Monday, November 15, 2010

The deal with Catherine.

A few days ago a commenter asked me to explain what the heck the deal is with Catherine, and I'm a bit ashamed to say they received no reply. I wasn't trying to be rude - I just didn't see the comment 'till today. Specifically, they asked for a synopsis. Short version?
Catherine is an upcoming action-adventure horror-ish game from Atlus. It centers on the troubling dreams of a man named Vincent, after a night of infidelity with a lady named Catherine. Its Japanese release date is February 17, 2011, and there is no word on localization.
But - as I'm sure you know - I prefer the long version. This is a game that requires watching, and here's why.

* * *

To start at the beginning, it's made by Atlus. Atlus rocks, and Atlus USA is perhaps the best localizing publisher in the biz. Let me explain, specifically, how this pertains to Catherine.

This generation, Atlus is perhaps best known for localizing the phenomenal Demon's Souls, but their titles became synonymous with hardcore RPG gaming back on the PS2. Specifically, with the advent of Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne (which is essentially considered SMT 3) - a Japanese RPG that really was, in all ways, for grown-ups. The SMT banner now flies over a half-dozen spin-off series, most notable of which is Persona. After the critical and cult success of Nocturne, the SMT series was primed for a hit - and they got it with the incredible Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3.

Persona 3 eased up on the series' legendary difficulty, employed a new art style and combined the franchise's dungeon-crawling roots with light social sim elements. It may sound a bit silly or stupid to you, but trust me - it's fantastic. How fantastic? It's so damned fantastic it took this gamer I know - a gamer who spent their entire life trying and failing to enjoy Japanese RPGs - and turned them into a convert. They used to play nothing but action games, but now they actively seek out interesting JRPGs, and are fanatically devoted to SMT and Persona in particular. Persona 3 opened up a whole new world for them.

Wanna' know a secret? That gamer was me.

This is not a fan trailer.
This is the intro to Persona 3's FES edition.
It was a budget-priced re-released of P3
with a bunch of added stuff.
Very cool.

And it wasn't just me, of course. Persona 3 was met with universal critical acclaim when it appeared in 2007, taking home pretty much every RPG of the year (and some Game of the Year) awards.

And, for the record, Persona 4 is better.

Great stories, remarkably well-rounded characters, great writing, fantastic art direction and the standard by which I judge all JRPG soundtracks - the Persona series often go very deep into their characters. Like, subconscious symbolism deep. At this point, you may be wondering why I'm talking about Persona and not Catherine.

Understanding Persona's awesomeness is the beginning of understanding anticipation for Catherine: they're made by the same team at Atlus's Japan studio.

Same producer, director, character designer and composer. Same team. So is Catherine another RPG?


Catherine is being billed as an "action adventure." Near as I can tell, it has two components - the waking world, where main character Vincent navigates the pitfalls and pleasures of the women in his life, and the dream world where he is pursued by evil monstrosities.

The animated sequences are made by Studio 4°C, who've made all kinds of stuff - but to me, they're the folks who turned Tekkonkinkreet from a great book into an amazing movie.

Okay, so we know the talent, we (kinda'?) know the basic gameplay, we know how it looks. What's the story?

Well, now we have to get into Katherine. Who should not be confused with Catherine. Or Catherine.

Vincent is going steady with Katherine. They grew up together - she's the comfortable, smart choice. A stable, reliable lady with a great job and low-key fashion sense.

Now, one night Vincent goes astray. He meets Catherine - as you can see, she is blond and has blue eyes - a power greater than mortal man can bear, it seems. After his dalliance, Vincent begins having nutty dreams. He's naked, sheep-horned and wandering down a long hallway with a bunch of sheep dudes who walk on little black human feet.

He's chased by monstrosities, like a "giant hand and is running away from a mysterious creature." If you've played Persona 3 or 4, you know they're big on obvious symbolism - I wonder if this terrible miasma of flesh and face somehow represents the women in his life, or some multitude of anxieties?

It's clearly got a bit of a horror bent.

At this point, you may be wondering why the team that made such remarkable, successful RPGs are now making something completely different that seems to handily defy easy description.

Well, as we all know, the days of SD gaming are coming to a close. Your TV is HD, your main consoles are HD. Your PC and iPad are HD.

Atlus is not.

Their core studios have never made a game for the PS3/360 - and they're not about to risk the name of their bread-and-butter Shin Megami Tensei franchise on such untested waters. Catherine is an experiment. Catherine is something new and cult-y, but mainstream enough to find financial success. More than anything it is the Persona team's way of getting comfortable on current gen architecture, before they set to work on making a new Shin Megami Tensei title for your PlayStation 3 and 360.

And that's it, Vanessa. That's the deal with Catherine. Let's all enjoy a trailer, shall we?

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