Catherine: Full Body
Back in 2011, developer Atlus released Catherine, the unique and innovative brainchild of dream team Katsura Hashino (direction and scenario), Yuichiro Tanaka (scenario), Shigenori Soejima (art) and Shoji Meguro (music). Known primarily for their work on the Persona series, Catherine stands as the outlier, or the black sheep, among their games together: short, brutally challenging, with a focus on multiple endings and score chasing for replay value and not a level-up or high schooler in sight. Catherine was not built for mainstream success, and yet nearly nine years later, it’s sold seven-figure numbers and now receives an enhanced port in the form of Catherine: Full Body (the first project from new Atlus subsidiary studio Studio Zero) described as a richer, more mature experience. To say that it delivers on this promise would be an understatement. Catherine in its original form never felt like an incomplete experience, but Full Body retroactively makes it one. From the brilliant addition and incorporation of a third love interest in Rin, more than double the number of puzzles of the original, five new endings, new music, more than 20 new animated cut-scenes, new liquor trivia, new bar patrons to talk to, and competitive and cooperative local and online multiplayer, Full Body spoils the player with an abundance of content and ways to experience it. Whether you want to play for three hours or 300, you want a visual novel or hardcore puzzle platformer (or both), Full Body can and will be bent into the shape you wish it to take. With its initial primary theme of freedom and a new story-line surrounding one of the most touching LGTBQ+ relationships in mainstream gaming to-date, Full Body sees Catherine age from a highly enjoyable yet flawed niche title to an unadulterated classic.
For those unfamiliar with the original, Catherine: Full Body follows nine (or ten) days in the life Vincent Brooks, a 32-year-old engineer with deep-seated fears of commitment and change, as he begins to experience nightmares where he must frantically climb diabolically complex and crumbling block towers in order to flee from monstrous representations of the shackles (or responsibilities) that threaten his freedom. The catch is, if he dies during the nightmare, he dies in real life ala Nightmare on Elm Street. He’s not the only one either: the nightmare is shared among many men in their 30s and 40s, who all appear to Vincent as sheep and are killed off in in the real world each night via weakening as a constant reminder of the fate that awaits you should you fail.
At the same time, Vincent must also wrangle with his newly messy personal life: a young, blonde bombshell enters the picture just as the nightmares begin and starts an affair with her he can’t seem to remember any details of, while his long-time girlfriend announces her pregnancy and pressures him to settle down. In Full Body, Rin is also added to the chaotic cocktail: an adorable and supportive new love interest who Vincent rescues from a stalker, moves in next door, and starts working at his local bar The Stray Sheep as a server and piano player.
The gameplay in Catherine: Full Body is divided into two wildly opposing types that alternate back and forth as the game progresses: anxiety-producing tower puzzles in the nightmare, and relaxed drinking and socialization at the bar. The balance is simple but brilliant, as the existence of one magnifies the impact of the other: the terrifying nature of the nightmares aids in the player’s appreciation for the laid-back atmosphere and safe haven that is the bar and vice versa. To mock a certain games journalism cliché: Catherine: Full Body really makes you feel like Vincent. However, if you’re just looking at the game for its story or its gameplay and not both, Full Body is more than happy to abide: all cutscenes and bar segments can be skipped, and all puzzles can be automated on lower difficulties. The only thing in the bar that truly affects the core gameplay is drinking: filling your intoxication meter will make Vincent move quicker, but this can be done in about a minute and will still rarely be the difference between success and failure.
This isn’t to say there’s nothing to do in the bar, but it all relates to story. You’ll want to spend plenty of time talking to patrons to learn their backstories and support them in hopes of saving them from the nightmares, as well as respond to texts and calls from the C/K/Qathrines. Your responses to the latter will affect your morality meter, and you’ll need to answer a lot of them, particularly for the true endings. That’s not all though: there’s also a jukebox freshly stocked with new tunes from Atlus games including Persona 5 and the upcoming Project RE:Fantasy, and the most meaty bit of content in Super Rapunzel, an arcade game of shorter block puzzles that feature no time limit but a set number of allowed moves, emphasizing efficiency over speed. Between classic and remix modes, there are now 256 stages of Super Rapunzel alone and many players will find themselves wracking their brains to solve them just a few stages in. It’s a staggeringly generous amount of content for what amounts to a completely optional activity.
Regarding the main gameplay, there are nine stages (ten on Rin’s route) with each one including between one and six levels. Stages regularly introduce new block types to keep things fresh and ramp up the difficulty: trap blocks will impale you with spikes if you rest on them, bomb blocks will explode a time after stepping on them and turn surrounding blocks into cracked blocks that will break, destroying your footing and ability to make paths upwards, ice blocks will cause you to slide off the tower to your death, etc. Navigating all of these obstacles while on a timer is tough and addicting, especially on higher difficulties going for Gold Prizes. That said, Full Body is definitely more forgiving than the original. While the towers themselves remain largely unchanged (aside from remix mode, which is often harder than classic), the lives system has been removed and undo is now a focus, allowing you to go back a set number of times after poor moves. This makes the game feel easier, but in reality, it just saves a lot of time resetting after losing too many lives and is a welcome change. Hard mode will still beat your ass, don’t worry.
Returning game modes outside of the main story campaign include Babel, a set of four massive and brutal stages that change each time you play them, and local competitive play, where you can battle it out on a tower with a friend, disrupting each others climbing paths and knocking them down or off the tower. The latter was considered something of an afterthought by the developers in the original game, but surprisingly blossomed into a healthy scene in Japan, with sub-tournaments being held at major fighting game tournaments. As such, Full Body also features online multiplayer for the first time. Admittedly, it’s rough right now with far too many disconnects, but this is the only real knock on the game I have: a brand new game mode that isn’t the main selling point of the game but could be great with subsequent patches isn’t great right now. I’d be calling this game a masterpiece even if it were entirely absent, so it doesn’t make too much sense to dwell on it.
Visuals and sound are both fantastic and have seen improvements and additions as well, with Soejima’s character designs looking better than ever in the Persona 5 engine, and Meguro provides more than 20 new compositions and remixes on top of the already stellar soundtrack, with the remix of jazzy j-hop main theme “YO” a particular standout. Catherine’s all-star voice cast returns as well featuring the talents of Troy Baker, Michelle Ruff, Liam O’Brien, Travis Willingham, Yuri Lowenthal, Laura Bailey, and Erin Fitzgerald. You can also play the game with Japanese audio if you wish, but the English cast is excellent.
Without spoiling too much about the new elements of the story, it needs to be said that Rin is probably the single best addition to a re-release of a game. Ever. Their implementation is so seamless and prevalent that it feels bizarre to even think back to a time when Catherine didn’t include them. The original Catherine was in many ways a very jaded game, putting forth the idea that attaching yourself to anyone must mean sacrificing your freedom. Rin is representative of the re-examination of that belief, as well as a rebuke of it. There can be someone who will accept you as you are and in turn not make you a different person, but make you want to be a better version of yourself. Rin causes Vincent to reconsider everything he thought he knew about, well, everything. Life, freedom, love, and his own sexuality. He is easily the best version of himself here, not because of a pansexual awakening (which is admittedly refreshing), but because the love he has for Rin feels the most genuine and he rises to meet them, taking responsibility for his past mistakes without letting them hold him back and displaying the charm and confidence that was often alluded to but rarely shown before. The original Catherine was criticized for its treatment of a trans character and in some ways rightfully so. Unfortunately that seems to have tainted the perspective of many regarding this new release (aided by out-of-context clips and screenshots and twisted narratives regarding Rin’s gender identity and the aforementioned trans character being shown pre-transition in a new ending (still heavily implied to be planning to transition)), but in this queer’s opinion, we don’t see LGBTQ+ portrayed this favorably in mainstream gaming. Vincent and Rin’s story is beautiful and heartwarming, and I hope more people open their minds to it.
Catherine: Full Body is just about everything anyone could reasonably ask for. Anyone looking for a great visual novel, a addictive and challenging score chaser, a multiplayer experience with friends, or all or of the above can cater the experience to their preference. Just as the game posits “there’s no right way to climb the tower” and “there’s no right way to live your life”, there’s no right way to enjoy Catherine: Full Body, but there are many ways. Nearly nine years later, it finally and truly embodies the ideals it espouses, and is one of the best experiences in gaming for it. There’s was nothing before Catherine like it and there’s been nothing like it since, and it’s only gotten better with age.