Atlus are a legendary publisher in my book; given to totally tongue-in-cheek press releases full of self-reflexive nods to the industry (such as their faux-announcing all future Atlus games would be releases through the ESRB) and generally taking it upon themselves to deliver gaming mana from Japan to the RPG starved multitudes of the western world.

Catherine is Atlus’ latest genre-blurring effort, dissimilar to Persona 4 (their previous RPG, and my favourite ever) in all but the other-world parallel. It follows the mis/fortunes of Vincent, a normal Japanese guy in his early 30s as he struggles to come to terms with his long-term girlfriend Katherine wanting to make the transition from being married to her job to being married to him. Whilst in the early throes of this dilemma he meets Catherine (with a 'C'!) who is clearly Katherine’s moral and psychical inverse. I imagine the central thrust of the game’s narrative will be concerned with Vincent (and you) choosing to either remain faithful to Katherine and take the plunge, or shirk responsibility in favour of instant gratification.

Running constantly parallel to Vincent’s struggle for love is the mystery of a recent spate of young men waking up dead. Combined with the running theme of sheep imagery and references (curiously, Catherine’s curly hair vaguely resembles the horn of a ram) and, I hope, a suitably ridiculous sub-plot involving Vincent’s two friends, Catherine suggests a wonderful hodgepodge of visual novel, erotic horror, murder mystery and intriguing gameplay.

Speaking of which, based on my short time with the demo, gameplay consists mainly of a bizarre action/puzzle hybrid taking place in Vincent’s nightmares. You scramble up a tower made of interlocking blocks, and the challenge comes from the pushing, pulling, and scrambling around you have to do to ascend - fast enough to avoid being skewered by the groaning, nightmarish monstrosity climbing slowly out of the abyss below you. Of the two stages you clamber around in your all-too-short hands-on, one is a fairly straightforward tutorial, the other a more challenging albeit very similar set up that doesn't give too much away but introduces a mysterious, off-screen voice who I'm already desperate to uncover the character behind.

From the teaser trailer that caps off the demo, it appears that future levels will mix things up by introducing blocks with different properties and some kind of chain-reaction mechanic. As it stands it’s fun, tense, and novel; fingers crossed the Atlus team spread out the gameplay subtleties enough to keep the actual climbing frantically to survival compelling.

Likewise the morality system. According to the tutorial, the story will branch considerably according to where your moral compass stands throughout the game. In his waking life, Vincent seems to spend a fair amount of time at the ‘Stray Sheep’, his favourite drinking hole; whilst there he’ll receive various text messages from Catherine, Katherine and his buddies - and how you choose to reply to them is just on way in which you'll affect the eventual outcome of the game.

It’s typically Atlus - allowing you to be as caring and considerate (No Katherine, I won’t get too drunk tonight, sleep tight) or as blase and bullish (Mind your own business, you’re not the boss of me, good night) as you feel like. I can’t help but wonder if the system would work better without the visual feedback of a red/blue meter, making your choices a little more ambiguous and introducing a crucial element of doubt into your behaviour, but conversely, the clear delineation will help with exploring the branching storyline in the second play-through.

It also appears that there will be short exploration elements and a fair number of moral choices concluding the end of surreal interrogations taking place in the dream world. Whether by this point we’ve seen all the interlocking elements of the gameplay is unclear, although I’m confident that, as in the Persona series, Atlus have such a confident grasp of addictive and thought-provoking gameplay that it will all gel together.

A strange sounding but gorgeous looking hybrid with a UK release rumoured to be imminent, Catherine is proof that not all Japanese developers are just re-hashing old tropes or trying to rip off more commercially viable Western genres, and that they're still taking risks.

Let’s pray that PAL games flock to the stores for Catherine and give Atlus a reason to keep localising, because for curious gamers everywhere a world without Atlus games would be a waking nightmare.