If you are a fan of the Persona series, chances are that you've already heard of Catherine. Developed by the same team, Catherine is a bit of a departure for them, providing a more adult based story rather than around teenagers and having no RPG mechanics in it whatsoever. It makes me rather sad to say then, that they should really have stuck to what they know best when making a game.
In the game, you play as Vincent Brooks. A young man who seems to have it pretty good for the moment, with a decent job that pays well and doesn't ask too much of him and a girlfriend, named Katherine, who he's been going steady with for around 5 years now. This all changes when one morning, he finds himself waking up in bed next to someone who isn't Katherine but a young blonde bombshell called Catherine. He also starts to have strange and incredibly scary dreams which he can never seem to remember along with hearing rumours of unfaithful men dying in their sleep.
The gameplay of the game is essentially split into two types. There is the "Stray Sheep" bar, where you essentially engage in story elements, you talk to people in the bar, chat with Vincent's best friends, drink and reply to text messages from both Catherine and Katherine. It's a way of fleshing out the story more akin to a JRPG, but it actually works and shows that you don't need a game to have hitpoints and magic to tell a story in this way. The game also has what is essentially a good/evil system which it calls Freedom and Order, it's during the “Stray Sheep” sections that you will respond to people and send texts that determine which side you're on. Your alignment does have a effect on how Vincent responds to situations, but only truly affects the ending of the game.
The other type is what accounts for 75% of the game and that is the nightmares. During the nightmares, you are presented with a vast tower made up of blocks. It's your objective to move the blocks around in a way that you can climb to the top of the tower and finish the level. Between each level, you can save your game and talk to sheep that are in the nightmare with you. This whole part of the game falls a little flat with me, the block puzzles are not fun to do and you end up feeling more frustrated than anything. I actually ended up using a video walkthrough halfway through (a bad one at that) just so I could soldier on though the game and get to some more story.
Nightmares are usually split into 2 or 3 levels, with this number increasing with each night. Once you are done in the sections between levels, you can then move on to the next level after answering a question about you. These questions can be somewhat personal and odd such as "If given enough money, would you walk round the street naked?". After answering, you are then showed how everyone else who has played the game answered the question, as a pie chart. It doesn't really have an effect on gameplay, but it's an interesting feature to have and gives you a sort of picture of what the audience for this game is like.
Catherine's strength is definitely in its story. While told though standard cutscenes, it's really interesting to see how these characters react to events and deaths of people. There are twists and turns in the story that keep you interested and also provide some mystery. Why are people dying? What's up with the weird nightmares? And why does Vincent keep losing his memory of his nights with Catherine?
The story also manages to come off as quite grown up, telling about a man that is faced with the choice of growing up and start planning toward a future, or to continue coasting along in life without a real care in the world. It's an interesting real life situation that manages to incorporate fantastical elements quite well.
While the story is almost fantastic for the most part, there does come a point where it just dives in quality. It is a point that is so incredibly obvious, it even asks you to save at this point as if to say “Hey, we know it's been great up to here. So maybe you should just save and we'll call that the end the game, OK?” I don't want to give any specifics, but it comes at a point that would make a great and realistic ending. What happens instead is a decent into fantasy and myths in an effort to get to an ending that only a fantasist would want. I imagine that this was a direct result of play testing and people wanting an ending that just couldn't ever happen in the real world. I would just advise that you stop playing the game at that point, and you will know when that point is.
Catherine is a very interesting game to say the least. While its story is great for what it is, the main meat of the gameplay is so hard and tedious that it's almost not worth it. Not only that, but the story gets to a point where it dives, making the ending of the game feel like a mess and not worth the time. While it certainly has it's merits, they are outweighed by it's failings. It's certainly worth your time if you're into games like the Persona series, but don't expect the same experience.