This game is just as weird as it looks, and much less crass. It casts itself as an “adult-oriented” game, and the cover art and marketing full of heaving bosoms is clearly out to grab attention. Once it does, though, Catherine surprises with challenging core gameplay as both a 3D puzzler and engaging interactive drama, though it does have some flaws. Receiving it a full year after Japanese players (and over six months after the US) makes us feel a bit behind, but has also allowed for some improvements.
If the idea sounds very hybrid, it is: Have you ever played or seen an “unconventional romantic horror” before? This game comes across as a melange of gameplay and cinematics that are familiar but cast in a bizarre and utterly unique gameworld. The player controls Vincent, a pathetic twenty-something who comes across as a grown-up version of Shinji Ikari (and just as annoying). His long-time girlfriend, Katherine (not a typo, wait for it) is becoming restless, offering hints about “the next step”, but Vincent is unable to commit to marriage with her. At the same time, he begins experiencing horrific dreams populated with two-legged talking sheep and a nameless threat pursuing him from below. After his first nightmare he wakes up next to Catherine (with a C), an attractive blonde who generates self-flagellating guilt trips over Vincent’s infidelity. The game then alternates between extended cutscenes portraying this romantic drama, interactive episodes in the bar Vincent and his friends frequent, and the nightmare puzzle modes.
The majority of actual gameplay occurs in Vincent’s surreal dreamscapes. The main challenge is to rearrange blocks in a 3D configuration to create a path to the top. Lower sections of the structure fall away, acting as a time limit, and this pressure is ramped up dramatically in boss levels where you are more directly persecuted by some embodiment of Vincent’s fear of commitment: Katherine as a stabby witch or Bride of Death, or Vincent’s abject unborn child. As the levels progress, some blocks take on particular qualities (such as decaying or exploding), complicating the pathfinding solutions. These puzzles are notoriously difficult, although localised versions are made easier than the original Japanese version with specific mechanics and a difficulty overhaul. Nonetheless I would definitely recommend starting out on easy mode, and still I had to grudgingly resort to video walkthroughs during the more diabolical stages.
This action-puzzler component of Catherine is certainly worthwhile, and with wonderful classical music, from Holst to Beethoven to Rossini. However, the puzzles are at times frustrating and present us with bizarre fluctuations in difficulty. For instance, some of the earlier stages and bosses (aaargh, the Bride!) were far more difficult than even the final boss of the game. Talking to NPCs allows you to discover effective techniques for dealing with particular configurations of blocks, but again some of the most sophisticated are given first and some of the no-brainers are left to the end of the game. This focus on strategy encourages a systematic approach to problem-solving, though this is often hard to apply when being chased by a huge baby with chainsaws for arms; at other times the problem just does not lend itself to strategy and you are forced to proceed through a mixture of luck and trial and error. In addition, the camera and controls are sometimes counter-intuitive which makes situations under pressure particularly frustrating. Despite these flaws, the gameplay is sound and has a particularly satisfying combination of action and puzzle solving. However it takes some work to let go of Assassin’s Creed-style parkour athletics (hookblade!).
Every night before going home to dream, Vincent hangs around his local bar, talking to his friends and other patrons, making selections of smooth synthesised jazz on the jukebox, texting K/Catherine (and ogling raunchy photos sent by his new lover), and basically killing time to avoid sleeping. This part of the game does feel like treading water – it fills out the diegesis a little with a nice parallel to the dream-world, and there are some cheap thrills and muted chuckles, but this attempt at interactive drama is nothing as compelling or well-integrated as Heavy Rain, for instance.
The other major part of Catherine (which takes up about a third of the 12-15 hours of gameplay you’re likely to get) is pure extended cutscene. These scenes involve awkward conversations with Katherine in a coffee shop, titillating (though not much stronger than PG-rated) escapades with Catherine in Vincent’s room, and increasingly dramatic and violent confrontations which threaten to spill Vincent’s infidelity into the open. The cutscenes play through alternations between the in-game engine and a much more familiar 2D anime aesthetic, a transition which can be jarring, but overall it’s like watching a mediocre but passable anime. This part of the game does not have the mind-numbing banality of cutscenes that we may remember from some games, though these are becoming rarer in general. The themes and motifs generally are better-developed than we have come to expect from games as a form, and there is some clever riffing off popular culture products such as late-night horror and reality television.
Overall, Catherine is a challenging but enjoyable game for fans of 3D puzzlers and Japanese film. It elements are sometimes flawed, and not always well-integrated, and it is sometimes frustratingly difficult, but it is a pleasant surprise and a landmark release for Atlus. Some players will be turned off by the highly problematic sexual politics of the narrative (pathetic males expected to give up their freedom to marriage, and girls who are either angry harpies or infantilised sexbots), but the ending is somewhat more affirming of difference and is partially redeems some of the more cringeworthy representations in the rest of the game. All, up Catherine is both surprising and better (or at least much less bad) than expected: It’s even OK for couples!