I finished Atlus’ erotic horror game Catherine the other day, and it sparked my interest. Video games have been moving in a fascinating, story-driven direction, with genre-breakers like Heavy Rain and L.A. Noire leading the lot. And Catherine would seem much the same to an unobservant player. In summary, Catherine is a puzzle game, with helpings of story. Or, I guess you could say it’s a story, with frequent puzzle game departures. Either way, Catherine seemed to advertise itself as an experience unlike anything else. But is that really true?
It certainly is different, but only in totality. Catherine operates as two moving parts; the story, and the gameplay. The best games find a way to blend the two without compromise. L.A. Noire adapted open-world conventions to fit a largely linear, story-driven experience, and in the process discovered something compelling. Heavy Rain featured a sort of constant quick-time event method for gameplay, which while simple, drew you into the experience even further.
The problem with Catherine is that where Heavy Rain‘s story and gameplay slept in the same bed, Catherine‘s are separated by a ten-foot tall, electrified fence. The puzzle aspects, while oddly satisfying, are in no way correlated to the morality-driven, light adventure aspects of the rest of the game. It’s as if there were two games here that weren’t complete enough to justify a retail release, so the developers threw them together and shipped it.
Catherine boasts a story that forces you to make tough decisions about relationships, but that isn’t really true. Most of the “decisions” involve answering a vague question at the end of a puzzle. If Catherine‘s intent was to make you think about out of the ordinary questions, then that’s fine, but the inclusion of the obligatory Law/Chaos meter, that pops up whenever you answer a question, seems to defy that intent. Every question you answer has a direct effect on that meter, and you see the effect immediately after answering. The suspension of disbelief required to lose yourself in a story is shattered when you know how you are influencing it.
I don’t mean to be overly critical; Catherine is an interesting game, but more of an interesting failure than anything else. It tried something different, and I applaud it for that, but the innovation is kept at a minimum. The morality system is bare-bones, and the adventure gameplay is repetitive and simple. The only new things here are the puzzles, which still recall a sort of demented Q*Bert. But Catherine stands as a game for other developers to study. Hopefully this game’s failures will affect the future of story-driven games positively. It’s a new genre, and there are bound to be some failures, but if the industry can learn from those failures, it’ll be the better for it.