Gamers are used to having their games arranged into neat little categories. With a simple word or phrase, you will know exactly what the game is like. Seeing names like RPG or Beat ’em Up will immediately evoke vivid images of particular play styles. However, every once in a while a game comes around that defies this convention.
Catherine is one of those games. It’s tough to describe. It’s tough to explain. There are elements of so many different genres that it becomes hard to tell what type of game you’re playing. It’s a weird game for sure, and this all works in its favor.
First off, the game doesn’t even consider itself a game. The story opens up as if you are watching one of those late-night movie house programs that used to air on local TV channels before all the major networks bought them out. The hostess welcomes you to the program, and introduces the story you’re about to see: a romantic horror story called “Catherine.” Catherine tells the tale of a week in the life of Vincent Brooks, a man who begins to have terrible nightmares as he starts having an affair with a hot young woman named Catherine. The effect this has on his relationship with his girlfriend, Katherine (yes, Katherine and Catherine), combined with the increasingly strange nightmares, takes a toll on Vincent.
The main gameplay is split into two segments: day and night. During the day, the game acts like a visual novel crossed with a dating sim. You witness cutscenes giving background on the characters and advancing the plot. At the end of the day, Vincent ends up drinking with his friends at a bar where you can walk around and talk to other patrons, and hear their stories, as well as receive and reply to messages from the women he’s seeing. Interactions with other characters—mostly Katherine and Catherine, but others too—sometimes present you with dialogue options. Your choice can have an effect on the way the story unfolds, and even determine which of the many endings you receive.
After leaving the bar, Vincent goes home and to bed. This is where the gameplay changes drastically as you enter Vincent’s nightmare. It’s a puzzle where you have to climb up a tower of blocks, creating a path by moving the blocks around. Falling or not moving fast enough will result in death, and as the game puts it: “Now’s not the time to be dead.” The nightmare itself is a strange one. You’re climbing these blocks—wearing only a pair of boxers and carrying a pillow—and you’re surrounded by sheep who are also trying to climb to the top. At the end of each stage, you reach a landing area where you can talk to these sheep. Some of them have interesting things to say, while others have plot-related things to say—including dialogue options that affect the story. To advance to the next stage, you must talk to a mysterious man in a confessional where you are asked a question that, once again, could affect the outcome.
During the final stage of the dream, as you climb you are chased by some hideous incarnation of something the plot implies Vincent is afraid of, providing elements of a horror game. Upon completing the final stage, Vincent wakes up and new day begins. The plot moves forward and, the next night, you get to climb some more.
The puzzles pose quite the challenge. Even with the difficulty set to easy, a first-time player will likely have some troubles. While it starts off simple enough, the difficulty isn’t gradually increased as the stages go on. I found the endgame stages to be much easier than the ones toward the middle of the game, some of which were brutal. Thankfully, the game provides adequately-spaced checkpoints to keep you from repeating too much when you fail.
Unfortunately, the controls don’t help much. While moving along the blocks is easy enough, a good part of the strategy involves hanging off the side and shimmying along the edge of the blocks. Turning a corner to a different side can invert the controls. All of a sudden left becomes right and right becomes left. Precious time can be lost while you try to get re-oriented.
The gameplay is easy enough for beginners to pick up. A voice-over will introduce the various actions you can perform as they become available, and climbing mechanics are explained in a similar fashion. While on the landings between stages, you can learn about various climbing techniques by talking to the other sheep. However, I rarely found that to be useful since I often used those techniques prior to being officially told about them.
At first I found it difficult to get into the game. As fun as the puzzle stages were, I had no interest in helping someone win back the girlfriend he cheated on; especially when the only reason he did so was because he was too drunk and stupid to say he already had a girlfriend. The whole thing kind of left a sour taste in my mouth. Fortunately, as the story progresses, there is enough mystery and intrigue to draw you in and hold your attention. Not too far into the game, you start to notice parallels between Vincent’s dreams and what’s going on in the real world. The characters start to get introspective into the details of their own lives, making them a bit more likeable than my first impressions of them. By the end, you’re much more focused on the big picture than the minutiae of one man’s relationship drama.
As deep and philosophical as the game can get at times, it was disappointing that it features the stereotypes that men are nothing but heartless, sex-crazed degenerates, and women only exist to make babies. While it’s certainly possible to learn a bit about yourself from the story, these are not the lessons you should be taking away.
One thing I really liked about the game is all the little details the developers put the effort into. Take the bar, for example. It’s called The Stray Sheep–a continuation of the sheep motif used throughout the game. Drinking at the bar is a player action. How drunk you get Vincent affects the speed at which he moves in his dreams. After finishing a drink, the game will show you a bit of trivia about your drink of choice. As Vincent gets drunk, his face gets red, and he staggers a bit while walking around the bar. You can also find an arcade machine in the bar, where can play a game called Rapunzel, where you climb blocks similar to the puzzles in the dreams.
The bar also features a jukebox you can use to change the background music. As you complete the stages, more music becomes available. The soundtrack for this game is all over the place, from an intro theme that has a hip-hop feel to a rock-oriented ending theme to light jazz playing in the bar and orchestrated versions of famous classical pieces used as the background music for the nightmare puzzles. The brilliant thing is, it all fits perfectly.
The game’s writers did a great job of foreshadowing. After my first playthrough, there were a couple of loose ends that bugged me. However, upon completing the game multiple times now, I’ve realized that everything gets explained in one of the eight possible endings. Every single point a character makes, every throwaway line is related to something, and is explained somewhere along the way—if you made the right choices.
The game is not very long. While the cutscenes can seem to drag on a bit (especially if you’ve seen them a bunch of times before) and you can kill a lot of time wandering around the bar, the puzzles are fast-paced so it’s easy to progress through the game. I clocked about 12 hours my first time through. Beating the main story opens up other challenge or (local) multiplayer modes. The relatively short playthough time and multitude of endings enhance the replay value. Though, you may need a walkthrough to find out how to unlock them all.
Overall, Catherine is a fantastic game. Everything about it is done right. ATLUS has succeeded in creating a wildly unique gameplay experience. The various styles blend really well. I don’t believe a single one of them stands out enough to affect your enjoyment, should it not be your cup of tea. Being developed by the team that brought us the Persona games, fans of that series, or niche Japanese games in general, should have no problem finding something to like here.
Review copy provided by author. Catherine is available for $19.99 on PSN and $29.99 – $39.99 at GameStop.