I had very few expectations going into Catherine: Full Body — and even fewer of those were positive. I knew the original game, released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in 2011, had a reputation for casual transphobia and too-hard puzzles. And I knew it shared a director (Katsura Hashino) with Persona 5. That game is much more recent and still seriously dropped the ball when it came to its very few queer characters. Meanwhile, speculation and unofficial translations of Full Body from Japan didn’t instill me with confidence that this re-release had learned any lessons in the time since.
WARNING: Heavy spoilers for Catherine: Full Body ahead.
But publisher Sega also has a pretty strong history of fixing its mistakes on this front. The Yakuza series (one of my personal favorites) has continuously worked on its own shitty use of transgender identity, in particular. Each game has improved on the last, partially due to feedback from Western audiences, slowly cultivating that series’ protagonist into an all-supportive dad. All of which culminated in Yakuza actually removing its worst “jokes” from remasters of the older games. There’s no reason Catherine couldn’t do something similar.
And, based on my playthrough… It seems like that’s exactly what happened. But first let’s talk about what Catherine actually is. The game is part dating sim, part block puzzle game. Protagonist Vincent spends his evenings hanging out at a bar called the Stray Sheep with his friends: Jonny, Toby, Erica, and Orlando. You learn about their lives, as well as those of other patrons, who spout bad relationship advice and pop psychology. There’s also a neat system where you craft text messages sentence-by-sentence out of multiple choices. Those go to Katherine, Catherine, and Qatherine — the three people Vincent can “romance” over the course of the game.
Katherine is his girlfriend of five years, looking for a concrete commitment from her cowardly beau. Catherine is an intense and attractive stranger who Vincent apparently starts an affair with. He doesn’t actually remember their encounters after the fact. Qatherine, or just Rin, is new to Full Body. They’re a friendly amnesiac Vincent and co. set up as the bar’s pianist. Rin is also the character I pursued, since I wanted to see the most “modern” views of the games creators, distilled in a single route.
And, like I said, Catherine: Full Body does a pretty good job — at least in the English localization of Rin’s true ending. It’s ridiculous, and schmaltzy, and at times didactic, but I enjoyed it! I don’t know just how directly it confronts the sins of Catherine in 2013. I never played the original. But it does at least sidestep the shittiest elements I had heard about over the years. Whereas I went into the game intending to make choices in the least asshole-ish way possible, the Rin route actually has Vincent confront his own bad behavior directly. He learns something about Rin and himself, and it’s pretty hard for me to read it as anything but the “right” way to play the game.
See, the big “reveal” about Rin is that he’s actually a man — just one that happens to dress very femininely. Vincent, having fallen in love with him, doesn’t know how to process this revelation and lashes out. It’s a decision he immediately regrets and recognizes as wrong. As does Erica, who demands that an already penitent Vincent apologize immediately.
But the damage is done… unless you make a bunch of “correct” decisions in the puzzle world. This is the other half of Catherine‘s gameplay, where you ascend a hellish tower in Vincent’s nightmares. Between stages, you’re bombarded with silly, multiple choice personality questionnaires that determine your ending. It’s hokey even by visual novel standards. But it’s built on an eight-year-old framework. I’m willing to let it slide.
Once you’re locked into the Rin route, Catherine: Full Body “gets it” in a way that even the Persona series (usually another personal favorite of mine) doesn’t. Vincent audibly realizes gender is just a social construct; his drinking buddies realize they support their lifelong friend’s newly discovered bisexuality; the player gets to fight the physical manifestation of homophobia.
Oh, uh… Right. This is a fantasy game. That wasn’t immediately clear in the first Catherine, but Full Body hints at it right off the bat. The nightmare world is being constructed by a neoconservative god that curses and kills men for not procreating enough. As an extension of that philosophy, in Full Body, the monster also doesn’t approve of Rin and Vincent — two men — getting together. But the power of love, friendship, and a big gay kiss fries him with an energy beam.
If you’ve played Persona (or any Shin Megami Tensei game) this ridiculous ending shouldn’t be a surprise. But the Rin route confronts the ideology Catherine wants to condemn much more directly than Persona 5. That game vaguely personified and vilified “society,” while incongruously including a lot of the same sexist and homophobic trappings it supposedly railed against.
Catherine is still a very 101 experience. It’s about a sheltered dude breaking out of his heteronormative world view, rather than starting from that point like a lot of indie visual novels have been doing for years. But it’s nice to see something with a bigger budget mostly correct its past mistakes.
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The Rin route even treats Erica, an NPC and the game’s sole trans character, with more respect. There are still some shitty holdovers from the old game. Most of Vincent’s friends cringe at the idea of Toby hooking up with her. They apparently knew her before she transitioned, while Toby didn’t. But Erica is repeatedly depicted as the smartest, most mature, and ultimately plot-relevant member of the gang outside of Vincent. Once you lock into the Rin route, all the friction over Erica suddenly disappears. It’s an obvious seam in a game that otherwise manages to weave its new characters and philosophy in quite naturally.
Erica and Toby even wind up in a happy relationship in this particular timeline — with Toby maturing into someone without the same toxic picture of masculinity as his older friends, despite the other bad influences around him. One of my favorite moments was when Erica taught him to apply makeup; he just earnestly enjoys the experience. Oh. They also don’t deadname Erica in the credits anymore, which is honestly the least Sega and Atlus could have done.
Those little moments add up. The A plot of my route was saccharine, sure. I’ve also heard that maybe not every new ending gets things right in Full Body. That’s a shame, but I don’t have any interest in exploring those options. I tried not to be an asshole in Catherine: Full Body, and I feel like I mostly got my wish. Vincent starts off as a jerk, regardless, but the game gave me the choice to show he could grow in material, specific ways. And I wound up having much more fun than I ever expected as a result.