Catherine’s recently available Japanese Demo opens with a separate slice of animation, a montage that offers glimpses from iconic cinematic genres, including the biblical, the love story, the monster movie, and the horror film – and then the brief bit of video ends and the game’s protagonist, Vincent, enters the screen to face the first of two tastes from Catherine’s puzzle-block focused agenda. Film genres linger though, every one of those seen in that quick sequence showing some influence within the game proper.
Catherine’s animation builds on the seductive eye-candy of the Persona series, with a color palette and design aesthetic that is visually arresting, but which also shows new signs of maturity – and not simply because of the sexual psychology at the heart of Catherine’s most immediate and deliciously kinky appeal.
Whether through scenes featuring Vincent and girlfriend Katherine talking over tea, or the way a crime scene pulls back into a television report, and then further still to the bar where Vincent and his friends can see that television emitting signals, every shot and transition brings stylish cinematic sensibilities to the screen.
And then there is the playing…
Sectioned into chapters, Vincent cautiously steps into the first nightmare, a towering series of blocks behind him and a disappearing row beneath him, immediately encouraged to keep upward mobility on his agenda. Vincent can grab onto blocks, pushing or pulling to create points to climb up higher. Quite often Vincent will need to pull a block back toward the player, which pushes him off the edge and leaves him dangling until the player moves him to any spot where he can regain footing. A quickly added advantage comes in the form of “Edge,” which allows the player to pull one block from directly beneath another without causing it to fall, thus creating an unnatural stairway by which to continue.
The second nightmare included in the demo adds the intensity of a chase. A mess of tangled hair and screams that appears to be a monstrous abstraction of Katherine climbs toward Vincent with a fork, the intention being to stab it firmly through him and bring the dreaded death screen that informs the player that “Love is Over.”
While climbing, the beast will shriek and stab the blocks to cause many to turn black, making them harder to move and costing the player time – during this second stage Vincent is able to create a block, and both puzzle sequences offer a one-step back reset option to recover from mistakes.
The two stage taste offers solid insight into the nature of puzzle block nightmare challenges – a time incentive race to solve increasingly complex block-jumbles in order to clear a path forward. Vincent merely needs to reach the doorway that offers a light to fight back the dark creature in pursuit of him, suggesting each doorway leads to the waking world.
How far Atlus can build on this might be the only lingering concern, but the gameplay is rooted in a simplistic premise that is immediately inviting while also standing ready to evolve in difficulty to create the type of challenge one could conceive of spending endless hours with, as if climbing to the heavens with no end in sight.
As excited as I remain for the release of the full game, I’ll attempt to refrain from spewing so far ahead of schedule and with so many questions remaining. But there’s an immediate importance in the subject matter, a hope that Atlus is offering a title that will raise even more questions from the player with a game that demonstrates the medium’s ability to work with mature themes beyond the reaches of a franchise like Silent Hill. This is the potential for a videogame of contemporary cultural awareness, one which slips beneath the surface to dip into the deep pool of the human condition – the desires, fears, insecurities and doubts at the core of identity.
The short view is that Catherine’s gameplay works in direct relation with the subject matter, with Vincent working to escape his nightmares through very logical means. Where Atlus takes that relationship will make all the difference to the significance and lasting importance of the final product.
The demo is available in Japan on the PlayStation Network and to Xbox LIVE Gold members – the easiest means of checking it out for yourself is by setting up a Japanese PSN account – which is relatively painless. If you have any questions about exactly how to do so just hit me up in the comments.
Failing those options, the entire demo has also been uploaded to YouTube.