While Atlus has been around for quite some time and has worked on many games I would highly recommend (play Snowboard Kids 2 and tell me I’m wrong), their biggest claims to fame have been the games under the Shin Megami Tensei label. To narrow it further, the fandom surrounding the Persona sub-series propelled the company to new heights of popularity. Wedged between the fourth and fifth entries of that, though, was a strange little game with a woman’s name.
Originally released on the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, Catherine was many things. Provocative might be the first to come to mind, with the game embracing eroticism to the point some retailers stocked copies with more conservative versions of its box art. Strange would be fitting too, as the game is hard to classify. Was it a horror/relationship simulator, or maybe an anime platformer with a morality system? Yes to both, and then some. Last year it was updated and re-released on PS4 (and Vita in Japan!) but now it’s the Switch’s turn to have a taste of Catherine: Full Body.
Welcome, lost lamb
Catherine sees you in the pink-patterned boxers of Vincent Brooks, a thirty-something guy who’s having commitment issues and would rather spend his money drinking at the local dive with his friends than think meaningfully about his future. His longtime, career-driven girlfriend Katherine (with a “K”) begins to press him on matters like their relationship and starting a family, and soon Vincent finds himself in a nightly torment of Christian imagery, sheep, and climbing countless blocks. It’s on waking from one of these nightmares that the core conflict arrives, as Vincent has just woken up in bed with another woman – the more free spirited and seductive Catherine (with a “C”).
What follows is a routine spread across a week. You’ll see Vincent’s story of infidelity and self loathing unfold through cutscenes, caught between these two women with near-identical names and his mounting list of anxieties. Afterwards you’ll find him at the Stray Sheep bar with friends, able to chat with them and fellow patrons about your collective troubles. These men also make appearances in Vincent’s nightmares, and talking to them regularly not only gives insight into their lives but may alter their fates.
Or don’t. Instead you can just answer texts from these girls, or play an arcade game, or drink yourself under the table to learn alcohol trivia. There’s a level of choice and time management at play here that grants you more narrative nuance and side stories, or gameplay benefits in the next half of the game’s makeup. Many of your conversational choices will influence a mysterious meter, which further influences Vincent’s thoughts and your eventual ending.
Getting to that ending is no easy task, though, as after leaving the Stray Sheep you’ll find yourself in nightmares again and again. It’s here that the game shows the other half of its gameplay – a puzzle game. These nightmares task Vincent (and many other wayward men) with scaling massive walls of blocks. As you push and pull and edge along these structures, you’ll start to realize that aside from being a metaphor for the seemingly infinite struggle of personal betterment and growth they’re also a lot of fun and really addictive. More on that later.
Everything above applies to the core Catherine experience (that is, the original game and its Golden Playhouse story mode) but this is a newer Catherine. Full Body expands upon the 2011 release with more story scenes to flesh out the core cast, additional endings, adjusted gameplay, and, most significantly, a third love option.
A new potential love
Rin represents a different path for Vincent, as unlike the two original Catherines, Rin is a more naive and innocent character driven to support others. Where the other two play with Vincent’s emotions and perceptions based on their own wants, Rin instead plays a piano for others that both soothes those who hear it in the waking world and eventually even assists Vincent’s climb in the nightmares.
For the most part, Rin is a great addition to the game. Instead of an order versus chaos dichotomy, the dynamic of the three potential loves surrounding Vincent becomes more akin to the contrast of the id, ego, and superego with respect to their influence. That change expands upon what made the original Catherine compelling, and also provides a love that is more supportive and kind to Vincent instead of making Catherine and Katherine two differing shades of gray based on their behaviors and motivation.
That does negate some nuance that was in the original game, which I feel was a more focused experience. Still, the more complex flavor of Full Body wins out over all. Rin can at times veer a little too cutesy and cliche (literally running into each other as a first meeting? Amnesia as a character device?) but by the end of that particular story route I was a fan not only of the character but the new and unique themes and symbolism it brought.
I usually do the killing in my dreams
Outside of (or I guess within) all the relationship and personal troubles lies a satisfying and active puzzle game. It rewards recognizing patterns and possibilities based on how many blocks are around and how they’re positioned. While it’s possible to think ahead to an extent, falling back on instinct feels natural after a while and can be highly rewarding. Every step up increases a timed combo counter, and any time I could scale a stage without letting it lapse was a personal victory.
My only real complaint about the gameplay of Catherine is how cyclical it is and what that does to its pace. Every day of the game is a routine, and if you want to stop and chat and get the fullest story possible it shifts the balance of gameplay to story firmly into story. It could be argued that dialogue choices and text message responses are part of the gameplay, but compared to the more active and fast paced tower climbing it can be a little boring to stop and shoot the sh*t with sheep between each stage.
That could just come from my familiarity with the game making the climbs a little breezier for about half the game, though. Catherine is not an easy game, and I remember much more difficulty on my first time around. I can pinpoint the exact moment where the difficulty caught up to me this time around, though. Later stages throw unique twists on what you’ve come to expect, as well as various types of blocks that can impede or kill you. And you will die, a lot. Thankfully Full Body has reduced some of the tedium associated with its difficulty to make it a more user friendly experience all around.
For one, ‘lives’ are gone and instead the ability to Undo moves and mistakes on your climbs have been reworked. It does remove a certain amount of tension but it also encourages experimentation and getting a feel for different climbing strategies versus trying to memorize a “correct” path. If you do die you can also have the game play itself to get you back to where you were, though it’ll take the most immediate route and pass on any items lying around. The convenience doesn’t stop there either, as anyone who’s only interested in the game’s story can select a mode that lets you skip the puzzles altogether.
Why live a life without doing what you want?
It goes to show that thought and dedication has gone into giving Catherine a second chance. That extends to the localization as well. Not only is the original English cast back in their roles, joined now by new characters and their VAs, but the script has been altered at parts both for minor improvements and to address some controversies.
The character Erica, who is a rare example of trans representation in games, was notably subject to some questionable comments and lines in the original release as well as other instances of insensitivity in some supplementary materials/Full Body’s Japanese release. From my playthrough (which was a single route centered on Rin where I pursued as much dialogue as I could) the majority of those lines were not present, though there is one possible ending that features the character pre-transition with some ambiguity to the context. A deeper dive into this subject is beyond the scope of this review, and several more thorough pieces on Erica and the game’s handling of her can be found online.
That brings me to another aspect of the game as a whole though – its treatment of gender. Without spoiling much, traditional and dichotomous gender roles play a large part in Catherine’s symbology as well as direct and implicit aspects of its plot. Some of that overlaps with the discussion of Erica, but it also extends to practically every named character in the game including new ones to Full Body. Some of these are cultural barriers, some serve the narrative, and others can change based on how you play.
I bring these up mostly to illustrate one of Catherine’s greatest strengths, even when it missteps. Regardless of how it addresses these issues, it implores you to think about them. Vincent, for the better part of the game, is an asshole. He, his friends, and the people he interacts with all have skewed views on women thanks to those who have influenced them. You as the player can recognize that in his very human and very flawed behaviors and act on them accordingly. It’s not afraid to address these topics, or to ask you to look at yourself with its confessional booth flavored questions on sexual interests or personal attitudes. Many games have player choice and morality systems, but Catherine is one of the few games to make me think about what my observations and answers say about me.
If approached with an open mind, Catherine can be a thorough lens on the consequences of actions, both in games and in life. That quality doesn’t play much of a part in whether it’s “good” or “bad”, but it (as well as damn near everything else in the game) certainly pushes it firmly into one of a kind, and I would argue that and the other elements described in this review makes it absolutely worth experiencing.
Worth another round
That’s not to say it’s an overly serious or heavy handed game either. On the contrary, this game’s title screen literally has two stylized, nude butts open a wine bottle. You see Vincent pull off multiple, highly exaggerated screams throughout the game and he spends about half of it almost dying while in his underwear. There are blatant fanservice moments, and it fully embraces its anime-ness. That doesn’t mean it can’t be thought provoking when it counts, but it also means you have to be prepared for the full pour.
Ultimately I highly recommend playing Catherine: Full Body on Switch. This is the game’s handheld debut in the west and it performs well. There are some issues with the Joy-Con’s sticks when it comes to precise moves during a climb, but Undos can compensate for these instances. Playing docked will let the style and touched up visuals for the game pop, and with this release you also get all the extra DLC content bundled in by default. This includes an appearance from Joker and the Persona 5 Phantom Thieves, meaning once again they’ve found themselves on Switch before their original game makes it to Nintendo fans – please Atlus, make it happen!
For anyone who’s already played Catherine but might’ve skipped Full Body on other platforms, I implore you especially to revisit it. The greatest takeaway I got from playing this game again is that my perspective and views as a person have changed since I first played, and this playthrough was an entertaining measure of that. My answers, actions, and results were all different from when I first stepped into Vincent’s nightmares and there was an added sense of nostalgia trying to think back and compare how I formerly approached the game. That may not be a sensation unique to Catherine, but it’s made all the better by how unique Catherine is.Leave a Comment
System: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: July 07, 2020
Categories: Action, Puzzle
Developer: Studio Zero, Atlus