To this day I am still unsure what to make of Catherine. I originally discovered it while doing my occasional GameStop window shopping and since I was in the mood for something different, I headed home and downloaded the demo. Being on and off the fence about Catherine for a few months now, I was finally forced into it when I received the 'Love is Over' deluxe edition as one of my Christmas gifts.
A puzzle game at the core, Catherine is one of the latest titles from Japanese developer and publisher Atlus—known for their Nintendo Wii titles 'Trauma Centre: Second Opinion' and 'Trauma Centre: New Blood,' as well as Game of Thrones and Persona—and is an interesting mix of a narrative driven dating simulator and a puzzle based platformer that oddly yet satisfyingly explores the often it-ain't-always-easy relationships between two people.
We are introduced to Vincent Brooks, a 32 year old who can't seem to find himself between a job that feels like prison and a relationship that feels like a job. He lacks ambition and motivation and most of which is derived from his girlfriend of over five years, Katherine, who is consistently nagging him to tie the knot. With undying temptations to continue his carefree way of life, Vincent frequently marinates with his friends at their favourite bar, Stray Sheep. It's here we meet the titular character, Catherine, in which the game is named. Catherine is your typical blonde bombshell: flirty, sexy and everything Vincent wants but knows he can't have...until he wakes up one morning and finds her sleeping naked in his bed beside him, and so begins the story's development. Vincent had already started having strange nightmares after his girlfriend, Katherine, started imposing the thought of marriage—but now that Catherine has walked into his life, the nightmares start to unfold.
The main story mode, Golden Playhouse, follows the story between daytime and nightmare scenarios. During the daytime, Vincent converses with his friends as well as try to maintain his relationships with Katherine and Catherine, and most of this takes place at the Stray Sheep bar. It's here Vincent is able to save the game send text messages, (where the roleplaying element is introduced), talk to customers, order drinks, play a minigame and listen to a jukebox which contains music from other games made by Catherine's developer.
The main gameplay takes place in the nightmare scenarios, set in a nightmarish dream world inhabited by other men who are represented as anthropomorphic sheep. Vincent must climb up giant staircases made up of movable blocks that are slowly collapsing underneath and safely reach the top. To do this, players are encouraged to scan their surroundings to understand the puzzle and are then required to move blocks around and ascend them quickly while avoiding various traps. Speed is rewarded with a score multiplier—the quicker you climb in succession, the higher the multiplier—and at the end of the level, players are given an award based on their score. Each stage is split into numerous areas, culminating in a boss stage in which a hellish creature attempts to kill Vincent. Vincent may move faster depending on how many drinks he had during the daytime scenario and can earn magic pillows that grant him level retries. Players may also find several items or purchase them such as spare blocks, lightning that removes enemies and energy drinks which allow Vincent to ascend multiple steps at a time. Vincent will die if he falls off the bottom of the stage, gets caught by a trap, or is killed by a boss and the game will end if the player does not have any retry pillows. In between these stages, Vincent is allowed to interact with the other sheep, learn techniques to ascend the blocks and spend coins on special items.
Catherine further introduces roleplaying elements, aside from inputting one of a few pre-written dialogue pieces and sending them as text messages, by allowing the player to make choices during certain sections of the game. These choices will affect the development of Vincent's character and the route in which the story travels. This is represented by a morality meter (similar to the Paragon/Renegade meter in Mass Effect) which can change in several ways such as how Vincent types out a text message to one of the girls, how he answers certain questions and how he converses with non-playable characters. The game also features multiple endings based on the route Vincent takes.
Catherine's gameplay is rather vicious in its trial and error theme. While you're ascending block towers in the nightmare scenarios, the tower is constantly crumbling away from the ground up, forcing you to think fast and frantically move blocks around, avoiding traps and adhering to the game's interesting rules of gravity. It's unquestionably designed to play through on the easiest setting as the learning curve is steep and stretched across three different difficulties. The initial stages cause few problems and you're able to sloppily fumble your way to the top. However, it isn't long before you're thrown into a game of logic and relying on luck isn't a wise idea. You're forced to think carefully about your actions and think back to techniques you've learned as one misplaced block can stop you dead in your tracks and you'll be flung into the spike pit below.
So yes, Catherine can be frustrating. However, there are few games as wonderfully satisfying when you overcome a trial. A cathartic mixture of relief, pride and a yearn for the next one. Catherine is developed in such a way that every completed stage feels like a victory and often times will make you feel like you're growing close to Vincent.
Catherine is nothing if not a breath of fresh air—something innovative and original—and an experience that is silly and serious, quite fun, and something not to be missed. Whether you're looking for a one-night stand or a long term commitment, I definitely recommend getting into Vincent's pants.