Proverbial Jon Reviews...
A Curious Game...
Catherine is the sort of game that requires a certain amount of prior knowledge before you play. Regardless of what you have seen or heard about this game you will still be surprised when you finally play it. Whether or not this surprise is pleasant or not is really not for me to say and depends largely on your tolerance for the, how shall I put it, batshit insane?
Catherine is also the sort of game that is very hard to classify and quite frankly it occupies a genre all of its own. Primarily it is a sliding block puzzle game with a moral choice system and the ability to interact with various characters as you progress. Sound alright so far? Throw in random alcohol trivia, game show-like commentators and anthropomorphic talking sheep and you're somewhat closer to the mark.
It all comes down to how much you enjoy pushing blocks...
The Tormented Man-Child
You play Vincent, a thirty-something slacker who has a job with little responsibility and a relationship that is going nowhere... until his girlfriend, Katherine, starts talking about marriage. In his panic, commitment-phobe Vincent manages to have an "accidental" affair with Catherine, a seductive girl much younger than him who has a penchant for wearing lingerie in public. However, after Catherine's arrival on the scene Vincent begins to suffer from terrible nightmares in which he must climb a tower of movable blocks to reach the summit. If he falls and dies in the dream, he will also die in real life.
The towers start off quite simple, asking no more of the player than shifting a few obvious blocks to learn the concept. The difficulty curve is forgiving but it isn't long before the game throws special blocks at you and demands much more lateral thinking. At the end of each set of towers is a final boss battle which is another tower complete with a horrific monster pulled straight from Vincent's troubled psyche. The boss creature will use an array of special attacks that make climbing with precision and speed a must. I played the game on the easiest setting because I don't like frustrating gameplay to distract me from an engaging storyline and I was still struggling by the last few levels.
In-between each tower stage are landings where you can save your progress and talk to the other sheep, men who are also experiencing the same weird nightmares. Here you can learn more about your fellow relationship miscreants and also uncover new climbing techniques. Here you can use coins that you have collected during your desperate ascent to buy various one-use items which make climbing the next tower a little easier. Before the next level you must answer a randomised question pertaining to your view on relationships inside a church-like confessional booth. It's all very unsettling if truth be told.
The bar sections are a welcome change of pace after the hectic block tower nightmares.
Drown Your Sorrows
When Vincent isn't climbing for his life he is hanging out with his friends in the aptly named "Stray Sheep Bar." During these levels you are free to walk amongst the colourful patrons and learn more about their lives, something that can ultimately alter their eventual fates. You may find that some of the supporting characters follow some very conventional patterns, coming awfully close to common stereotypes at times, but there is enough variety for this to not present a problem. Vincent himself treads the thin line between lovable loser and infuriating idiot at times and he may not suit everyone's tastes. On more than one occasion I found myself shouting at the screen for him to sort his life out!
The visual presentation is beautiful and the characters are so wonderfully expressive, even if the animation seems a little off at times. Major exposition is presented in anime cutscenes which also look fantastic, however I found myself longing for the wonderful graphics of the game engine instead on some occasions. The voice acting is of a quality we have come to expect, even if the script is rather hammy at times, but then I expect that's the entire point of it. The soundtrack fits the game perfectly and is quite varied, featuring classical music, soulful piano pieces and some rocking guitar anthems.
A Moral Dilemma
The game is constantly probing and questioning the player and every choice you make will add up, shaping the sort of ending you finally get. Everything from your answer to direct personal questions to how you answer Katherine and Catherine's text messages is taken into account. I found some of the moral quandaries to be genuinely taxing and I was forced to question my own outlook on relationships on several occasions. The actual sexual content could best be described as suggestive at its worst. Nothing is ever revealed visually and a lot of sexual themes are hinted at more than outright described in detail. Come to think of it, I don't even recall anyone saying the word "sex."
This is about as much as you'll be seeing... sorry guys!
Despite Catherine's best efforts, I feel the game presents an example of a moral system gone slightly awry; sometimes I was responding as Vincent and sometimes I answered as myself, which were ultimately two opposing views. I feel I obtained the ending fit for me, but not necessarily for Vincent, which left me feeling a little disappointed. Perhaps this was my error, maybe I approached the game differently to how the developers had hoped I would. Then again, I don't think there is a "wrong" way to play Catherine.
Catherine feels more like a social experiment than a video game at times. The curious mixture of the video game environment and the strong themes of commitment will either mesh together into an enjoyable and engaging experience or they will fail to appeal on any level. If you enjoy puzzle games and have a good mind for logical thinking you might get more than one play through out of it. As for me, I think one round of nightmarish tower climbing is enough for this lifetime. Either way, Catherine is a unique experience and I was glad to be a part of it. The premise is bold and I appluad developer Atlus for making such a risky move during a time of sequels and existing IPs, not to mention for delivering one hell of a twist ending which proves even the strangest of games can get stranger before the end. Give it a try, I guarantee you'll be surprised.