Catherine is likely to split opinions right down the middle, with one side arguing the validity of its unique and interesting experience, and the other condemning it for the very same reason. Indeed Catherine, overall, offers a very different kind of game, however, it’s made up of familiar pieces.
Primarily Catherine is a social interaction game, an RPG-esque adventure where dialogue and the narrative takes precedence over gameplay. You play as Vincent, a man in his early 30s trying to deal with his girlfriend, Katherine, and her desire for commitment, and his new and accidental mistress, Catherine, a much more relaxed girl but clearly psychotic. A strange set of male deaths have spread through your hometown with rumours of murder and superstition of a curse on unfaithful men. The strange deaths, a chance meeting with a young woman and a repeating nightmare every night have Vincent on edge.
For the most part the narrative drives itself with a mix of anime sections and cel-shaded in-game animation keeping you apprized of Vincent’s strange tale in the style of a Twilight Zone episode. Once Vincent is in his favourite bar, The Stray Sheep, you’re given the option of walking around the bar to talk to patrons and friends, answers texts, or even get drunk and play on the arcade machines.
Interacting with those who visit The Stray Sheep introduces more story threads and you even have the opportunity to change their fates as the story progresses, encouraging you to seek out and talk to as many people as possible. Once in the bar time passes as you interact with things, and as it does people come and go giving you opportunities to talk to new people and uncover more about the narrative. It’s reminiscent of the Persona games social interaction, which is unsurprising considering the same developers, Atlus, were involved.
You occasionally have to choose between a pair of dialogue options as well as having the option between a set of different responses to texts. These options shift your moral scales between logical good and chaotic evil, represented by Katherine and Catherine respectively. However, some of the questions you’re asked aren’t as black and white as the good/evil scale would suggest, as such it’s not as simple as choosing an alignment. It requires a little more thought and encourages you to answer honestly and to replay Catherine to see where else your choices could take you.
With the narrative taking centre stage and offering only minor interaction, the majority of the gameplay comes when Vincent is asleep. Every night Vincent is haunted by nightmares, where horrific manifestations of his troubles chase him up a column of blocks and fellow cursed men join him in trying to escape. These sections involve you pulling and pushing blocks in order to climb to the top in a Q-Bert style puzzle game.
These block puzzle sections certainly make up the game part of this interactive experience and they are brilliantly designed. A host of different blocks and layouts provide a massive selection of towers to conquer. You are allowed to shift blocks to the very edge of other blocks rather than have them fall, and figuring out how to move them around in order to climb each towers is a highly cerebral task. Special blocks such as ice blocks you slide on, trap blocks with deadly spikes and blocks which crumble away add further challenge. Meanwhile power-ups offer quick solutions – if you can find and retrieve them on stages or buy them between stages – and negative effects can befall you on boss stages such as reversing your controls.
However, the puzzles are mighty difficult, frustratingly so. Multiple solutions help mitigate the frustrations slightly, as do checkpoints but it’s not uncommon to get stuck on the same tower for so long you’ll deplore the very sight of it. It does fit the theme of a nightmare brilliantly though.
The biggest problem with Catherine is how long you end up spending in each section. The story sections drag on into the realms of uncomfortable, causing you to long for the puzzle sections, only then to get stuck on a puzzle and for the reverse to happen. Pacing in the delivery of the narrative and the difficulty of the puzzles clash and threaten to ruin the experience. It’s a real shame, as this interesting mixture of puzzle solving and interactive story-telling is compelling.
The eerie supernatural atmosphere, believable voice acting and great visuals really pull you in to this strange tale. It’s also hugely satisfying when you solve a puzzle, and despite the frequent barriers thrown up by their difficulty you’ll want to crack on with more of them. Fortunately a couple of additional modes give you that option. Babel and Coliseum mode allows up to two players to climb randomly generated towers cooperatively and competitively respectively.
Catherine offers something very different to other titles on the market with its mixture of puzzles and social interaction. Its unique experience is a welcome distraction from the norm but the majority may find it underwhelming or too frustrating. However, it’s very likely Catherine will become something of a cult classic, and the industry would unquestionably benefit from more of its ilk in exploring what else games can be.
MLG Rating: 8/10 Platform: PS3/ Xbox 360 Release Date: 10/02/2012
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a physical copy of Catherine for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of one week on an Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.