For some people, just hearing that this game was made by Atlus is reason enough to buy this game. See, the developers have a certain reputation. They’re known for making very difficult JRPGs, specifically two series. Megami Tensei and Persona. Both are different flavours of weird and are known for different things, but this time around instead Atlus have switched genres to bring up Catherine, which in terms of narrative structure more closely follows the standard set by the Persona franchise.
But instead of JRPG this time around we have a puzzle platformer with sheep as its main motif. Yeah.
Also this is the first time I’ve noticed the constant reuse of voice actors between projects. Apparently it was quite deliberate this time around, as the actors were chosen because their previous roles suited these ones. Which is why it’s pretty easy to hear who’s who. There’s a galumphingly large couple of paragraph at the end about which game I found out these people are also from if you care to read that kind of thing.
OK, so Vincent Brooks is a 30 something slacker dating Katherine, his slightly bossy girlfriend of some years. He spends most of his nights drinking with his friends and tends to blow his excess cash on junk he doesn’t need, and hasn’t got round to making a commitment yet when the wild, flirty young Catherine walks into his life and he starts an affair in his drunken stupor.
In his everyday life, Vincent has to deal with multiple problems, like the guilt of his affair, whether or not he wants to commit to Katherine and the various other problems this all throws up, while at night he has this bizarre dream of having to climb a tower with a bunch of sheep or die. All while a mysterious affliction is killing off men who cheat.
The story takes place over a week in which you, as Vincent must decide the course his life will take. This is done not only by surviving the nightmares but also in the responses you give to the various things Vincent gets asked, which are tracked in a little bar on the screen.
Structurally, it’s about as linear as you can get. Each day plays out the same way, you have some cutscenes, you hang out at the bar, talking to the patrons, getting drunk and texting both C and K, then you go home and get to the real meat of the game. The nightmares.
Even on Easy Mode they’re tough. Using the unique physics of blocks comprising the towers and the various special properties you must ascend to the top. Each night has multiple towers to ascend, and each night ends with a Boss encounter, who will try to disrupt your climb with various hazards and in the grand old Persona tradition represents various anxieties in Vincent’s life that he has to overcome in order to not only survive but grow as a person.
You’ll die a lot. I suggest finding an easy place to grind lives early on. But as this is Atlus, the difficulty isn’t ever too high to deter you so long as you select the appropriate difficulty (which will probably be easy mode). Instead, it’s actually quite addicting and as you continue to play you’ll realise you continue to learn, devise and use more and more advanced ways of solving problems.
The difficulty isn’t so much a curve as a collection of jagged peaks and harsh drops. This generally depends on whether the level in question is meant to be a puzzle or a quick dash to the top, because the various hazards are pretty easy to learn to circumvent making dashes simple whereas the puzzles will always stump you.
Luckily, the game keeps the formula fresh with new hazards on pretty much every stage, even up to the very end.
There’s even a game within the game, an arcade cabinet called “Rapunzel” in the Stray Sheep (name of the pub) which has its own huge collection of tower climbing puzzles.
Apart from that, the other ‘sidequest’ as it were is trying to save the other men in the shared nightmare. Various sheep in the in-betweeny bits of the nightmare have distinguishing features like wearing a tie or a cop hat that helps you recognise who they are in the real world.
By speaking to them in the nightmares and when they enter the Stray Sheep, you can help talk them through their problems and give them the strength to overcome the nightmares too. This is just an optional thing, and doesn’t affect the ending you receive.
So, with a game so focused on the story and characters, how well does it work? Pretty well, actually. Despite Vincent’s inability to say any of the things he needs to say to either woman, it’s nice to see him making his emotional journey and how it’s not just “things go from bad to great”. As a character arc it really lets us see him grow as a person and learn to appreciate him as a character.
The two -atherines don’t get as much growth or screen time, but both work as foils to each other and there are valid reasons why a person would want to pursue a relationship with both of them, as well as why a person wouldn’t want to.
Vincent’s friends are a fun bunch, each one have a particular viewpoint that means that whenever Vincent talks his troubles through with them, you get an array of advice. Luckily, they’re not just strawmen there to illustrate different viewpoints, they’re people with problems of their own going who’ve been shaped by their pasts. They’re not as complex or interesting as the main three, but they’re still pretty darned good.
The other characters that inhabit the Stray Sheep also have their own particular reasons for appearing in the nightmares built out of their own neuroses which come out of sympathetic backstories, but they’re a lot more expository about everything. I’d still put them slightly above average, but they’re really not great.
The story as a whole is a nice interplay of themes with some interesting characters and doesn’t artificially stretch itself to accommodate extra gameplay but as a game it’s pretty short. Depending on how fast you can go through the puzzles, there’s two to four days in the main story.
As for extra play value? Well, there’s a multiplayer mode that I didn’t play because multiplayer and a challenge mode called Babel with its own ending that requires high score to be attained in the Story Mode which I didn’t play because bugger going through Clock Tower on Normal mode.
While I would have had trouble justifying this purchase when it was at full price other than it being an Atlus game and we should buy every damn one of them so they keep releasing them outside of Japan, now that you can buy it cheaper I’d say it’s worth the investment if you like tough puzzles or good stories.
Vincent is Kanji Tatsumi of Persona 4 fame and Snow from Final Fantasy XIII, Catherine is Dissidia‘s Cloud of Darkness, Final Fantasy XIII’s Serah, Persona 4‘s Rise Kujikawa and Street Fighter‘s Chun Li. Katherine is Street Fighter‘s Crimson Viper (Chun Li’s rival, natch) and Dynasty Warrior‘s Sun Shang Xiang.
Orlando in Final Fantasy‘s Kain Highwind, Toby is Persona 4‘s Yosuke Hanamura (he’s even doing the exact same voice). Johnny is Dynasty Warrior‘s Zhou Tai and Street Fighter‘s Guile, Boss is Dynasty Warrior‘s Xiahou Dun and Erica will be the new VA for Chie Satonaka in Persona 4 The Arena (which is totally getting a Japanese and European release! Also why the hell are they changing Chie’s VA!?)