It's Not For Everyone, But Some Will Fall in Love With Catherine
For every pile of generic action games and cookie-cutter first person shooters, there comes along a game like Catherine. A game that stands out from the crowd and can rightfully call itself unique. Catherine accomplishes this by offering an intriguing premise and challenging puzzle focused gameplay. It’s bizarre elements are certainly not for everyone, and may prove too difficult for some, but those willing to give Catherine a chance and conquer the punishing parts will find an experience they won’t soon forget.
The story follows Vincent, a 32 year old man who’s having one hell of a week. He’s living a pretty mundane life when his girlfriend Katherine begins pressuring him to settle down and tie the knot. Vincent doesn’t want to rush into things and is conflicted on how to respond. After having some drinks at his favorite bar, he meets Catherine, and wakes up the next day to find her in his bed. As a result, Vincent has to not only live with the guilt of having cheated on his long-time girlfriend, but also has to juggle with the feelings of both women. As if that wasn’t enough, he begins to have nightmares that are rumored to strike womanizing or unfaithful men. Every night Vincent is forced to climb elaborate block towers and should he die in the dream, he dies in real life. He must not only survive these trials night after night, but also figure out what is causing these mysterious nightmares.
The plot may sound too bizarre to comprehend, but Catherine manages to combine all these different devices into an entertaining narrative. It deals with adult themes like love, trust and betrayal that anyone who’s been in a relationship can probably relate to. You’ll feel legitimate sympathy for Vincent as he awkwardly tries to figure out his feelings and deal with his guilt. It can be a bit frustrating to watch him bumble around making some dumb decisions, but if you’re willing to forgive these moments and some nagging plot holes, you’ll find a tale that’s worth seeing through to one of the game’s multiple endings.
Gameplay is split up into two main components; the block tower puzzles that Vincent has to climb at night and the social interactions he takes part in at his favorite bar while he’s awake. The puzzles take up the majority of game time and while a full retail game focused on puzzles may not seem like a great idea, it works extremely well. You’re forced to quickly navigate these complex towers, pushing and pulling blocks around to reach higher areas and shimmying on the sides of blocks to navigate around obstacles, all while sections beneath you fall. It’s surprisingly tense and frantic. The controls are normally very responsive, but you’ll occasionally find yourself doing something you didn’t want to, particularly when you’re hanging from blocks. The same goes for the camera, which normally works fine, giving you a clear view of the action, but becomes practically useless if you ever move behind the tower you’re climbing.
The game keeps the puzzles fresh by constantly throwing in new elements. New types of blocks are added at a steady pace like ice blocks that you can slip on, trap blocks that impale you with spikes if you’re not fast enough, and trampoline blocks that launch you to higher platforms just to name a few. Some puzzles also have enemies that will attempt to push you off the block you’re standing on or just kill you outright. At the end of each set of stages, you’ll encounter a boss, which usually has a disturbing manifestation from Vincent’s psyche attempting to catch you as you try to quickly outrun it. These bosses provide the most thrills as they not only have the power to change blocks on the fly, but also have special attacks. If you’re interested in going for gold medals, there are also coins to collect on each stage that affect your score, and items that can help you out of a tight spot, although using these items does negatively affect your chances for a gold medal.
In between each stage you’ll come to a landing where you can save your progress, speak with talking sheep who are having to go through the same trials as you, or buy one of the special items from a shop. Talking to sheep is beneficial, as some will teach you varying techniques for effective climbing, which can be very useful. Once you’re finished on the landing and want to continue to the next puzzle, you’ll be asked to answer a question choosing one of two possible answers. How you answer affects a morality meter, which dictates which ending you’ll see at the end of the game. Most of the questions and answers make sense and affect the meter how you’d expect, but there are a handful that seem bizarre. Asking your thoughts on marriage fits, but asking whether you like playing with bubble wrap seems really out of place.
When he’s awake, Vincent spends most of his free time at a bar, and it’s here where the other aspects of Catherine’s gameplay come though. Here Vincent can drink with his friends, talk with various other patrons to learn about their backstories, answer text messages from both Catherine’s that also affect the morality meter based on how you respond, or play an arcade game to practice your skills for the next night of puzzles. Time does pass in the bar, so people will come and go throughout the night. It’s entirely possible to miss entire conversations if you waste the opportunity. The social elements are basic, but intriguing enough to take part in and affect the fates of those around you.
Catherine is definitely fun to play, but the difficulty can reach the level of punishing. Even on the easiest setting, some puzzles will have you completely stumped for long periods of time until you figure it out or accidentally stumble on the solution. You are given the advantage of being able to erase a mistake instantly on easy, which limits the frustration, but on higher difficulties, this luxury is not given. The puzzles become maddeningly difficult, forcing you to retry over and over again. Catherine is generous with it’s amount of continues, but it’s entirely possible to use up all of them your first time through some of the harder stages. Upon selecting a new game, the menu defaults to easy, and it’s highly recommended you take this suggestion, at least for your first play through. Thankfully, if you decide to replay the game on a difficulty you’ve already beaten, you are allowed to skip any puzzles you earned a gold medal on.
The main story is not the only mode on offer in Catherine. There is also a collection of challenge levels to best and a local two player competitive mode which has you and a friend climbing a tower at the same time, seeing who can reach the top first, or survive the longest. Unfortunately, both of these modes have stringent unlock requirements. The competitive mode can only be played after completing the 12-hour main story and the challenges can only be unlocked by earning gold medals in the story mode on higher difficulties. As previously stated, just finishing some of the main puzzles can be difficult, so requiring multiple gold medals on top of that seems like a harsh requirement just to play the extra content.
Catherine has quality graphics both technically and artistically. The anime style character models and environments are all well detailed and varied. Some background environments are beautifully detailed while others don’t impress. Animations range from overly exaggerated to stiff and awkward, but are never jarring enough to take you out of the experience. The few full anime cut scenes for pivotal plot moments are very well done and some of the imagination for both stage and boss designs are equal parts disturbing and fascinating.
There is no option to play Catherine with the original Japanese voice acting, but it won’t be missed as the English voice acting is very well done, with only an odd line delivery here and there. Music is very subtle when in the bar, but ramps up during the nightmare stages to add to the excitement. During the nightmare stages, sound queues are constant, with every block movement and item pick up triggering a sound effect. It may irritate some, but most will likely be too busy concentrating on the puzzles to notice them.
Catherine is certainly not a game for everyone. The bizarre plot, the unconventional gameplay, and the times of borderline punishing difficulty will undoubtedly turn off some players. But those who enjoy puzzle games or those simply looking for a unique game that’s unlike anything else on the market will likely fall in love with Catherine.