If you’ve ever considered pursuing extra-marital affairs, or thought of having a quick fling whilst with someone else, then you’d better make sure your puzzle solving abilities are up to scratch, that is, if you live in Catherine’s rather surreal world.
Catherine is a very strange tale in which protagonist, Vincent, ends up cheating on Katherine, his girlfriend, with the seductive temptress, Catherine. Now, cheating on your partner, even one with a practically identical name, isn’t a nice thing to do, to say the least, but in Vincent’s story, the repercussions are even more dire, as he’s thrown into a series of nightmares in which he has to solve block-based puzzles in order to climb to he top of an array of collapsing towers. This is while also avoiding the inevitable drop and also a strange, disturbing creature that’s trying to kill him. And, as the rumour goes in Vincent’s world, if you don’t wake up before you hit the ground in a falling dream, you’ll die in real life, something a few people have already done, as the news in his neighbourhood is already reporting
This is the premise of the game, and it’s a tale of morality and bizarre puzzling that’s told in a genre-defying manner.
The game is made up of two major parts. The first is an interactive anime movie of sorts. Here you spend a lot of your time at the Stray Sheep, a bar Vincent likes to frequent. Here, Vincent can talk with friends, use his mobile phone to send and receive text message and play an arcade game (which serves as a practice for the main challenge).
This is where the morality of the game comes in for the most part, and after Vincent’s unplanned one night stand, you have to decide how he deals with his relationship issues, and you can opt to try and makes things good with Katherine, honouring potential marriage proposals and so on, or you can take the low road and shift his attention to the blonde bombshell that is Catherine. This is handled in the way you talk to people, and the responses you choose, and heavily via the text messaging system, and how you respond to Katherine and Catherine when they text you. A morality bar tracks your progress, and the needle swings between good and bad as you progress.
You can also drink a variety of beverages, and as you do, Vincent becomes more and more intoxicated. This isn’t just a visual change though, and Vincent’s movement in the nightmare sections will be affected by this.
Push me, pull me
The second, and main, gamplay element of the game are the nightmare puzzle sections Vincent encounters when he goes to sleep. This is an action puzzle game that sees you having to traverse increasingly challenging towers made up of blocks. You need to quickly climb to the top of the tower to escape your grisly end, whilst it slowly crumbles away below you.
To achieve this goal you need to push and pull blocks around to make stairs and routes that you can use to climb up. There are a range of blocks, such a heavy blocks that can’t be moved and ones that crumble, and eventually shatter if you step on them too many times. The block mechanics aren’t as simple as you may think, though, with all sorts of skills needing to be mastered, all whilst racing again time and fighting against other dreamers (represented by anthropomorphic sheep) as you climb.
It’s quite a hard system to describe, but rest assured, it’s a puzzler that’s both complex and very, very challenging. In fact, that’s one area where Catherine will make or break you. The puzzles here, even on the easy mode, can be very tough. What looks like a simple puzzler is deceptively deep, and when you have to think quickly, whilst being chased up the tower by a demon, you’ll soon feel the heat.
There are mechanics in place to help, though, such as the continue system, checkpoints and the absolute life-saver that is the undo, which lets you undo your last few block moves.
Forgive me Father…
As you climb the towers, you’ll stumble upon safe areas, where you can save, talk with sheep for tips, and buy items, such as deployable extra blocks, and when you’re ready, enter a confessional booth to move to the next level.
In this booth you have to answer a question, which serves as another way to add to your morality meter. Questions are simple enough, such as choosing whether you think marriage is the end of life or the beginning, and as well as affecting your morality rating, your answer is uploaded to PSN (or Xbox Live on 360) and you can see a summary pie chart representing how other players, split into male and female, answered. It’s a nice touch.
Each nightmare has various levels, often ending with a mad dash to the top as you’re chased by a freaky creature (which is revealed as the game progresses). These boss challenges are taxing, and can end in instant death if you’re not careful, but reach the top, and Vincent can wake up, and head into his next day of dilemmas.
The Marmite effect
Catherine is certainly a very polarising game, and you’ll either quickly grow to love it, and will relish the steep challenge, or you’ll hate it, instead feeling that there’s not enough gameplay and too much relationship-based anime.
It’s true that the game does involve a lot of watching conversations and minimal input, but unlike titles such as the recent Asura’s Wrath, which was, at heart, an action-intensive game, Catherine is a very distinct puzzler that clearly, and from the start, eschews conventional play in order to deliver a truly unique and original experience, and has a story that compels you to play on in order to see what happens.
Even if you like the game, and enjoy the challenging puzzles and high quality anime production, there are issues to contend with. The most notable of these lies in controlling Vincent during the nightmare puzzle sections. Although playable, these controls are very flaky at times, and it’s sometimes difficult to push or pull the right block. And, climbing around these cubes when you disappear behind the tower, out of view, and be very disorienting.
Using the d-pad does improve things (the game even suggests this), and using the analog stick isn’t recommend. With practice, these problems soon disappear, and you will get used to it, but it’s enough of an issue to put off many potential players.
Is love over?
There’s no doubting that Catherine is a very unique, and therefore difficult game to recommend to everyone, and the aforementioned polarising nature means that any rating is difficult. There’s no real middle ground here, and it’s not a game you’ll simply ‘like’.
If you’re the kind of gamer who can give anything a go, and can appreciate off-the-wall and unique gameplay that doesn’t tow the play-it-safe line, then it’s a title that will certainly appeal. If you like your games more traditional, and heavy on actual gameplay, then it’s unlikely you’ll get anything out of Catherine, and it’s best avoided.