that’s still not even close to what Catherine’s gameplay is like. On the second level of the demo a giant fork-wielding hand followed Vincent, and if he was too slow to exit his dream he would be impaled quite viciously. Despite the ferocious difficulty, it’s a lot of fun. Sitting somewhere between a classic game which is so challenging its compulsive, and a newer title which offers story to keep the player interested is a bit odd, but it most assuredly works here. Getting to the top of the level is similar to playing an old-school platformer in that it becomes the total focus of attention.

This giant hand makes gameplay frantic

What really impresses about the demo however, are the cut-scenes. We’re treated to short anime style scenes which are followed by game-engine cut scenes in a similar style. It’s all fairly seamless and the presentation is excellent. Without the ability to understand or read Japanese it was tough to get exactly what was happening, but it certainly looks intriguing. Vincent has a girlfriend, but is being tempted astray by a younger, blonder girl. In another scene he seems to be discussing his relationship troubles with his friends in a bar. A TV in the background shows a news report about young men dying and we can only assume the mysterious ‘Catherine’ has something to do with it. She seems otherworldly, dressed in shimmering white, almost a picture of innocence. The deaths and dreams are similar to the Persona games, but this looks a lot more mature, focusing on both the romantic and sexual elements of Vincent’s relationships.

In the dream world, Vincent is seen in his boxer shorts, clutching a pillow and with ram’s horns on his head. There are others in the dream, all sheep standing upright, who speak to Vincent. This imagery is continued in reality by the ‘Stray Sheep’ bar which Vincent frequents. The shifts between nightmarish sequences and mundane reality are jarring, but the thematic constancy helps keep things focused. This looks extremely interesting, and while the gameplay is basic, it’s also excellent, though it looks as if it’s merely there to hold together what could be a very good plot. From the demo alone the impression was that this is the videogame equivalent of a smartly put together arthouse film, and has a touch of Ryu Murakami’s work to it. If Catherine can deliver on that kind of promise, and avoids potential controversy, it could bring a new level of storytelling to gaming. One to watch this year, certainly.

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