What Catherine is and what it isn’t

, | Games

That picture up there isn’t just a screenshot from Catherine, an upcoming Japanese import to be published by Atlus. It’s also my reaction upon seeing what kind of game Catherine is. I’d been hearing snippets of conversations about the game, and I’d seen a trippy video, and I knew it was from the creators of the Persona and Shin Megami Tensei games, and somewhere along the way I had picked up that it was a mature psycho-sexual thriller. Wait, maybe I’m confusing it with Black Swan. But I had no idea what Catherine actually was. Today I found out it’s just a puzzle game!

After the jump, have I been misled?

Watching a demo of the puzzles hurt my head. You scramble the lead character around on a pyramid of moving blocks, tugging the blocks to-and-fro to reach the top of each level. Meanwhile, the pyramid gradually crumbles underneath you. In other words, timed. It’s a bit like a sliding tile puzzle build around discrete moves, but in 3D. And with power-ups and a scoring system and a rewind feature and, eventually, other characters shoving you around. The term “action platformer” was used during the demo, which I can sort of see. That’s especially apparent during the local competitive game when both players are scrambling against each other’s progress. But I can’t help but think “just a puzzle game?”. A slightly cerebral Mario kind of thing? Who wants to play that? I get bored enough of perfectly decent shooters, RPGs, and platformers. Why do I want a full-length adventure game in which the gameplay is something I’d expect to fritter away time on an iPhone?

After every puzzle level, you sit in a confessional and answer a question that seems like it was taken from Cosmopolitan. The two examples we saw were “Is marriage the end of your life or the beginning of your life?” and the distinctly Japanese question, “Would you sacrifice your well-being for your job?” Over the course of the game, your answers move you on a law/chaos scale, which is also affected by how your character replies to text messages on his cellphone and optional conversations with the other denizens of this twenty-something slacker dating adventure. Kind of like Mass Effect, but without the aliens, moon buggy, or planetary scanning.

The law/chaos scale determines the course of events as the story unfolds its way towards one of several endings. There’s definitely something strange going on with our lead character, who has to decide whether to abandon his relationship for a hot new chick. Meanwhile, there’s something about murders in the city. The puzzle levels are the character’s nightmares, and boss fights (which are still the puzzle gameplay) are based on his anxieties. It looks like the entire game is wrapped up in some sort of cleverly presented story within a TV show meta-narrative.

Some games can’t really be reduced to their gameplay. I’m hoping this is the case with Catherine, as it was with Killer 7, LA Noire, The Path, Enslaved, and other games I’ve liked in spite of being awful actual games. While I hope Catherine is indeed a grown-up story about sexuality, I’m a bit skeptical given how coy it is about nudity, what a goofball the lead character is, and how pre-occupied the game is with establishing a dreamworld in which you clamber your way up a block puzzle. Strange and maybe charming? Sure, I can see that. Grown-up? About sexuality? More than another manga about big-eyed, big-breasted women? I’ll believe when I see it.