Love Is Over
Catherine is in all ways a unique game experience; but then again, Atlus, who internally developed and published it, isn’t exactly known for releasing conventional, by-the-numbers games. At its pulsating core, Catherine is essentially a supernatural-horror puzzler, wrapped in a skin made up of layers upon layers of anime FMVs, stitched together with an unconventional story about commitment in romantic relationships (or lack thereof) and man’s unfaithful nature. Leave it to Atlus to base an entire game around intimacy issues, especially a game constructed out of platforming puzzles…
In Catherine, players take control of Vincent Brooks, part-time loser and full-time commitment dodger. His girlfriend, Katherine, is attempting to coax Vincent into settling down with her and kick his bachelor lifestyle; it’s precisely at that time that Vincent is seduced by mysterious and attractive (as well as conveniently named) Catherine. Vincent, who’s quite comfortable in his loosely defined relationship, is suddenly thrust into an escalating situation of cheating and betrayal, and is powerless to stop it from quickly spiraling out of control. As Vincent begins to have haunting nightmares, likely brought on by his guilt, mysterious “weakening deaths” begin to plague random young men in the community, claiming their lives while they sleep. By navigating Vincent through increasingly challenging puzzles in his dreams and interacting with friends and fellow bar-goers, he must resolve the Bermuda love triangle his life has become, keep from losing his sanity, and figure out the strange connection between his dreams and the gruesome deaths occurring all around him.
The Thrill of the Chase
Gameplay in Catherine is split between three different styles, each with a different degree of intensity and interactivity. The most important of these – and key to enjoying the game – is the puzzle platforming in Vincent’s twisted dreamscapes. Vincent’s sleep is infiltrated by disquieting images and symbolism; strange men populate his dreams, appearing as sheep, while Vincent himself is stripped down to his boxers, clutching a pillow, with sheep’s horns growing from his head as well. Night after night, Vincent must earn his freedom from the curse by climbing a tower, one section a night. Each section of the tower is typically divided up into two or three floors, culminating with a boss battle on the final floor.
Vincent ascends the tower by climbing blocks, which often must be pushed or pulled to create staircases of sorts. As Vincent makes his way up, he accumulates a score based on his skill and speed, which determines whether he receives a gold, silver or bronze rating at the end of the night. All this sounds deceptively simple – after all, how hard can it be to push or pull a few blocks and climb up, right? However, in practice, the game’s puzzle stages are some of the most bone-crunchingly difficult brain teasers I’ve ever encountered. I can’t stress enough that I worked myself into a near rage-quit over and over, dying repeatedly on some particularly tricky wall sections, and sometimes could not for the life of me see a solution even after attempting a section dozens of times. Add to these devious puzzles the fact that the wall is disintegrating one row at a time from the bottom up – meaning if you stop to ponder a solution to the challenge at hand, you’ll find yourself sucked into a black oblivion by the floor literally falling away beneath your feet – and you’ve got a recipe for frantic running and sliding on a scale not many puzzlers would dare throw at you. All of this is not to mention various types of blocks (ice which you can’t get your footing on, instant-death spike traps, exploding bombs, and more) and the added stress during the final stage each night caused by a giant boss pursuing you up the tower, slashing at you or raining fiery death and vicious spiked shredding machines upon you from above, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for one hell of a visceral puzzle experience!
The two other main sections of gameplay are less interactive, but move the story forward instead. Each night, Vincent will visit the bar Stray Sheep, where he can confide in his friends Orlando, Jonny and Toby, and interact with the staff and other patrons of the bar. Many other plot-specific activities can also be completed here, such as watching the news to keep up with the latest on the “weakening death” epidemic, read and respond to text messages from the women in Vincent’s life, and get liquored up in preparation for that night’s ordeal. It is here that players will be able to shape the story – and Vincent – to their liking: you have options in how you respond to fellow bar patrons, what text messages (flirty or cold-shoulder) you send, and who you talk to and get to know. Vincent will start to see correlations between many of the people he meets in his daily life and the sheep he shares his nightmares with, such as a familiar hairstyle or a piece of trademark clothing that stands out. How you choose to respond to situations will swing a morality meter back and forth, affecting certain pieces of Vincent’s dialogue and resulting in one of eight various endings to the game. The final component of the game is the FMV sequences, which are interspersed with other in-game cinematics, and tell the bulk of the story.
Love Is Blind
In terms of presentation and style, Catherine is exactly what one would expect from an anime game; the FMV animation and in-game graphics are of great quality, complementing each other well. After a grueling night of frantic tower-climbing, it was enjoyable to sit back and watch a bit more of the story unfold. Vincent’s world starts to close in around him, and it was actually quite hilarious to see what inescapable “Oh shit!” moments he’d get into each day; getting a phone call from Catherine while having lunch with his girlfriend, or waking up to Katherine pounding on his door while his new fling is lying in bed with him. While there were a few scattered moments of creepiness in the game, I found it to be amusingly uncomfortable rather than “horror” in any sense of the word.
A special note should be given here to the bosses of the game. Without exception, the bosses are some of the most gruesome, frightening, and well-designed enemies I’ve seen in a long time. Generally representing fears and stresses from within Vincent’s subconscious, the final floors of each tower section pit you against the likes of Doom’s Bride who causes ice avalanches to come falling down the tower, and Child With a Chainsaw, who is – you guessed it! – a baby with amputated limbs, a chainsaw for a hand, a mechanical claw for the other, who keeps screaming “Daaaadyy!” in a horrible demonic screech! Considering that this is not a combat-based game at all, the bosses certainly lack nothing in ferocity or atrociousness, and will pound you into submission if you give them the slightest chance to do so.
The voice actors for the game’s main cast overall did a fantastic job; despite the childish quality of a few voices, the characters were well-written and believeably voiced. I found myself actually being concerned for the well-being of Orlando and Jonny, Vincent’s best friends, when they confess to having nightmares later in the game. Unfortunately, supporting characters often sounded silly and boring, and their dialogue was at times absurd. The music is a similarly mixed bag: the actual songs on the soundtrack are mostly pleasant and play at appropriate points in the game, but it’s hard to forgive some of the poor judgement regarding sound effects, such as the incessant ticking of the clock during loading screens and the maddeningly overbearing tolling of the bell on the landings between tower floors.
Sadly, for all its unique and interesting points, the game doesn’t have a whole lot of variety to offer. You’re given the block-pushing, stair-creating puzzle element to deal with, and you better like it, ‘cos you’ll be getting it in spades! Once you’ve cleared the game proper, you can spend time climbing the four ultra-difficult Babel stages (they’re so hard that, at the time of this writing, the leaderboards for the fourth and final level do not show any players who’ve completed it!). You can also grab a friend and an extra controller and participate in the two-player co-op Colosseum stages. Or you can head back to the Stray Sheep bar and attempt to replay any level of the game to improve your score and achieve gold trophies on all boards. Finally, if all of the above aren’t enough, the Stray Sheep features the Rapunzel game-within-a-game arcade machine, which in itself features another 64+ levels of tower-climbing goodness. Hooray for blocks!
The Final Verdict
As much as Catherine speaks to the part of me that loves a decidedly oddball experience, and as much as the game is designed with smooth control and requires mind-bendingly quick and creative thinking, it’s tough for me to rate it in a way that is fair to all players. While it draws players in with some novel ideas, it’s likely that casual gamers will not be satisfied; the game literally forces you to improve your skills, and it’s amazing to find that levels which previously seemed near impossible have become child’s play during a second replaying. But Catherine certainly doesn’t hold your hand, and one need not apply without a prerequisite die-hard will to reach the top. Furthermore, it would take a fanatical gaming machine to solve all of the game’s extra modes and challenges. I got a respectable 20 hours out of the story mode, but for many the game will fall flat too quickly because of its difficulty. If you can’t live without puzzle games, or have a masochistic streak and don’t mind being slapped about a bit, Catherine is an amusing mature story with addictive think-on-your-feet puzzle gameplay, and I can easily recommend it to the hardcore set. But for the rest of us mere mortals, be sure you know what you want out of your gameplay experience before giving it a whirl.