"The game presents a unique mix of visual novel and puzzle gaming, with a distinctive puzzling setup supported by a fair learning curve."
Catherine: Full Body is an interesting beast. A remake of Atlus' original Catherine, released in 2011, the game aspires to improve and expand on that title while keeping the core gameplay intact. The game presents a unique mix of visual novel and puzzle gaming, with a distinctive puzzling setup supported by a fair learning curve. The main story is short but has multiple endings to enjoy, and there are additional challenges that await determined players.
Catherine: Full Body tells the story of Vincent Brooks, a man in his mid-thirties who seems to be at a turning point in his life. Vincent begins suffering from nightmares that involve him and other sheep-like creatures climbing a seemingly endless tower of blocks in order to escape some unspeakable presence that is chasing them. Along with the beginning of these nightmares come problems in Vincent's relationship with his longtime girlfriend Katherine, who is clearly hinting at marriage and settling down while Vincent is unsure about the future. This is only compounded when Vincent encounters the young and carefree Catherine and begins an affair. As the story progresses it becomes clear that the nightmares Vincent is having, which are in actuality the puzzle parts of the game, are also affecting men he knows as well as others across society. It's established early on that those who fail to survive the nightmares end up dead in real life. It is amidst this backdrop that Vincent must navigate both the increasingly complex puzzles of his nightmares as well as the ever-murkier relationship between himself, Katherine, and Catherine as he tries to decide (based on the player's choices) what he wants. Newly added to the Full Body version is a completely new character, Rin, an amnesiac who Vincent finds and grows closer to as the game goes on. Rin is fairly smoothly inserted into the story of the original Catherine and allows the player even more options for forming relationships which can drastically change the story. Oh, and by the way, when I say the game tells this story, I mean that literally — the entire game is presented as a story within a TV program with cute touches like a perpetual logo in the top left of the screen.
Being that Catherine was made by Atlus, the developers of Shin Megami Tensei (SMT), it's not surprising that player choices affect the outcome for Vincent and that a sort of "alignment" system is used. The game allows the player control over this in two main ways: through direct questions asked during the puzzle sections (e.g. things like "Are white lies ok sometimes?") as well as interactions with other characters, including with Katherine/Catherine/Rin via text messages. The game makes it clear that these decisions are affecting the player's alignment via a devil/angel gauge that appears when you choose something. At first, I was not particularly impressed with the system as it seemed very direct. All in all, I felt like I had very little agency in choosing what Vincent would do (which led me to my overall feeling that he was a fairly ineffectual protagonist), but as I got towards the end of the game it became clear my decisions were having an impact. It was fun, in particular, to see the SMT "brand" of order/chaos choices brought down from the level of post-apocalyptic struggles for humanity often seen in those titles to that of one man's life. There are also some surprising twists towards the end that bring the story a bit more into the "over the top" level that I personally enjoy, while maintaining grounding in the central story of Vincent and those around him.
Another intriguing part of the story, similar to Social Links in Persona, was getting to know the other men who were also struggling in the nightmares. Much like Persona, managing your time and speaking with these men in the bar Vincent frequents, as well as in the nightmares themselves, will ultimately affect their fate; consistent interaction is needed to hear each of their stories to the end. The monstrosities chasing them in their nightmares all vary based on the struggles they have. For example, a successful businessman is chased by a monstrous form of his late father who never accepted him.
Aside from the aforementioned visual novel portions of the game, the bulk of the gameplay takes place during Vincent's nightmares and the puzzles the player must surmount to see him safely to the next morning. The ultimate goal of each puzzle is to reach the top of a large tower of blocks by pushing, pulling, and climbing them in increasingly more byzantine ways as the bottom of the tower slowly falls apart. I was actually impressed with the learning curve in the game, which allows for players to intuit new strategies for climbing the blocks as well as outright teaching "techniques" that demonstrate effective tactics one can use. Of course, more complicated and frantic setups are introduced as the game goes on, including various block types ranging from ice blocks, which Vincent can slip off to his death, to black hole blocks that suck in and kill our hero (noticing a theme?). The timed and frenetic element of the puzzles also left ample space for both careful planning and a lot of trial and error, which I enjoyed immensely. By the last few stages I felt like I had an intuitive knowledge of the blocks and was pushing and pulling without thinking. Reaching a checkpoint after clearing a difficult section is satisfying.
There are a variety of additional gameplay challenges should you not get enough out of story mode. In addition to taking on those stages again and going for higher rank, there is also another challenge mode called "Babel" where the player must see how far they can reach on a very high tower. Moreover there is versus and co-op play, the latter of which I imagine will really test some friendships. The game even has a Dark Souls-esque social element where you can see where other players died on puzzles as well as how the other players collectively answered the same story questions that you are answering, which is a nice touch that ties into Catherine: Full Body's "shared nightmare" plot point.
One area of Catherine: Full Body that left me a bit disappointed was the music, though admittedly this may be because I have come to expect a lot from Shoji Meguro as a composer from his work on countless other Atlus titles. Much like the game itself, the music selection is somewhat bifurcated. The "story" part of the game includes subdued tracks (my favorite was "It's a Golden Show") that would not be out of place as background music in a Persona game and are generally the highlight of the soundtrack, though these tracks can sometimes be overshadowed by the voice acting volume. A nice touch, however, is that time spent at the bar (where Vincent has most of his free interactions) can be customized using a jukebox that plays not only many songs from Catherine but a wide selection of Persona music from almost all recent titles. On the other hand, the music for the puzzle sections of the game is primarily full of classical renditions. While this does match much of the quasi-religious imagery and scope graphically presented in these sections, it did not do much to make the game stand out, nor did it have me feeling charged during the more frantic portions. Since the puzzles are where you will likely spend most of your time, these musical choices can seem a bit bland.
Graphically, Catherine: Full Body is also somewhat mixed. I enjoyed some of the background visuals in the puzzling sections as well as the generally slightly dingy look of the bar and Vincent's apartment. There are also a few creepy designs for the monstrosities chasing Vincent. The character designs themselves are average and quite reminiscent of designs out of a Persona game; the anime cutscenes are similarly mediocre. That said, I overall felt that the graphics could "pop" a little more and I found the colors and general atmosphere subpar compared to other PS4 titles (even Persona 5, which has a similar style), though this was with an understanding that high-definition graphics are not everything with a game like this and that the nature and setting of the game lead to generally dimmer visuals.
More importantly, there were a few times during the puzzle sections that I had trouble with the camera: in particular when Vincent needed to climb around the back of the tower, a technique which some later puzzles rely on. In some of these situations, I had trouble seeing what was behind the tower and it took some fidgeting to get it to shift when Vincent climbed back there. It was not a major issue but did lead to some deaths. This was compounded by the controls, which while generally simple and smooth, did have a few hiccups when climbing around blocks...which led to some unnecessary moves and instances where I was unsure whether left or right would bring me in the direction I wanted to move.
Overall, Catherine: Full Body is a unique experience that's tough to put into one bucket or another. Outright puzzle game fans would definitely enjoy the puzzling aspects but may not be interested in the story, whereas those interested in the story may not have patience for the tougher puzzles (though there is a "safety" mode where puzzles can effectively be skipped if so desired, just note this cuts a lot of the gameplay out). The game is not particularly long either, clocking in at less than 15 hours unless you count multiple playthroughs and other modes. It's definitely a game for completionists who want to get all the endings and high ranks on the puzzles. If you missed the game on its original release, I would recommend checking it out if you are an Atlus fan or want to try something different from the norm.
This review is based on a free review copy provided to RPGFan by the developer. This relationship in no way influenced the reviewer's opinion of the game or its final score.