It’s a classic, old-fashioned love story: boy meets girl, boy dates girl, girl wants to get married, boy is unsure, boy meets new girl, new girl has the hots for boy, boy has nightmares that he’s a sheep forced to climb a metaphorical tower. I spent most of 2011 hoping that Atlus would release a new Persona game on the PlayStation 3 and got Catherine instead. It was something I’ve never played before as it told a story that had a lot to say about grounded concepts like love, marriage, and settling down - albeit from a man’s point of view. The premise was interesting to me because I was a bachelor at the time and would ruminate on these topics as I watched friends around me find loved ones. After experiencing Catherine’s doozy of a final act, I really didn’t pay much attention to it afterwards and it ended up being one of those Atlus curiosities that was fun at the time but forgotten not long after. Fast forward eight years later and surprise! A Catherine for a new generation sporting updated textures, new animated cutscenes, a new character, and re-recorded dialog.
Catherine: Full Body remains faithful to its unusually adult story. Vincent Brooks is an average, everyday thirtysomething engaged in a relationship with Katherine, whom he has known since high school. Katherine is a picture of cool, elegant, confident and has a solid life plan that she wants Vincent to be a part of. Vincent, however, is a bit too aloof and presented as the stereotypical “afraid of commitment” guy sitcoms love to laugh at. Sidestepping the pressures of his daily life, he finds refuge among friends at the Stray Sheep bar, knocking back a few as they swap stories, share their personal philosophies, and enjoy light, playful banter with the bar’s sole hostess, Erica. As he struggles with the idea of marriage, Vincent is approached by Catherine, a foil for Katherine because of her more flirtatious and sexy mannerisms that capture his attention. This fateful meeting turns Vincent’s life upside down as his nights are plagued by recurring nightmares of scaling increasingly dangerous towers for the amusement of some unseen force.
Catherine: Full Body, like its original release, is a game in two parts. One is a visual novel that mostly plays out in the Stray Sheep where you can amuse yourself with a jukebox, play the game-within-a-game Rapunzel’s Tower, or view and compose e-mails to Vincent’s acquaintances. Beyond that, this portion of the game is all about Vincent, his friends, and Erica ruminating on life and love, the strange rumors circulating the city, and drinking the night away. The most significant departure from the 2011 version is the addition of Rin, a character made specifically for this re-release. A cute, pink-haired amnesiac with striking blue eyes, she enters Vincent’s life anime-style after being pursued by some unseen stalker. Serving as a third potential romance option, she compliments Katherine and Catherine well enough by being the lesser intense of the three. Their relationship through the game falls within big brother/little sister territory and Vincent’s interaction is a breath of fresh air because unlike the other women, he seems calm and relaxed in Rin’s presence. Vincent and his friends recognize that there is something special about Rin and you’re going to have to play through the game to find out what that is.
The other half of the game occurs when Vincent goes to bed and is transported to a nightmare inhabited by other people that appear to him as anthropomorphic sheep. Their identities are hidden but eagle-eyed players might spot small details that reveal them to be people Vincent knows from the Stray Sheep. Their reasons for being there, as well as Vincent’s, is left unknown and the only way to escape is to climb a dangerous tower by pushing and pulling blocks to form a safe path to the top. Think of it as a vertical take on the classic warehouse puzzle game Sokoban, only a hell of a lot more Freudian. The player has to work quickly or risk Vincent falling to his death because the blocks below him fall away row by row, giving the gameplay a stressful urgency. Vincent can hop on and off blocks and also skirt around the edges to access hard to reach areas or as part of a technique to create paths where there are none. You’ll learn a multitude of different techniques and strategies that are really useful for later levels that introduce complex block types that limit your movement and force you into thinking several moves ahead. If you make a mistake or accidentally cause a block to fall out of play, there is an undo option that is as forgiving as the difficulty setting you’ve selected. On the easiest setting, you can skip the puzzle entirely by letting the game run on autopilot, leaving you to focus on the story sections instead. Exclusive to Catherine: Full Body is a special puzzle mode that adds Tetris-shaped pieces to the mix for a level of complexity mostly beneficial for returning players looking for a new challenge.
The nightmare stages are appropriately quirky and creepy as they are designed around different themes of torture and punishment. They are also quite heavy-handed. After all, this is a game that loves to beat the player over the head with its metaphors. Each nightmare consists of two to three puzzles stages followed by a boss encounter where you must evade a freaky creature that takes on the twisted form of an idea or concept Vincent encountered the day before. For example, the first boss encounter is a pair of hands wielding a fork because Katherine used one to stab a dessert during their lunch date. When Katherine brings up the idea of marriage, his pursuer becomes a monstrous version of his girlfriend wearing a wedding dress. When he meets Catherine for the first time, he is attacked by a Silent Hill-looking butt creature with the ever shifting face of a woman. On top of these glaring analogies, you’ll be asked to answer morality-based questions designed to push and pull the needle on a meter that denotes Vincent’s conscionable state. How you respond to these innocuous and prodding questions influences the story’s direction towards one of multiple character-specific endings. Actions outside the nightmare, such as drinking heavily or composing rude emails, can also affect his standing, too.
Whether you’re chatting away at the Stray Sheep or trying to survive the night, both versions of Catherine carries itself in a manner that might feel a bit off by today’s standards. The story and writing feels exclusively built around a man’s view of commitment. Vincent isn’t much of a sympathetic character and I was far more annoyed with him this go ‘round because it’s absolutely excruciating to watch as he digs himself into a hole of his own creation because he is utterly incapable of communicating his feelings. I might understand this better if Vincent were a high school kid but he’s, like, 32 years old and should know better. The inability for me, as a player, to step in and make critical decisions is frustrating because Vincent has a tendency to act in self-destructive ways and I just can’t trust him to make the right call on his own. Another issue I developed replaying the game is the depiction of Katherine. She’s almost a villain in the story because she is portrayed as being pushy, passive-aggressive, and bossy. It’s almost like the story makes her out to be the bad guy just because she has it together and Vincent doesn’t.
Personal struggles about the game’s attitude toward the subject matter aside, I cannot praise Catherine: Full Body’s presentation and production values enough. Voice-over superstars Troy Baker, Erin Fitzgerald, and Critical Role alums Laura Bailey, Liam O’Brien, and Travis Willingham prove why they’re the best in the business, delivering authentic performances that make these characters, flawed as they may be, shine brightly. On an artistic level, Full Body takes advantage of the production values afforded to the engine that ran Persona 5. The texture work on the in-game models is gorgeous and packed with a level of detail you haven’t seen in previous Atlus titles. The story of Catherine is expanded with the addition of all-new animated cutscenes that explore new endings and previously unseen memories of Vincent and Katherine in their prime that go a long way to add much-needed dimension and backstory to their characters.
Catherine: Full Body is a curious remaster. After completing the original release eight years ago, I never really felt like this was something that would benefit from an enhanced re-release and yet, it kind of does. Both the character of Rin and new cinematics enrich the story in ways that give it more depth (even if it does venture into some really wild supernatural territory by the end). And at no point does Rin feel shoehorned into the story. I can’t imagine how tricky it must be to write in a whole new character to a pre-existing work but Full Body makes it look easy by fitting her in with nary an exposed seam. Catherine: Full Body might not be for everyone, it’s the very definition of a niche title, yet in the end, I find it hard not to appreciate it on an aesthetic level.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.