Catherine for PlayStation 3
Pros: Fantastic graphics, amazing soundtrack, engaging story, challenging yet fun gameplay
Cons: Some minor control issues, overly sexual boxart
Catherine was a game that seemed really weird to me pre-release. It was described as a ‘dating sim puzzle title’ and that’s not something that would normally interest me. Additionally the game was developed by Atlus which is a company whose software I’ve never particularly enjoyed. Catherine was released to rave reviews and curiosity got the best of me. I fell in love with it immediately; so much that it actually went on to become my favorite game overall of last generation. It’s one of the few modern titles that I still play regularly years after its release.
The story in this game takes place in modern day Japan. The main character is a man in his thirties named Vincent Brooks who lives in a city where a rash of mysterious deaths have been occurring. All of these incidents have involved men around Vincent’s age, and each of them died in their sleep. Recently Vincent has been pressured by his girlfriend, Katherine (not the titular character mind you), to get married. Our ever resistant protagonist is perfectly content just breezing through life without a care in the world, and he quickly brushes her off.
As night falls Vincent and friends head off to their favorite watering hole, the black sheep, for a night of drinks and laughs. After being left behind in a drunken stupor Vincent encounters a seductive blonde woman named Catherine (note the different spelling). As the alcohol takes over Vincent finds himself at the bottom of a tower in an alternate reality where he must race a large group of anthropomorphic sheep to the top. He makes it, and wakes up in bed with the blonde bombshell from the previous night. Vincent tries to get rid of her, but Catherine proves difficult to brush off as he tries to keep the events a secret from his girlfriend. Unfortunately he has that same dream about the sheep and the mysterious tower every following night.
The story is extremely bizarre admittedly, but it is always engaging. It’s not often that games focus around modern social issues such as infidelity, and that’s part of what makes Catherine unique. What’s interesting is that the game gives players control over some aspects of the story. You are given control of Vincent in the Black Sheep bar and can choose which of the patrons to interact with and how to respond to them in some cases. You also receive text messages during these scenes from both Catherine and Katherine and select which response to send. When prompted via dialogue or text a morality meter pops up and shows which if your Vincent is leaning more toward good or evil. This doesn’t affect gameplay so much as it determines the ending you see when you’ve completed the story. It’s also worth noting that however many drinks you have Vincent consume at the Black Sheep determines how spry he is during the dream tower climbing sequences.
With the story and dating elements out of the way it’s now time to talk about gameplay. The bulk of the game is played during Vincent’s dreams where you must guide him from the bottom to the top of various towers. These are three dimensional sequences with each section of the environment being composed entirely of blocks. Vincent can pull, push, and climb individual blocks, and it’s up to you to move them around in order to make a path by which you can progress upwards. Things get tricky though as the laws of gravity still apply, and one false movement can send a section of the tower plummeting into the abyss. Blocks can levitate is they are touching the edge of another, and Vincent can hang from them and even climb around the backside of the tower as long as he can maintain his grip.
The tower puzzles might sound easy, and they are at first, but after the first few the difficulty ramps up a great deal. Below you the tower is constantly crumbling imparting upon you a time limit, and many of the blocks simply cannot be moved at all. Others feature spikes that jut out as you touch them (killing Vincent in one hit), some are covered in ice so slide when you push them, and others will spring you straight up in the air. Moving and triggering these can sometimes lead you to victory, and the sheer number of options is staggering. There is no one way to do things and some of the later levels require you to get extremely creative with your approach. The game even features some stages focused around boss characters wherein you have to avoid their attacks as they knock blocks away or change their characteristics. These proved extremely frantic and surprisingly engaging.
Catherine features multiple difficulty settings which makes it less daunting to inexperienced gamers, but even on easy the game is no cakewalk. Every person will play the game differently and it’s interesting to see what each individual player comes up with. Items can be obtained in hub areas between stages and these further affect the way each person will play the game. One item allows you to climb two blocks at once, another spawns a movable block out of thin air, and the final one destroys all enemies on-screen. When I say enemies I’m referring to the other sheep that are attempting to climb the tower as well; some will block your way and knock you down. Additionally many stages feature checkpoints from which you can continue if you die, and you will find scattered pillows that give you an additional life.
The game uses a pleasant cel-shaded style for its graphics that enhances the anime aesthetic a great deal. Catherine is surprisingly colorful for a modern game, and each scene seems to have an eerie yet fitting pink hue to it. The character models are highly detailed and expressive, and the environments (particularly the Black Sheep) are very detailed. The puzzle sequences look a little bland in my opinion, but it’s not a huge deal because they’re kept simple in order to make it easier for the player to navigate. The hand-drawn anime sequences are really well done and add significant charm to the story and characters. Catherine is a very pretty game, and has a timeless look thanks to the cel-shaded graphics.
Catherine features an amazing and very fitting soundtrack. I knew my ears were in a treat when I first heard the hip hop opening sequence which is a really interesting contrast to the remixes of classic orchestrations that make up the rest of the music. While some of these are barely recognizable (thanks to the emphasis on guitar, piano, and synth effects) I was pleasantly surprised when I noticed them. The voice acting is extremely charming as well. Every actor (even for the minor characters) delivers a memorable performance, and I really couldn’t be happier with it. The only real issue I have with this game are its controls. Vincent moves from block to block at even the slightest push of the joystick, and this causes some major issues. It’s much easier to just use the directional pad, but even then he seemed to occasionally move to spaces unintentionally. This is the only real problem, but disappears for the most part when you get used to the mechanics.
It’s not often that a game takes me completely by surprise. I wasn’t expecting much from Catherine initially, but the storyline and puzzle oriented gameplay scratched an itch that few other games have. It’s unlike anything that has been released, ever. The puzzles are exceptional and it’s been a good long while since a game has tricked and confused me on such a level. Since its release Catherine has seen numerous price drops, and I highly recommend it to anyone. Just try not to blush when you bring the game (just look at that cover art) to the checkout stand.