Sometimes box art can give you the wrong idea of a game. ICO is not a kiddie fantasy adventure, Deadly Premonition is not a Saw rip-off, Trauma Center New Blood is not about the health meter from Team Fortress 2, and Catherine is definitely not a shameless japanese dating/porn simulator that somehow made its way stateside. In fact, the subject matter is discussed very tastefully, and you could argue it's adult-oriented plot and heavy use of symbolism is a real step forward for games-as-art. There is no romantic subplot, but a maturely handled love triangle at the core of the story. It's a must-play for anyone who believes in mature story-telling in games (which is hopefully everyone reading this,) however your enjoyment of the actual gameplay will really hinge on your taste for the retro.
One note: if the thought of spending a huge chunk of the game just sitting around talking to people and watching cutscenes sounds like a waste of time, this game is just not for you. I'll assure you that it's pretty well-written and directed and very engaging, even when you're just watching scenes, but I know some people are put off no matter what.
Vincent is your average thirty-something, and he's pretty comfortable where he is. He just got a decent job, has had a nice girlfriend for he's-not-sure-how-many years, and still sees his friends from high school almost nightly at the bar. But then begins the craziest week of his life. Rumors have been going around of men his age dying suddenly in their sleep and all the men at the bar have been mentioning strange dreams which seem to be connected. On top of all that, the very morning after his girlfriend, Katherine, starts talking about tying the knot, he wakes up next to the girl of his dreams. Only problem is, it's not his girlfriend, but a girl with almost the same name, Catherine, who he barely remembers meeting, and who may or may not be Crazy with a capital C. And THAT'S just what's going on in the real world. Vincent is also having nightmares. He's climbing a massive tower along with a bunch of talking sheep. He doesn't know what's at the top, he doesn't know if there IS a top, but he knows that if he falls, he dies for real.
There are two parts to the game: the nightmares and the bar. The nightmares are the "real" gameplay is and, like I said, it's pretty damn retro. You push and pull cubical blocks in order to make stairs so you can climb your way to the top before the blocks fall from beneath your feet. If that sounds really simple and easy, then you, sir, have played really crappy puzzle games in the past. The puzzles are really well-designed, and blocks come in a surprisingly large variety, with all kinds of traps that force you to think on your feet. It is possible to screw yourself over pretty bad by pushing the wrong blocks, but the game has a handy undo button that can reset a certain number of moves. The game can be very challenging on Normal, even though it includes the "casual patch" the JP version got.
My only real problem with the gameplay is that you have limited lives. Wait! Don't call me a brat that's been spoiled by checkpoints every five minutes in shooters! See, Catherine lets you save between each stage, and you just continue from your last save if you run out of lives. Assuming you saved JUST before you moved to the next stage, it's 3 or 4 more minutes of work at the absolute most to get back to where you died, plus you'd have all of the lives you had upon your last save back. Not to mention, at least on Normal difficulty, life pick-ups grant you TWO lives apiece. So if you keep dying, but grab a life each time, you can take a few minutes and just stock up on a ridiculous number of lives. A better system would have been making it so checkpoints had a limited number of uses, and then sending the player back to the start of the stage when they ran out. Another minor issue is that luck becomes a major factor late in the game, with blocks randomly changing. But for all the gripes, it's a really enjoyable and challenging puzzle-platformer. You can at least tell that the gameplay knows its old school and doesn't hide it, unlike, say, LA Noire dressing up archaic gameplay mechanics with half the cast of Mad Men.
The second part, the bar, is where you talk to people and get drunk, just like in real life. Some of the patrons begin having the nightmares too, and this is where you have to talk to and encourage them. The bad news is that you have to talk to a character every chance you get if you want him to survive the nightmares. The good news is the characters are actually interesting and talking to them never feels like a chore. You can also talk to them in the nightmare between stages, which often leads to them demonstrating climbing techniques, so helping them survive helps you too. The bar also has an arcade machine with a game conveniently similar to your nightmares. This game has no time limit, but a limited number of moves; it's more about finding the proper strategy for climbing, and less forgiving of "improvising." You can also get drunk, which will help you move faster in the nightmare, so now if you die in your sleep, it's just because you choked on your own vomit.
In addition to story mode, there's a challenge mode with extra hard puzzles. You can also play competitively with a friend, or cooperatively, if you don't already hate each other after Portal 2.
One last thing about gameplay, you're gonna need a good D-pad, so play it on PS3 if at all possible.
As I said, Catherine's story is, for all its weirdness, really very good. It's less about a man choosing between two women, and more about a man choosing how he wants to live the rest of his life. There is sex, but it's not treated as a reward for the player, especially considering they don't see any of it. Besides maturely handling adult subject matter, it also solves what I consider one of the biggest problems in non-linear story-telling, which is having a character that can be directed by a player while still having a personality. Vincent is already his own character, unlike your average Bioware hero. The player is given mostly small choices, but those choices form together to make the broader aspects of Vincent's ideas on love and commitment. Vincent will never be a reflection of all the player's ideas, but he can be influenced by them. That said, Vincent himself could be a little more interesting. Most of his lines in the middle third of the game can pretty much be replaced with "oh s**t, what do I do?" Also, some of the decision's effect on your alignment are a little confusing. Why do I get "good" points for telling a character blaming himself for a person's death "what's done is done" but "bad" for saying "it's not your fault?"
Unfortunately, the player's decisions don't have an effect until very late in the game. If you want to see all eight (8!) of the endings, you're better off just YouTubing it. Some of Vincent's inner monologue changes throughout the game based on your alignment, but that's just about two minutes of audio that will be different before the endings.
Speaking of which, time for what's apparently becoming my job on this site: bitching about endings! (Don't worry, no spoilers) I don't know how a game about climbing block puzzles in your underwear with a bunch of sheep-people and running from giant babies with chainsaws growing out of them pulled it off, but it actually manages to jump the shark near the end. One of the biggest mistakes a psychological horror story can make is trying to explain itself, especially when most of the audience has come to their own conclusion about the plot's events. See, Catherine starts explaining itself after the story appears to be over, and whatever ideas you had about what happened are probably more interesting than the truth and less over-the-top. It's like throwing in an hour of a Final Fantasy game a the end of Silent Hill. Oh, and if you get the true "affair" ending, it's like wrapping it up with a round of frickin' Disgaea. I like that it doesn't take itself too seriously, but that doesn't work too well if the player is actually taking the story seriously. If you want a believable ending about a man who leaves his commitments to live life his own way, aim for the neutral ending. To it's credit, the writing is plenty aware of how weird it all is, and taken out of context, that Affair Ending is the most insanely awesome ending since Hitler's head exploded in Bionic Commando.
As for the technical aspects of the game, the graphics are far better than I expected. I've always been able to count on Atlus for good design, but even late last generation, they weren't trying to impress anyone with sheer graphics and animation. Catherine, however, has some of the best cel animation I've seen, right up there with Valkyria Chronicles. It's really impressive what kind of visual effects the game can achieve even in 3D. There are a couple of 2D animated scenes, usually the ones with more action, which certainly don't look bad, but the lip synch could have been better in some cases.
Catherine's unique premise is paired with an equally unique soundtrack. The music in the "real" world is mostly for atmosphere, and it's done well. The nightmare's BGM is more orchestral, with many memorable arrangements of classical music. (I swear, it's like Francis Chopin wrote "Revolutionary" for the sole purpose of being used in video game boss fights. I don't know what else you can do with that song.) You can also unlock songs for the bar's jukebox by getting trophies and achievements, including songs from Atlus's Shin Megami Tensei series.
In the end, if Catherine's mature story and inventive-to-say-the-least premise have caught your attention, it's definitely worth at least a rental. As long as you know what you're getting into: old-school gameplay, LOTS of cutscenes, and a plot that's very good but more linear than it could have been, its minor flaws shouldn't keep you from having a good time and seeing one hell of a story unfold.