Launched almost a year ago everywhere else, Catherine was a unique-looking title with sadly no distribution presence here in sunny ol’ SA. That all changed this year when it finally made its way to our shore, as the tale of love, infidelity and talking sheep eventually released.
But is Catherine worth the wait, or should we be cheating on it with some other games?
Braving new waters with this original title, Catherine tells the strange tale of Vincent,a 32 year old slacker with commitment issues, who finds himself stuck between a rock and a hard place after he cheats on his girlfriend of five years, Katherine, with a younger, more morally loose lady who has the same name, minus the different leading consonant.
To make matters even worse, Vincent is having trouble sleeping lately, as he has nightmares that force him to climb through levels of cascading blocks, or risk dying in his dream, a fate that seems to have befallen numerous other men at the same time.
Multiple news reports detail their grisly corpses, twisted and deformed with a sheer look of horror on their faces, as if they’d just caught a glimpse of a pensioners-only sauna. Oh, and Katherine might be pregnant, giving Vincent even more grief in his life.
What could have been a simple tale of love gone wrong is actually a gripping narrative in Catherine, as several supernatural elements from previous Atlus games, such as Persona, make their presence felt, as Vincent has to juggle the growing pains of life with strange external forces that are beyond his control.
Sure, the story may become a little tedious from time-to-time, with conversations going on far longer than they should – but overall, Catherine has a magnificent tale to tell, and it does so with style and gusto.
Lengthy cinematic sequences aside, there’s plenty to do in Catherine. The game is primarily divided into tow distinct entities, with one half that has you engaging in puzzle sequences in order to survive your nightmares, while the second half of the experience has players engaging in social activities.
From the social side, players can chat with friends and strangers, drink, answer questions and interact with the environment in your favourite pub, Stray Sheep. Initiating conversations has an influence on the progression of the storyline, with Vincent having to answer numerous questions that has an impact on his morality meter, with the results of his answers never being painfully obvious, and sometimes actually delving into a greyer side on the morality scale.
Time has an actual presence here in Stray Sheep, with bar patrons coming and going as the hours tick away, while catching up with several of these people can help decide their destiny, especially when they happen to be experiencing the same nightmares as Vincent.
Checking your cell phone also allows for further exploration into the psyche and morality of Vincent, as well as being a handy method of saving a game. But the other side of the game, wherein Vincent has to survive his horrible dreams, is where the real meat of the game lies.
A tower of challenges awaits players, as they have to scale several increasingly difficult stages, which have a time limit and some mind-bendingly difficult puzzles built into them. What starts out as deceptively simple challenges of moving blocks into the correct position, so that you can climb further up the tower, soon evolves into stages where new traps, tasks and enemies appear, making the level that much more difficult.
To make matters even harder, final stages in the tower amp up the challenge by sending a boss monster after you, usually created from a combination of Vincent’s emotions that have been injected with far too much Japanese nightmare fuel.
Stages have landings in between them, where players can converse with fellow captives, all represented as sheep with a unique physical attribute here and there. Talking to the lost lambs can reveal further insights into the various characters, while also allowing for new tower-climbing tips and tutorials to be presented to players.
Climbing a tower is easy enough, provided that gamers can get used to the initially finicky controls, which stays fast and true to the traditional 4 direction movement system, while exploring the Stray Sheep bar provides for a more fluid directional design.
While climbing a tower may be hard enough without any assistance later in the game, there are some methods of surviving, such as collecting pillows which count as a retry should become stuck or dead, while pressing the select button results in a quick undo of the previous move.
Players can also collect items as they ascend, which can give them temporary passive boosts, or even grow a new block for them, handy when things get tough, while a corpulent sheep salesman at the landing areas can offer items for trade, bought with coins that Vincent earns as he climbs up the towers.
Once the game is beat, players looking for an extra challenge can try out Babel mode, which makes the tower ascension gameplay even more demanding, by throwing in several tasks along the way. Players can engage in Babel mode co-op mode with a friend, or see how far they’ll lat next to you in the versus mode of Coliseum.
All in all, it’s a well designed game, with quite a bit of polish, and while the social side can drag on from time to time, the two halves do end up complementing one another. Characters look great and act sometimes over the top, in the rendered gameplay sequences, although it does have some charm, while the capable english voice actors are well cast, despite the B-grade level of dubbing throughout the game.
Besides the more “normal” visuals, Catherine really does sell itself well in the nightmare levels, with an over the top emphasis on creatures and levels that were most likely designed with the help of several designer hallucinogenic drugs. Add in some movie sequences from top class anime producers, Studio 4°C.
While the stray sheep mode is simple and relies more on social interactions than quick thinking, it’s the lost lambs area of ascending gameplay where Catherine really makes its mark. Easy at first, this mode gets harder with every return, with more obstacles being thrown at players every single time, as well as a few bosses who are horrifying enough to cross from the dream world of the game into your own sleeping sub-conscious.
Design and Presentation: 8/10
Flamboyant and often over the top, Catherine is still charming with these aspects, while the high quality anime sequences are always a pleasure to watch and ogle. A decent soundtrack permeates throughout the game, and while it may be sometimes cheesy, it’s not off-putting, but not exactly memorable either.
For gamers who value story over gameplay, there’s quite a bit to do in Catherine. The main storyline itself is lengthier than imagined, with the tower climbing modes creating a game that can last anywhere from around 8-16 hours, depending on your skill level.
But even with Catherine completed the first time, story fans will be in for a treat, as the game has multiple endings, and they don’t consist of choosing a red, blue or green option at the end, with your in game antics and actions having an effect on the outcome.
Babel mode keeps the action moving for those players who want more puzzle adventuring at the end however, provided that they could meet several requirements from the main storyline in the game.
Catherine is a rather odd game at first glance, but if you’re looking for an experience that doesn’t revolve around pulling triggers or seeing who can punch faster and harder, then this might be the game that you’ve been looking for.
Strange, nightmarishly difficult at times and not your average storytelling experience, Catherine is a game that challenges players to think quick and carefully, and is quite unlike anything else out on the market today.
[Reviewed on X-Box 360, played on normal difficulty. Also available for PS3.]