WARNING: This review contains major spoilers for Catherine: Full Body.
Rich in metaphor and mythos, Catherine: Full Body, a remake of Atlus’s 2011 game Catherine, ties its game mechanics, visual design, Biblical theming, and decision making together in an interactive exploration of the player’s own values and views as they relate to relationships. Themes of ascension and connections between the main character and Jesus Christ are used to put forth the argument that, as long as you are committed and passionate about the direction you take in your life, whether you choose a peaceful family life, an exciting free-spirited life, a single life, or something entirely new, you can achieve “true freedom”.
As soon as the player begins the first level, it is immediately apparent that they need to climb up to progress. There is only one stairway up and below is an endless pit. This acts not only as a tool of game design to intuitively teach the player how to play the game, but also as a tool of thematic design: the main character, Vincent, goes through trials as he ascends this tower, similar to how one would ascend to higher levels of enlightenment after spiritual tests. Upon reaching the door at the end of the level, a bright white light envelopes Vincent and the score is calculated onscreen as George Frideric Handel’s famous “Hallelujah Choir” from his set of orchestral pieces Messiah plays in the background. “Hallelujah” comes from the second part of Handel’s oratorio, which recounts the end of Jesus Christ’s life (the Passion). The Passion ends with Christ’s sacrifice for the good of humanity. This connects to the confessional painting of Vincent crucified on a Venus symbol (the female symbol). Jesus bore and was crucified on the cross to atone for man’s sins; in Vincent’s case, he bore the consequences of his decisions, which have hurt women around him. It is this atonement that sets an example for the men around Vincent, as Jesus’s sinless life and selfless sacrifice set an example for people to follow his example. As the story progresses, the painting will change to show other sheep gathering around and worshipping him. At the end of the story, Vincent makes a decision to risk his life for the one he loves and to stop the nightmares that have plagued many other men–this is a clear correlation between Jesus’s sacrifice to atone for humans’ sins and Vincent’s sacrifice to atone for men’s taking their relationships with their partners for granted.
In order to calculate the player’s decisions, the game employs the “Mysterious Meter”. The meter is held by a demon on the left, red side and by an angel on the right, blue side. One wouldn’t think much of this meter, merely assuming the left side represents Evil and the right represents Good. However, it is revealed at the end that the left represents Freedom and the right represents Order. Make decisions that align more with Freedom and you will likely end up choosing Catherine the succubus. Make decisions that align with Order and you will likely end up choosing Katherine McBride, Vincent’s girlfriend. Whatever your decision is, Vincent still makes an ascending journey toward enlightenment over the course of the story. The dilemma that the game puts forth is not one between right and wrong, but between taking control of your own life or letting life happen to you. The game never evaluates the player’s answers as right or wrong, but it does punish the player with a bad ending if their actions throughout the story don’t align with their decision–this is what the game considers indecision or a lack of direction, the things Vincent was supposed to grow out of by the end of his journey.
With this remake comes new endings and a new love interest: Rin. Halfway through the story, Vincent discovers that Rin is male, despite his feminine features and outfit. In Japan, men who crossdress are referred to as “Otoko no ko” (男の娘, with the first character meaning “male” and the last meaning “young woman”; this is a word play on the homophonic 男の子, which means “little boy”). In the September 13th 2018 edition of Weekly Famitsū, producer Katsura Hashino describes the 2019 remake as “the complete version of the concept” of the 2011 original, noting that Rin can be included now that sensibilities have changed significantly since then. For eight years, fans of the original Catherine have known Vincent to exclusively be straight, so it would have been jarring for some to play this remake where Vincent can so easily reevaluate his sexuality. To reconcile existing fans’ expectations and Atlus’s desire to depict a new kind of relationship that reflects modern society, access to Rin’s endings has been made to require the player to answer certain questions with a sense of openness toward new and unfamiliar experiences. If this criterion is met, the Mysterious Meter is destroyed and something new grows out from it, reflecting the upending of the status quo to allow new values and perspectives to blossom.
Catherine: Full Body offers a full experience when it comes to use of metaphor and theming to construct its message for the player. It is also successfully utilizes misdirection (in the form of the Mysterious Meter and the theme of ascension) for the purpose of forcing the player to shift focus from the overused Good versus Evil dichotomy to a more nuanced contemplation: control of one’s own life, whatever direction or form it takes.
In addition to the game’s wealth of Biblical symbolism, theming, and metaphors, the subtitle is a connection between the love interests’ body types and a categorical term for wines. As one of many pieces of alcohol trivia in the game, the body of a wine is determined by its weight, boldness, and flavor in the mouth; the narrator, who provides this trivia, also says it takes a special palate to be able to appreciate such a wide range of tastes, obviously referring to the different personality and body types of women. Along with the tower’s role as a challenge to be overcome and a journey of ascension, the individual blocks that Vincent must move around are also representative of the pushing and pulling that occurs in a relationship. In the nightmares, Vincent can interact with other people enduring the trials, but he sees them as sheep. Not only does this connect to the custom of counting sheep to fall asleep, it connects to the numerous allusions to Christ as a shepard of humanity, guiding his followers to a life of divine salvation. Those who deviate from that path can be called “stray sheep”, which happens to also be the name of the bar at which Vincent and many of the other men subjected to the nightmares drink. One additional facet to this metaphor is the idea of conformism. This is a particularly important theme if you consider Rin’s romance route. The compulsion to go with the herd without deviating can prevent one from pursuing their true desire, fearing that they will be ostracized for being different. It’s unfortunate, though, that such a metaphorically rich game felt the need to explain itself. Regardless of the ending, the non-diegetic presenter of the story in Catherine: Full Body, Trisha, explains much of the metaphorical content in the story. It’s possible that the team didn’t want their metaphors to be lost on players who weren’t able to notice or understand them.
When considering the music, graphics, and engine of this game, it’s difficult to not think of Persona 5. Though the original Catherine was released in 2011 and Persona 5 was released in 2016, the two games were almost entirely concurrently developed. Hashino considers Catherine as a test run for Persona 5. Additionally, the atmosphere and music that plays in the Stray Sheep bar of Catherine is extremely reminiscent of Cafe Leblanc in Persona 5. Further, Vincent Brooks bears a striking visual resemblance to Joker of P5.
Much of what I talked about in the main portion of this review is the metaphor of the game, but the gameplay is fun and challenging. Considering this is producer Katsura Hashino’s first puzzle game, the tightness of the controls and thoughtful level design is a serious achievement. It is somewhat disappointing, however, that the main attraction of replayability (for the purpose of seeing the multiple endings) is tied down by the fact that the primary gameplay element, climbing the tower, has virtually no mechanical relationship with the rest of the story. In the Persona series, interacting with various characters outside of the main JRPG portion of the game opens up new skills and summonable personas. In Persona 5, requests can be taken on in the JRPG portion to affect small aspects of the story world. This is a significant difference with Catherine, whose gameplay and story are almost completely divorced. If you think of Catherine as a very successful experiment in preparation for Persona 5, it might be a little harsh to compare it to its groundbreaking spiritual successor. However, with this remake, it could have been made so that certain decisions in the story change the design of the levels, perhaps to visually match Vincent’s mental state or relationship status. Maybe the other stray sheep that Vincent talks to in the nightmares could be placed in the levels themselves, so that the player has to decide whether they will sacrifice their precious time to save them or continue on to save themselves. This would of course affect which characters appear at the end of whichever path Vincent takes. Without something like this, players will not only skip cutscenes they have already seen, they will also skip all of the levels. This effectively means that the first round of gameplay will see the player sitting through all of the cutscenes and playing all of the levels, while all subsequent rounds will see the player skipping cutscenes that they think they’ve seen already and skipping all of the levels. Catherine, as a gameplay experience, has the potential to become unfun.
This would seem really important to include in my evaluation of the game, and I was really considering making its shortcomings the focal point of my review, but as I was writing the main portion, I realized I felt more engrossed in Catherine’s successes with theming, gameplay, and story, rather than feeling caught up in its failure with replayability. Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing an annoyingly indecisive character like Vincent go through these trials and emerge a completely different person. That development paired with the sense of achievement when you finish a difficult puzzle made it easier for the feeling of accomplishment to resonate. Plus, the endings are extremely satisfying after coming to like each of the love interests. To make it all even better, the game has an amazing soundtrack and beautiful visuals.