by Ben Lelievre
previewed on X360
Breaking the conventions
How many of you have felt miserable on Valentine’s Day in the past? If I asked that from a live audience, I’m sure there would be too many hands raised to count. If you already dread that day for 2011, rejoice! Atlus Persona Team, the company responsible for the cult hit series Shin Megami Tensei Persona came up with quite the clever solution for your Valentine’s Day blues. Their newest title Catherine will remind you that love isn’t always about hugs, kisses and mortgages.
Even if Catherine is only billed for Japanese release, it’s been gathering a fair share of hype since trailers and screenshots have been made available. The visual style of the game is quite without precedent in the industry and shows influences of both Manga design and the Japanese horror films of the late 90’s and early 2000’s. Screenshots of the nightmare sections in particular alternate between the chaos of David Lynch movies and the horrific visions of Takashi Miike. The lengthy cut-scenes and the secrecy around the actual gameplay also reminds us of the old interactive movies that were on the PC market in the 90’s. It’s a sign of confidence for a studio to go outside conventions in an industry that heavily believes in genre and format.
The tough questions
But what is Catherine about? Does the story hold up to the beautiful and unique graphics? You play as Vincent, a salaryman without ambition who lives in a pretty dangerous neighborhood: people in the area tend to die in their sleep with a terrified look on their faces. The police doesn’t have a clue whether these are murders or a terrible plague and Vincent doesn’t really care until he meets... Catherine! She happens to be the personification of beauty and all he ever looked for in a woman. The problem is that Vincent is already engaged... to a similar looking girl named Katherine (she is also pregnant with his child). So our anti-hero Vincent cheats on Katherine with Catherine and starts having horrible nightmares where he sports sheep horns every single night. Soon, his nightmare world and reality start blending together in a Lovecraftian turn and Vincent's terrifying dreams become a struggle for survival and sanity.
The gameplay has been announced by Atlus to be a well-dosed mix of adventure and action. In daytime, Vincent will live his boring life and will gradually come to wonder about the reason for his nightmares. He will talk to people and investigate his condition. He will have to make choices that will influence his fate and allegedly change the gaming experience as well. In the nightmare parts, the gameplay is going to be action-oriented and Vincent will have to fight for his life. If he dies in a dream, he will die in real life like all the other other victims of the dream plague. In one of the action sequences showed to the public, Vincent is chased up a giant flight of stairs. If he’s caught or if he falls, he dies in real life.
There’s a definite horror edge to Catherine, but it does not fall into the presently popular survival horror genre. The first two games one might compare Catherine to are Silent Hill: Shattered Memories where the “nightmares” are clearly defined zones throughout the game and Heavy Rain, where moral choices can turn the story around. More importantly, Catherine seems to defy the notion of genres and bets on the solidity of its experience to attract gamers. In a market where countless games are counting on their format (First Person Shooter, Real Time Strategy) to squeeze in decent sales, it’s good to see developers trying different avenues.
Another interesting aspect of Catherine is that Vincent, the main character, already made an appearance in the Shin Megumi Tensei Persona game for PSP. Because of this, a lot of gamers first thought that the new project from Atlus would be another installment in the Persona series and many were disappointed when they learned it is going be a completely different title. The Persona fans won‘t have a new title to play with until at least a year or two, but Catherine is a growth from the universe they all like. Will it hit the shelves in Europe and North America? With the considerable amount of hype behind the title it’s safe to say that it is bound to happen. Adventure games and horror movie fans rejoice, Catherine is looming around the corner, ready to warm up your heart next February.