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Published August 10, 2011

**The following post contains very minor spoilers. If you’re already planning to pick this up and want to go in completely blind (like I did), then come back here once you’ve completed the game. For anyone on the fence though, I hope the following might sway you towards a purchase.**

Anyone who’s still bemoaning the stagnancy of the Japanese gaming scene hasn’t been paying attention this summer. From El Shaddai‘s beautifully bizarre take on the Dead Sea Scrolls to Child of Eden‘s kinetic synesthesia, there’s been more creative output from that country lately than its likely to get credit for. But perhaps most outlandish of all would be Catherine, Atlus’ not-exactly-an-RPG experiment that broke the publisher’s own sales records last month. Sure, it may feature a weird puzzle game at its core and an art style familiar to any Persona fan, but Catherine‘s greatest feat is that it finds the perfect sweet spot between the linear, cut-scene-driven narratives of Japanese games and the more expansive, open-ended worlds of games like Mass Effect and Fall Out. It’s a game that features well-drawn characters and tight plotting without completely sacrificing player influence and interactivity.

Take, for instance, the frequent outings with Vincent’s friends each night. After each nightmare, you’ll find our hero (or anti-hero) sitting down at a bar, the Stray Sheep, with three of his friends discussing the day’s events. This usually amounts to him getting chewed out — rightfully so –  for cheating on his longtime girlfriend Katherine with a floozy…named Catherine. But this is neither completely passive nor active. The banter goes back-and-forth for a bit, but these aren’t lengthy cut-scenes by any stretch. And while you may not be able to control the words that come out of Vincent’s mouth, you do have control over the flow of the conversation. You choose whom to talk to in which order, and in between, you can send text messages, order drinks or watch the barroom television for news on the latest mysterious murders. OK, so this may not sound like the most scintillating stuff as I type this, but I loved the execution. (It also helps that game is full of surrealist touches and a great sense of humor. This is seriously one of the best localizations I’ve seen in a while, and there’s a vibrancy to this world that really draws you in, even when the imagery is macabre.)

Better yet, while you don’t necessarily have to leave your little booth, each night gives you opportunities to meet your fellow barflies, and it’s here that the game offers even more choices. These guys won’t stick around all night, and as far as I can tell, you can’t talk to everyone in one play-through. Catherine isn’t so subtle about letting you know that the bar patrons’ fates are in your hands, and the folks you end up saving will likely be those whose lives you become most invested in. While I love Mass Effect and other games of its ilk, I often feel like I’m going down a people-of-interest checklist as I talk to NPCs. If you’re patient enough, everyone will be willing to stand around and just wait for you to help them solve their problems; Catherine does not give you that luxury. Because people come and go from the Stray Sheep, you can easily lose track of them, and thus they won’t have you as a confidante willing to listen about their sins. The game forces you to make choices with real consequences, and it certainly was a punch to the gut to learn that I couldn’t save the police officer and the journalist from their demons.

Of course, Vincent (the character) has other things on his mind, as he tries to juggle his rocky relationships. Catherine hinges almost entirely on this central dilemma, and if you can’t buy into it, then you’re unfortunately going to have some gripes. To the game’s credit, Vincent is not a blank slate. He may have typical commitment issues, but even if you bring out his slimiest tendencies, he seems to want to minimize hurt feelings for all parties involved. It’s frustrating to see him unable to break things off with one of these girlfriends sooner, but I’ll always prefer an interesting-but-flawed character over some silent, anonymous avatar. More problematic are the two leading ladies. For all of Vincent’s internal monologues about how much he loves Katherine, we never really get a sense of his reasons. Throughout my time with the game, I never got a sense of chemistry between them. She softens some after a cold, domineering introduction, but I can see why Vincent would be reluctant to pop the question. Catherine isn’t much of an alternative though. She’s painted with broader strokes than any other character in the game, and while it was clear by the end that the writer intended for us to have some sympathy towards her, she never really ends up being more than an object of desire for Vincent. (Thankfully, there’s at least more going on to Catherine than the provocative PS3 box art would suggest.)

The game may offer a choice between Catherine and Katherine, but it never explicitly asks you to pick one or the other at a given moment, as something like Heavy Rain might do. Instead, the outcome of this plot line (and several peripheral plot lines) is tied to a “morality meter” of sorts. It’s definitely Catherine‘s greatest failing, but it’s not necessarily as limiting as you’ve been conditioned to believe from other games. The two extremes here are not “good” and “evil,” but “order” and “chaos.” The former features an angel and the latter a devil, but based on the chaotic outcomes towards which I leaned, I didn’t feel as if the developer was judging me for making bad decisions. After all, the Persona games lean heavily on demonic characters and imagery, so it makes sense that this realm is not necessarily the “wrong” one.

You’ll notice that I have barely even touched upon Catherine‘s puzzle game core. It was an afterthought on the podcast, and it’s an afterthought here. It’s not to say that the cube climbin’ isn’t fun — at least on easy — but the plot offers so many strange pleasures that the puzzle stuff gets bumped from my memory. It’s neither as sweepingly epic as a Final Fantasy or as immersive as an Elder Scrolls, but Catherine‘s smaller scope and small choices end up being its greatest strengths. Who needs endless expanses and battles when the cozy neighborhood bar is just a few nightmarish puzzles away?

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