Catherine: the review

Sometimes there are games you know you are going to like: the Halos, the Uncharteds, the Fallout 3s and GTAs of the world are laid out with if not perfection then enough spit and polish to let you know that you are in for a treat – and a streamlined one at that. You can’t help but like them for their achievements.

Then there are those games that actually strike a chord. They aren’t always the best games – as defined by objective games journalism – but due to something in their vision they are able to grab you by the throat in a way that no playtested-to-shit, focus-grouped-to-high-heaven game ever could. Games like Borderlands, Limbo and Way of the Samurai 3 wrap you up in what they have to offer and the experience is hard to shake off.

Catherine is one of those games.


I honestly think that on a different weekend Catherine would have struck me as a solid puzzle game with an extensive but superfluous story. That would have been a few years ago when I felt I had all the answers tied up, and when I knew that games were about gameplay and nothing else. But it wasn’t that weekend.

Catherine tells the story of Vincent, a 30-something who is on the cusp of finally having to grow up. The game starts with him in a long term relationship with a loving girlfriend, named Katherine, and a new job that seems to give him ample time to do whatever he wants. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to appreciate these things and instead he spends his time hanging out at the same pizza place/bar with his equally aimless friends. All of them seem to be clamouring for past glories, and no stories about their current lives seem to inspire them.

With everything going for him Vincent can come off as an unjustifiably miserable git.

Vincent’s ennui is shattered by another girl, called Catherine, appearing in his life and subsequently jumping into bed with him. The resulting affair is the basis of the game’s story arc as well as the gameplay’s main hooks: the nightmares.

Catherine is divided between two very different styles. Vincent’s waking life is spent talking to his girlfriend and lover, then wandering around a bar talking to his friends and random patrons. The whole time he is drinking heavily – this gives him an edge in his dream world – and these drunken conversations set up the neuroses he has, whether it is sharing a pizza slice and lamenting about how he has to make a choice between continuing his bachelor lifestyle and staying in his dingy room while looking at a poster of space travel versus actually taking the terrifying plunge into marriage and perhaps fatherhood, or simply trying to figure out whether it is a good idea to let his penis do the talking in his life. This ties into the gameplay.

The second part of the game is Vincent’s dream world, and all his laments come to the fore. His fears manifest themselves in a literal way. Vincent has to overcome block puzzles that are part of a tower-climbing challenge; the clock is always ticking, the ground below him dropping away as an incentive to push him further forward. His worries about marriage and becoming a daddy turn Katherine into a hulking, bridal beast that chases him up the tower with a bouquet at the ready to eviscerate him if he doesn’t keep pushing further upwards.

This thing is utterly terrifying: a walking, talking vagina dentata that symbolises Vincent's lust.

In between these nightmares Vincent encounters other men, portrayed as sheep, stuck in the same struggle as him. The demons that chase them every night look different but are no less deadly.

A lot of reviews feel that there is serious dichotomy between the two styles presented. I disagree. The design, the mechanics and the aesthetics marry so neatly together to tell the story; a story that is ultimately influenced by your choices.

The frantic desperation of the puzzles match Vincent’s dilapidated psyche in the day time. The collapsing, disjointed patterns represent the unfocused nature of his life and his attempts to put order to it.

There are those who will tolerate the puzzles just to see more of what will happen next, sure. Understand that the puzzles are no slouch either.

The block switching works oddly with it being possible to connect cubes by just their edges. It might be odd but once you understand the rules they remain consistent throughout, and various strategies can then be employed. Some are not immediately obvious but, as the game expands and Vincent talks to more sheep, the tactics and manoeuvres become more interesting and the breadth of choices in any situation widens.

This would not have been sufficient to justify the price tag alone, but the developers offered up more variations of the core mechanics – an arcade mode with limited moves and a randomised scramble mode – as well as interesting spins on these modes – both co-op and versus are available. The game also encourages you to try escalating the difficulty; more stuff is unlocked as you beat levels on normal and hard (for puzzle beginners normal is pretty damn hard). With these options available I might have agreed this was a decent mid-range purchase.

The arcade version of the game, called Rapunzel, is particularly gratifying when you understand the game's mechanics.

Now that I have seen what the developers wanted to do with the story – there are a hell of a lot of animated sequences – it is hard to separate the puzzle elements from their narrative. You could have one without the other but why would you want to?

Ultimately I think the thing that reached out to me, that made this game something more that it had any right to be, was that the final ending I received which was based on my choices coming in conjunction with my having recently watched the George Clooney film Up in the Air.

Up in the Air is about a man who has humanely dehumanised himself. The narrative finds him at a point in his life where all the choices he could have made to bring himself closer to his family, his co-workers and the world in general have been pushed aside in lieu of the comforting cocoon that isolates him. He is not a bad person but you feel like there are missteps out there that might have made him happier.

Playing as Vincent straight afterwards I felt like he was on the brink of such choices. That he might not end up alone and distant. Admittedly my choices took him down that path; I found Katherine too cloying and Catherine too disingenuous to ever consider being with either of them. Although Vincent’s outlook is positive, his future seemed rather empty.

Cheeky.

Although I must warn any potential plot enthusiasts that the story veers dangerously into ridiculous territory towards the end, this wasn’t enough to dim its final impact and despite this Catherine remains one of the most affecting games of this year.

Just make sure you play it sooner rather than later.

Kevin reckons

Love is over? No, it’s most definitely not. Because I found myself loving this game beneath a secret hatred born from aggravation.

Having heard of the game long before its release I thought to myself that I had to try it, and not having played the Persona games I thought I may miss out on this too. I knew from friends’ recommendations of other Atlus titles that at some point I needed to jump on this crazy train, and there’s no train crazier than Catherine.

Think of the sheep man, think of the sheep.

At first I thought I’d be getting an over-sexualized puzzle game; boy was I proven wrong as a morally challenging story and equally difficult gameplay were put in front of me. Being able to relate to elements of the story and more readily to Vincent’s inability to focus on which direction his life should take I quickly cared for the character and his dilemma.

Originally I only rented the game thinking I could beat it in one go, but after a few short days I found myself re-renting it with an urge to beat it and prove love could conquer all. The game invaded my regular life, much like Vincent’s dreams; I saw block combinations in my mind every waking moment as I did many years ago with my long stint of playing Tetris. The anime art of the game is stylish and appealing, and with its farfetched story it manages to somehow stay grounded allowing the player to become truly invested.

At first I thought myself to be answering a lot of the questions with what I assumed would be the ‘right’ answer, but before long realized I was just answering truthfully – which happened to be “correct”. The question system was often surprising, mainly in how the percentages of people selecting one answer or another was at times shocking, with certain genders giving landslide results I’d expect from the opposite gender.

Catherine isn’t just a game in my eyes; it’s an experience that is enjoyable all the way through, if not for the puzzles then for the story alone with its multiple endings. The ending I received, “True Lover”, is probably my most ideal and best ending, but others may see one of the other various conclusions as their ideal ending.

A gaming experience like Catherine comes around about once a year, if even, so don’t miss out on it if you’ve experienced even the slightest curiosity toward playing it.