I never caught Catherine the first time around, despite being an Atlus fan at the time. I remember walking into an EB Games once and seeing the special edition on the shelf. I had never seen this game before, just, generally, so my first impression was a pair of boxer shorts and a waifu body pillow being sold with the game. It was, to say the least, a turnoff, and remained so for a long time until I just plain forgot about the game altogether.
And then in early 2019, Catherine: Full Body came out and I was once more reminded of this strange little game Atlus had made that was apparently a great puzzle game, but also: Whoof, that’s a lot of transphobia! And, again, I quickly lost all desire to touch it.
Recently, however, it came out on the Nintendo Switch and, with a begrudging sigh and being a little bit more informed on how apparently good the puzzles were, I decided. Sure. I will play you, Catherine, and I will grit my teeth the entire time.
No I will not do sex puns as headings
So. The game begins with the player taking the role of Vincent, a thirty-something American programmer who can’t commit to his long term girlfriend, Katherine. Also, he’s voiced by Troy Baker, even in the updated release, because he just really loves the character that much. Which is nice. All the voice actors return, actually. One night, at a bar, he meets a mysterious young girl who manages to seduce him and, despite having no memory of it, he wakes up with her in his bed the next morning. Her name? Catherine, of course.
Full Body, however, adds a twist to this formula: A third Qatherine. Yes, that’s how it’s spelt.I am absolutely exasperated with how ridiculous this situation is. It gets much more ridiculous than that, but I can’t explain exactly why I’m so exasperated without going into spoiler territory.
Vincent’s life is quickly thrown into turmoil as Catherine shows up night after night, Katherine is apparently pregnant, and Qatherine just kind of generally exists near him and knowing 3 people with the same name would be enough to be weird for anyone.
On top of that, Vincent starts having nightmares where he’s constantly climbing blocks to escape monsters. This is where the actual gameplay takes place, as Vincent continues to climb the tower and encounter other men thrown into this strange dream world. The only thing is, they appear as sheep. Vincent himself appears with a dashing set of ram horns.
As Vincent talks to the sheep, he slowly begins to realise they’re all people he knows from the real world. The player can even, during the nighttime bar segments, even interact with these people. Getting the perfect ending requires this, as to save everyone, Vincent must help them overcome their problems and get their lives in order. This essentially splits the gameplay into the day, which is entirely cutscenes, the night, which allows the player to navigate the bar and interact with patrons, though this is on a timer, and the dream world, which the actual puzzles take place.
So. Are they actually really good?
Like Qbert, but with sex stuff
Well, not exactly like Qbert. It’s like a mixture of Qbert, and (if anyone remembers it), Intelligent Qube for PS1. But also, not like them at all. The common thread is, essentially, there are cubes, they hinder you, but also you need them to succeed.
In this instance, there is a tower of cubes with a goal at the top. Vincent is tasked with climbing the tower and reaching that goal, through creating a path by pushing and pulling the blocks, pushing various sheep out of the way to their very real deaths as humans, and master various ‘puzzle’ blocks such as springs, bombs and traps.
This is actually really, really good, and trying to figure out the most efficient but highest scoring path to the top while the stage crumbles beneath you is exhilarating. It’s one thing to complete the stage, but it’s another to master it with a gold rank, through getting a good time, a good combo of steps, and the various items that are lying around in often obtuse places.
This is all aided by various difficulty levels which the player can change at any time as well as an ‘undo’ function that allows a limited amount of undoing and retrying moves until you can get the best result. Though this is limited, and it is very, very easy to die in this game. And you will. A lot.
Then, of course, there’s the boss stages. Not only is the stage actively crumbling around you, but the giant manifestation of your current real life stressors is also chasing you and actively destroying the stage. This results in, say, a giant deformed baby chasing you up the tower. They’re nightmares for a reason, is what I’m saying.
Each level has several regular stages, followed by intermissions in which players can talk to sheep, buy items and save. Also in this area is another of Catherine’s fun little ideas: The player is, over the course of the game, asked a series of questions about relationships putting them on either a Law, Chaos or Neutral path, which Atlus fans will be familiar with. Though instead this impacts which particular C/K/Qatherine Vincent will wind up with, if any of them at all.
Though interestingly, the answers are also taken online, with players able to compare results with men and women in their age brackets, as well as overall results. Not to mention seeing how many players have died on the stage you’re about to attempt. You know. For morale.
Though it should be noted that the puzzle stages can also be played independently of the story through the multiplayer modes, as well as the dedicated puzzle single player mode ‘Babel’. Multiplayer also comes in PVP and co-op, in case you were feeling particularly spicy. Or kind.
Good puzzles, bad transphobia
Catherine is a wildly frustrating game on multiple levels. I absolutely adore its puzzles, and its goofy plot about relationships is a sort of ‘so bad it’s good’ enjoyable that I actually became pretty invested in by the end. I was sad when bar patrons wound up dead because I didn’t talk to them in time. I was invested in figuring out how to make Vincent less of a miserable waste of a human being.
And yet, not only once at release did this game do something not great, it went and did it again. The first time I could even forgive, because all things considered, it was pretty okay for the time. But doubling down on it? Really drags down an otherwise delightful game.