Developed and Published by: Atlus
Platforms: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed), PlayStation Vita (Japan Only), Nintendo Switch
Release Date: Out Now!
Well, this is a review that has been a long time coming – that’s right, I’m actually finishing something in my drafts folder! Catherine: Full Body, the remaster of cult 2011 hit Catherine, took up quite a bit of my playtime in the last year. The quirky combination of romance-based visual novel and in-depth block puzzler is utterly unique; years and years ago, I saw PewDiePie playing some of the original, and was intrigued by the choice-led story of love, cheating, and desires. So, with the release of an updated version with improved visuals, new gameplay options, and a whole new story branch, I felt as though it was finally time to jump in myself. Whilst the two distinct sides of story and gameplay do not always gel together seamlessly, there’s a lot of depth to enjoy here – and several different outcomes too, which had me playing multiple times. In this review I’ll note my thoughts on playing through the story of Catherine for the first time; furthermore, I will be diving into the improvements that come with the Full Body edition!
-WARNING: LIGHT SPOILERS FOR CATHERINE: FULL BODY AHEAD-
Like a Fine Wine
Right from the off, it’s clear that Catherine is going to be stylistically unique, as we see a vivid “Golden Playhouse” television intro where the game is presented as an entertainment program. This doesn’t actually factor into the game much, but immediately connotes the slice-of-life vibe of the story. Said story focuses on Vincent Brooks (Kôichi Yamadera/Troy Baker), a 32-year-old coder and programmer living in America. On the surface Vincent is quite average, with a small, untidy city flat and a steady relationship with Katherine McBride (Kotono Mitsuishi/Michelle Ruff) – Vincent seems content to stay as they are, without making too much of a commitment. However, this is all shaken up when young men start to die in their sleep, with rumours of it being a consequence of cheating and linked to dreams of falling; it is subsequently given the name “The Women’s Wrath”. This, and the rest of Catherine, are told in a mixture of in-engine scenes and gloriously produced anime cutscenes. The latter are genuinely stunning, and have a lavish sensory quality that matches the sexually charged story that Catherine tells – and in Full Body, there are plenty of new cutscenes to accompany new story beats.
For now, though, back to the set-up carried over from the original. One evening, Vincent joins childhood friends Jonathan (Takehito Koyasu/Travis Willingham), Orlando (Hiroaki Hirata/Liam O’Brien), and Toby (Kishô Taniyami/Yuri Lowenthal) for their usual after-work drinks at the Stray Sheep, the bar they frequent. This bar serves as the hub for the life-sim, visual-novel side of Catherine, where you can roam around, talk to people, and order drinks. As well as getting to know the characters more and even learning some delightful alcohol trivia, your activities in the Stray Sheep become crucial to how the story unfolds – but more on that in a bit. Early on, a young, attractive woman named Catherine (Miyuki Sawashiro/Laura Bailey) appears alone at the Stray Sheep and ends up in conversation with Vincent. A very provocative cutscene and a lack of soberness later, Vincent awakes to discover that Catherine has stayed at his flat, and they appear to have slept together. Distraught, Vincent desperately attempts to hide it from Katherine (keep track of those names!), and the resulting mess of adultery, deceit, and revelations form the conceit for the rest of the game.
Which is where the puzzler side of Catherine comes in, as those rumoured dreams of falling now ensnare Vincent. From the description I have given so far, it could be hard to imagine how this would be a block puzzle game – but as with other Atlus series such as Persona, the contrast between the core game loop and the life sim side is key to the themes Catherine attempts to explore. The dreams afflicting the young men of this world take the structure of a horrific, vastly vertical tower of scattered blocks that are slowly falling, with the scrambling climbers pictured as sheep. In order to survive, they’ve got to stay ahead by moving and climbing blocks in an improvised staircase to the next interstitial landing point or, eventually, door to temporary escape from the nightmare. Catherine eases you in, showing you the basics of dragging blocks into feasible pathways to the top, but quickly starts to introduce different styles of blocks and new techniques for getting around daunting walls. For an example of the former, there are bomb blocks that, once stepped on, start a timer until they explode (taking other blocks with them); there are also cracked blocks that can only be stepped on a certain amount of times until they break and disappear; and ice blocks that set you slipping across them until you either land on steady ground or, er, fall off to your death. Conversely, item pickups can get you out of bad spots, such as with the Energy Drink that allows Vincent to jump two blocks up.
As you get further into Catherine, it really starts to throw everything at you. Mixes of different block styles are combined with complicated arrangements; it is important to listen when other sheep teach you tactics for moving blocks around. Whilst I appreciated the challenge, sometimes I found myself struggling to work out solutions and hitting a jarring wall to my progress. New to Catherine: Full Body is a revamped Undo system, where you can revert an increased amount of actions, and even raise that quota by picking up Pillow items. This was definitely useful, but even with the Undos, it’s possible to run into a dead end that you cannot get out of without forcibly going back to a checkpoint – and that can be quite tiring, especially when the last checkpoint is a ways behind. Replaying levels isn’t necessarily a bad thing in a video game, but these moments of exasperation showed me that I much preferred the daytime, life-sim side of Catherine – indeed, having to replay sections of the block puzzles hurt because it meant I was further away from getting back to the story. On the other hand, there are several difficulty options, including the brand new Safety mode that removes Game Overs and Time Limits, and even allows you to skip parts of levels or turn on autoplay. This is very welcome to open up the game to people who’d like to focus on the story, and definitely softens my criticism of the difficulty curve. Personally, though, I stuck to Normal to get an idea of how the puzzle aspect of Catherine unfolded – and that was an uneven ride.
New additions such as the increased Undos and Safety Mode show, to me, that Atlus was well aware of the unbalanced challenge spikes of Catherine and attempted to amend them for Full Body – and credit to them for that. One more way that the game does this is through new character Rin (Aya Hirano/Brianna Knickerbocker), who is prominent on the Full Body box art. The pink-haired Rin is being chased by an unknown pursuer before meeting Vincent in a new early cutscene; Rin has lost much of their memories of who they are, and subsequently move in next to Vincent and take up a job at the Stray Sheep. Part of that job becomes playing the piano at the bar, and that translates over to the nightmare side of Catherine, as – for an initially unknown reason – Rin appears there, and their piano playing slows the fall of blocks below you when you get tight on time. This is just part of the mysterious air around Rin, and I am glad to say their addition to the game is extensive and makes an effective impact on the experience. Youthful and naïve, Rin is a breath of fresh air to the story, and very different from Catherine/Katherine. Their air of optimism affects the way Vincent looks at life, though how much so is up to the choices of the player…
To me, it is important to bring up the controversy that surrounded the reveal of Rin being added to Catherine: Full Body. Without saying too much, the story of Rin goes into topics of transsexuality (which were already present in the story of Catherine), but the trailer for Full Body showed a clip of Vincent shocked and hitting the outstretched hand of Rin. Clearly, this caused reason for concern over how Rin would be represented, but in the context of the full game, I think it’s handled well. Don’t get me wrong – Vincent does those things and it’s an awful reaction. The follow-up to that scene is Vincent realising the horror of it and chasing after Rin, being criticised by Erica, and then having an apologetic and emotional phone call with Rin. Not for the only time (by a long shot!), Vincent acts very poorly, but the key point is that the game calls him out for it and says this is not okay. At this point is where Full Body has the new potential story split – depending on your decisions, there is a path here to meet back up with Rin and discover a brand new route. This brand new portion of narrative and gameplay is quite the ride of joy and creativity that I found both surprising and rewarding. Alternatively, this fork might be where Rin mainly leaves the story, and Full Body focuses back onto the Catherine/Katherine plotline of the original.
Catherine really is a game of distinct segments that affect each other in a merry-go-round fashion. Generally, the structure goes like this: Vincent wakes up and we see story consequences of their previous actions, then we might see their interactions with Katherine or a friend, before we gain control of Vincent in the Stray Sheep. Here, you can sit, talk, and drink with friends as aforementioned, and/or get up to talk to other customers and staff, including the intriguing waitress Erica (Junko Minagawa/Erin Fitzgerald) and Boss (Norio Wakamoto/Kirk Thornton). You only have so much time to spend here, so picking who you talk to is important if you’d like to see all of their individual arcs – you see, after leaving the bar (either sober or drunk!), we then see Vincent falling to sleep in their apartment, which is the cue to enter the block puzzler portion of Catherine. Here, you can talk to some of the other sheep at the post-stage breaks. You’ll find that you start to recognise certain traits that match the characters you talked to in the Stray Sheep, and as you talk to them, they’ll reveal dark, secretive sides to those daytime conversations. These get quite deep, ranging from a suicidal policeman who lost their partner, to a young man who seems to have suffered parental abuse. Depending on how much you talk to them and how you respond, each of their stories can resolve differently.
If it wasn’t clear by now, the way you play Catherine is crucial to how the plot unfolds, and this morality system – and the (many!) different endings it can produce – is an aspect I greatly enjoyed. Early on, it is established that how you act is going to affect not only the choices Vincent eventually makes, but the success of those decisions. This works across both the daytime and nightmare portions of the game. When in daytime conversations, your pick of optional replies will sway your morality metre more towards the good (blue) or bad (red), each corresponding to different potential outcomes for the story and the future Vincent might choose. This goes beyond just verbal responses, too – your mobile phone can receive messages from various characters, and you get to pick how you shape your replies. You’ll have Katherine understandably inquiring after you, Catherine sending you some NSFW pictures to tempt you, Rin asking for advice, and more. You can really inject your own approach in these fun moments of interactivity. However, I found the most crucial factor in your morality metre was actually in the nightmares. In the short breaks between stages, as well as saving and talking to other sheep, you have to reply to a key question related to love and relationships. These are deep questions, and I found they got me to be quite introspective in my personal opinions.
Intriguingly, you can even see the responses of other real-life players once you make your choice. You can split these into female and male responses too, and you’ll probably find some fascinating insight in the discrepancies of response – though, do factor in that if players are seeking particular endings, they may be choosing replies based on that instead of their genuine opinion! Myself, I played Catherine: Full Body several times to see just a few of the smorgasbord of potential endings. With the modifying aspects of your morality metre and the late-game path you select – and how well these line up with each other – you might be accepted or rejected by various characters. There are still plenty of cutscenes and endings I have not seen, but I feel as though I’ve played enough to get a satisfying taste of where events can lead depending on your choices, including the resolutions to various side plots. Catherine: Full Body is a game that might go to some places you do not expect, even if you think you’re expecting them. It gets quite extreme and fantastical – don’t expect it to be based entirely on the reality we know…
See You At The Top
Of course, a key part of the Full Body version of Catherine is the revamp of the audio-visual side. Overall, the textures, lighting, and vibrancy have been polished, as you might expect with around a decade of technological advancement and a new generation of consoles. The cutscenes, as I have mentioned, remain glorious to watch, but perhaps the key improvement is how the in-engine segments now more closely resemble the vividness of those cutscene counterparts. Catherine has a contrast of aesthetic that matches the juxtaposition of gameplay – the daytime scenes are sultry and rich in tone, but the nightmare sequences are dark, blood-splattered, and torturous – they’re effectively twisted torture chambers. The depths of the starting stages have spikes, saws, and cages that are quite gruesome to see, before areas begin to become more refined and almost regal as you get to the higher levels. Despite this, it never really breaks out of the slightly monotonous greyness, which I get is probably intentional, but only exacerbates my earlier comments of eagerly awaiting returning to the daytime. This gets more noticeable as the amount of levels (and therefore time spent) per sleep increases. Even if this feeling of anticipating the daytime is intentional, I found it a bit unbalanced and that the nightmare portions suffered for it.
If we’re talking audio, then the voice cast has to be brought up. The charismatic characters and interactions are brought to life by personable performances. You really believe that, say, Vincent was childhood friends with Katherine, Erica, Jonathan, Orlando, and Toby – there is that telling combination of caring honesty mixed with jabbing insults, a mixture that can come from knowing someone for so long. Fresh introductions such as Catherine and Rin have an infectious appeal that make their own viewpoints and effects on Vincent convincing, too. It’s backed up by a great supporting cast, as the side characters all have their own distinct personalities. In the nightmare world, performances include the horrifying screeches and screams of some of the threats you encounter, all interwoven with striking block sound effects that indicate their effects. Arcade-y sound effects and the comments of Vincent play in here too, all creating quite the cacophony of noise in the block puzzle sections – which, again, varies from energetic to greating. Also, throughout Catherine, a narrator plays into the TV-show-esque stylistic tendencies; they come in for moments such as tutorials and trivia.
The soundtrack behind all of this also makes quite an impression, with a jazzy selection of atmospheric tunes for the life-sim and Stray Sheep side of the game. In the bar you can even go up to the jukebox to select various tracks you have unlocked, which range from music from the original Catherine, to new remixes for Full Body, and even music from other Atlus series such as Shin Megami Tensei! The catchy, jazzy tunes are the ones I think of when I think of Catherine now, in contrast to the more disconcerting, and generic, ones in the nightmare portion. Speaking of the Stray Sheep, there is some other entertaining side activities to be found there; the Rapunzel arcade machine lets you play new block puzzle levels in a cartoonish – and very difficult, I will add – wrapping. Going into the restroom causes certain scenes too, such as an otherwise entirely avoidable cutscene. In addition, you can replay previous nightmare levels and watch unlocked cutscenes and endings through your mobile phone – as well as being wowed by the sheer amount of them you haven’t seen yet, even after hours of play… !
It is clear that the main Golden Playhouse story is the central draw of Catherine: Full Body, but as well as this, there are a bunch of side modes that focus on the block puzzle aspect of the game. Babel is designed for expert solo or co-operative players, with long and challenging stages that are a feat to even get to the end of! Meanwhile, Colosseum is the versus multiplayer mode, where two players compete head to head to get up the same stage more efficiently than the other. They’re both quite substantial offerings for those who really get into the block puzzle side of Catherine, but beyond some initial forays, I didn’t feel the draw to spend much time with them – the challenge of the main game was enough to exhaust me sufficiently. A new offering I did explore more was the new Remix option for the story. This mixes up the stages a bit, even adding new Tetris-style joined blocks that are tied together (see image above). When doing repeated playthroughs to get those different endings, I did appreciate having this element to change up the gameplay dynamic.
Just as it is built to be, Catherine: Full Body is a game of two sides. The mature, romance-based, and visual-novel-style story is uniquely mixed with a complex and challenging block puzzler, and whilst the thematic connotations between the two do strike true, my actual enjoyment of the latter definitely wavered at times. Overall, though, this was only a small drawback, as the absorbing narrative is layered with topics of morality, commitment, and sexuality that are not often explored this well in games. There are especially not that many games that pair it with the creative and slightly disturbing art direction Catherine has! Bringing it all together are fantastic performances by the voice cast and a brilliant visual wrapper which includes stunning cutscenes. In this Full Body edition, it’s all stepped up a level, with a compelling new character and story branch in Rin, and some key tweaks to the original game. For all of the ridiculousness within Catherine: Full Body, I think it is quite an important game to play – and even if the block puzzle side puts you off, remember that Full Body offers new workarounds and improvements that make an affecting and emotive narrative better than ever.