Atlus is one of the few companies that make games I always buy when they come out on the strength of their name alone. I trust their quality, and they're always thought provoking experiences. In a game-scape of sequels and re-treads, strangled with corporate shills looking only at the bottom line, they somehow thrive on doing things no other company would dare. But don't let the quirky cover fool you -- there's more to this game than the usual faux-anime fare.
All Atlus games have a signature style. Art, music, packaging, extras -- everything carries their imprimatur. Catherine is no exception. But when you start to play the game, you run out of boxes to check off and fall right down to the blank and bewildering half of the page.
Team Persona games have those certain distinguishing characteristics, but once that's out of the way all bets are off - each is unique in their approach to a topic. When you boil them down to brass tacks, their previous outings are about young people and the process of growing, but each one handled relating to the world in their own new context. In Catherine, they left even that age-group lifeline behind went to a completely adult cast, with completely adult concerns and interactions.
There are several layers to the game, all tied into the main story. The macabre block-climbing from the demo gives way to the various plebeian tasks you deal with in the course of each day, and they add their own surreal quality to the experience. You're talking to another character in the bar, and all of a sudden Vincent's phone rings. Are you rude to the guy and answer it? Or do you finish the conversation and then go read the pissed off text you get because you didn't answer your beck-and-call-girl? My real-life phone rang once when I was playing a part like that and it got even weirder.
Even the overt puzzle-solving parts are hard to define. Everyone keeps talking about Q*bert, but most of these people should probably get off my lawn and go play it again because I don't see much resemblance. Yes, it looks similar, in the sense that they both have boxes and you jump up and down on them. But Q*bert's gameplay was a clever attempt to make the then totally two dimensional game-scape pretend to work in the third. You don't change your strange cubed world; playing the game is more an exercise in proper use of terrain. Playing the nightmare parts of Catherine, I got more of a Prince of Persia: Sands of Time-meets-Tetris feel.
Just because you run through most of the game in your boxers rather than armor doesn't mean there is no gore or violence. There is some seriously disturbing imagery, particularly in the nightmare sequences. But the real and surreal contexts of the rest of the game give it a very different weight than the splatters you see in other games. The gore is not in any way the point of the game; it really only stands to beg the question about what mature really means.
A lot of games talk about being "mature", but those actually rated M are anything but. It is the realm of gratuitous bad words, toilet humor, objectification of all sorts, and abattoir after abattoir worth of gore and carnage. I'm always complaining that games are all written for 13-year-old boys who haven't found the door to the locker room yet. But this one is written for 30-year-old boys. You may or may not consider that a good thing.
If you are, or have been, one of those who spend your nights down at the local pub hanging with your buds while still trying to make a relationship work and dealing with all those strange nights that seems to come with that barely-post-college stage of life these days, you know this guy. You're staring down the barrel of grown-up life, but you still don't feel grown up yet.
The lead character is that one guy we've all just sort of hung out with since way back then, who always has the weirdest stuff going on in his life and just can't seem to get it together. This makes Vincent an uncomfortable breed of cat if you're used to playing with the usual omnipotent, bullet-and-one-liner spewing brutes. I haven't seen a main character this passive and screwed up since Cloud Strife.
The story takes his go-with-the-flow, boring life and crashes it into an agonizing multi-track relationship train wreck. Vincent has no spine at all. You wonder if his ribs are actually just resting on his hip bones, and you are locked into his viewpoint. You can't do anything but watch and yell advice at the TV as he makes the wrong-est choices possible every time he can. You are relieved to get to the puzzle bits and the bar so can have some input to this mess. But you're like the littlest fairy at the christening -- you can't undo the curse, only soften it.
Even with that feeling of powerlessness, you are still running the show. Each choice you make, each conversation in the bar and in the dream-world affect the course of the game in big and small ways. At seemly innocuous moments during your various interactions, a red and blue meter appears on the screen. It's important to note that there are little cherubs at each end and they're both angels. The bar moves back and forth, based on your actions with no real clue what it means. You don't find that out until you get to one of the eight different endings.
You're not totally alone, either. At the end of each main level you answer a have-you-quit-beating-your-wife-yet type of question about life, the universe, and everything. Those also affect the meter, but have an even wider purpose. The game reports your answer to a central server, compiles it with the answers from everyone else who's playing the game, and displays a breakdown of everyone's choices during the loading screen. It would be fascinating to get that data set and break down the demographics on it.
Because I'm not a 30-year-old boy, sometimes I had a hard time looking at this game from Vincent's point of view. Trying to do things was quite difficult when all of the response choices he is given when he hits Reply would have had me reaching through the phone and beating his ears down around his shoulder-blades. I couldn't really go there from the other side either; both of the girls are just as repellent to me as he is. Because of that, it took me a couple in-game nights to figure out how to finesse the game. Fable taught me that being wish-washy when dealing with this sort of decision scale only gets you mediocre things, so I tried my best to figure out what it would take to go all the way to one side of the meter or the other.
Playing it with my adult sons and two of their buddies brought a strange dimension to it. It felt like the game was extending into my living room. The boys navigated the quicksand story with a disturbing ease born of long familiarity with this milieu. After getting through the fourth cut scene, my younger son commented that the whole game is a one big violation of our household's Rule #2 (Don't go with the crazy). And they hadn't even gotten to the really interesting parts yet. We finished it out, and in the process discovered its all about 20 times weirder than they thought. Kind of like last Saturday night.
Playing a second time with my 20-year-old daughter, her female roommate and her roommate's fiance was different. They picked up on certain things that the guys didn't catch, and totally missed others. The fiance's face was quite a study at a couple points. They did come to the same place on one thing: Vincent is a "complete douche-canoe" and so are most of his buddies. That flippant comment came in the middle of the wandering discussion the game started. Why is he just accepting all this? Why won't he speak up for himself? He's a grown man. Ironically, they only got to the third night before they had to go home and get some sleep for work in the morning. I can't wait to see what they'll say when they get to the end.
I hope gamers and the industry in general take the right lessons from this game. I don't know if the digerati count it a success or not. But I think it shows there's a place in gaming for games, good games, about something more thought-provoking than shooting holes in Alien Species #19. And I'll be looking forward to the next game from Atlus.