An amazing high concept title
One of the problems with video games these days is the cry for something new and original. When you've played the same military shooter for the umpteenth time, the action tends to get a little stale. However, with every release of a game that manages to do something different, it often becomes a commercial failure - despite being a critical success. Games like Shadows of the Damned and Katamari Damacy did their best to offer the original gaming people have asked for, but in the end if it ain't Call of Duty or Gears of War, no one really seems interested. I predict that this fate will befall Catherine, as it is like nothing Western audiences have played before. And yet, because you don't shoot people and the plot is a mature study in marriage, commitment and fidelity, Catherine may largely go ignored and that's a crying shame.
Catherine is the story of Vincent, a 32-year old slacker-type who is happy spending his days working and his nights drinking at the Stray Sheep, trying to avoid responsibility as often as possible. Vincent has a beautiful girlfriend, Katherine, who he's been seeing for an unknown number of years. As the game begins, Vincent is feeling the pressure from Katherine to move their relationship to the next level, as her parents are beginning to throw the "M" word around. After spending night drinking with friends, Vincent meets a young, sexy blonde,Catherine, and ends up sleeping with her, thus royally fucking things up. And he continues to fuck up throughout the game to the point where some of the scenes are just too difficult to watch.
To make things worse, Vincent has begun to experience terrible nightmares that involve him having to scale collapsing tower. Vincent is not alone in this nightmare, as it is populated with strange sheep creatures. These nightmares might have something to do with the fact that men in their 30s have been mysteriously dying.
Catherine was directed by Katsura Hashino, whose previous credits include the Shin Megami Tensei games as well as Persona 3 and Persona 4. Hashino's influence is noticeable, especially if you've played his previous games, as the bulk of the title focuses on Vincent's interactions with a cast of characters. Spending time at the Stray Sheep allows Vincent to chat with his friends about the situation he has found himself in. From time to time, Vincent will receive text messages from both Katherine and Catherine and his responses will influence a morality meter that tracks how bad or good he is. This meter comes into play for certain sequences in which Vincent's current standing will affect a cutscene which influence one of four possible endings.
When you leave the Stray Sheep and go to sleep, Vincent will toil with a nightmare world where the game proper takes place. Catherine is a puzzle game that requires you to manipulate a series of blocks in order to guide Vincent to the top. The climb is easy at first, but as you progress through each day, the puzzles get more and more complex. Scattered throughout each tower are various power ups that will make the trek a little easier, such as changing the properties of blocks, adding blocks and making enemies disappear. Enemies take the form of other dream victims who take on the appearance of sheep. As they are also trying to flee the nightmare, they will attempt to impede your progress whenever possible. In between puzzles, you'll be taken to a landing where Vincent can talk with other people, learn climbing techniques and buy items and it is here Vincent will be asked a question that affects his morality before moving onto the next tower. By the time Vincent reaches the last tower for the night, he must race to the top before a hideous monster from the depths of his psyche kills him (for example, a giant demon baby). Much has been talked about the game's difficulty being scaled back, a surprise considering that Japanese games have, historically, been significantly harder than Western games. Catherine comes with an Easy, Normal and Hard difficulty setting and if playing the game on Easy, picking up a Mystic Pillow grants more continues and you have the ability to undo up to seven moves. I can see this game being difficult on higher levels, considering the sort of mental gymnastics you'll need to employ later on.
Catherine has a lot going for it. For one, it's a deep, mature thriller in the vein of L.A. Noire or Heavy Rain. However, no game has treated the concept of marriage and relationships so skillfully than Katsura Hashino has. The game sports some stunning animation and cell-shading work and because these sequences were tailored made for high resolution TVs, they are simply stunning. If I could lobby one complaint against the game is that the audio seems to be a little out of whack. Cutscene audio seems to be much louder than the game sequences, which results in a lot of fumbling for the volume button on the remote.
Even if you don't think you'd like it, Catherine is one of those games you need to experience simply because no one makes games like this. Much like Shadow of the Damned, the game places larger stock on its high concept rather than gameplay. And besides, when are you ever going to see a game that touches on the subject of marriage and love so competently? Catherine is a game that can appeal to both sexes, but I believe it was designed specifically for men. Not because the game can be pretty sexy at times, but because it appeals to one of the most common fears that affect a large portion of the gender: commitment. The majority of the game takes place with Vincent being among his friends who will talk at length about love, marriage, children, fidelity - topics that most men in their 30s won't openly discuss with their partners, especially if they've grown comfortable in their relationship. The questions Vincent must answer in the nightmare world are surprisingly deep and personal, such as "Does marriage signal the beginning or the end?" or "Are you a sadist or a masochist?" Although we're controlling Vincent's life and the answers will affect how his story plays out, it's very difficult to not look inward before answering these questions. Interestingly enough, after you answer the question, the game will display the responses among the online community (providing you are signed onto PSN/Xbox Live).
Depending on the status of your current relationship, this game may resonate with you to a considerable degree. I'm finding it difficult to not be cruel or uncaring towards Katherine, so it'll be interesting to see where the game takes me. For example, after waking up with Catherine a second time, my actions in game caused Vincent to lie to her about there being another woman - one who was pregnant with his child. Holy hell. And I wonder what happens if was in the red on the morality meter. Catherine is the sort of game that will get a dialog going. I'd love to openly discuss it further with those who have played through it.