Don’t be a sheep…
A crazy love triangle, nightmares with sheep and block based puzzles. Along with an appealing anime style, that is what Catherine brings to the table. It certainly sounds interesting, but does is manage to mesh all those elements together into a cohesive game, or is this one love affair destined for a tragic conclusion? Read on to find out.
Publisher: Deep Silver
For quite a while now a good narrative has become more and more important to the fundamentals of game design. Catherine manages to touch on a subject that is all but absent from modern day games and make it the driving force behind the title. The question is simple, what would you do if you cheated on your loved one?
Positioning itself as a romantic horror, the story of Catherine follows 32 year old Vincent Brooks, an every day guy and software engineer who has been in a relationship for some time. Unbeknownst to him, his lover Katherine feels it is time for them to leave their “comfort zone” and get a bit more serious, which sets off a series of events that leads to him cheating with Catherine, a blonde uninhibited bombshell who is basically the girl of his dreams (lame pun intended) . This leads to a series of crazed nightmares alongside similarly troubled men who, as fate would have it, appear as sheep to each other.
Despite the soap opera dramatics, Catherine manages to tell its story without being overly cringe worthy and adding its own brand of anime style craziness. Some of the plot twists are completely outlandish and the situations main character Vincent finds himself in are more the better for it. Make no mistake, the story is the main driving force behind Catherine and you’ll find that learning what happens next will become a bigger motivation than you could have ever imagined.
Catherine tells its story by meshing traditional anime style cutscenes with today’s high definition representation of the designer’s art direction. It works quite well too, with slight tweaks made depending on whether you are traversing one of Vincent’s many nightmarish puzzles or chilling out with your buddies in the Stray Sheep Bar (more on that later). The latter providing you with vivid colours and sharp contrasts, whist the former presents you with a slightly grittier style and a healthy amount of bloom, helping to portray Vincent’s dream-like state.
To call Catherine one of the prettiest games of this generation would be akin to calling an obese lady scarily thin, but what it lacks in sheer technical prowess it more than makes up for in art direction. If you can get onboard with anime style visuals, you’ll find they draw you in almost as much as the story.
On the sound production front, Catherine gets an all round thumbs up. It never sticks its oar in your face garishly and is happy to chug along in the background barely noticed. The saying “when you do something right, no-one will realise you have done anything at all” perfectly describes Catherine’s soundtrack. Aside from the all too random rap inspired intro it never ceases to remain excellent at all times with its blend of original and remixed audio tracks.
Voice acting is nothing to shout from the hilltops about, but neither does it slap you in the face and leave you on the floor convulsing from shock. This is probably due in no small part to the famous voice actors, in gaming terms at least. Two of the main voice actors (Troy Baker and Laura Bailey) also worked on Final Fantasy and Vincent’s main squeeze Katherine was the voice behind C.Viper. Apparently her two lines in Street fighter IV didn’t adequately display her vocal talents.
Catherine is such a masterful blend of eye wrenchingly difficult puzzle gameplay, RPG elements and dating simulation, it’s almost impossible to know where to start. However, at its core (although the term does the game no justice at all) Catherine is an action-puzzle game.
The game is broken down into nine days whereby Vincent will socialise and drink in his waking hours, developing the plot and allowing you to tackle an expansive meta-game, then at night you will be tasked with taking on his deepest nightmares as he sleeps. These nightmares revolve around the aforementioned eye wrenching puzzles. Oh, the puzzles. The premise is simple, navigate Vincent up an expansive wall (that ironically represents his life) made of blocks trying not fall off, fall into traps or be pushed off.
Not unlike a modified version of Jenga, you are tasked with displacing blocks and repositioning them, trying to forge a route for Vincent to escape his hellish nightmare. Now you might be wondering, what is so hard about that? Well, whilst you’re taking your time finding a route the ground beneath you is breaking away, seductively calling you to your doom. Oh and there are an assortment of different block types too. You’ll encounter blocks that instantly begin to crumble the moment you step on them and others that like to move around on their own. Meanwhile, the puzzles are so fiendishly crafted you’ll almost believe the guys over at Atlus have a crazed Dr Robotnik designing their puzzles for them. However, Catherine is always fair. Puzzles are frustratingly challenging at times, but if you take your time and think, you’ll eventually get to the end.
Along the way you’ll meet other wayward sheep (every man is a sheep in these nightmares) as you struggle to survive, and they’ll happily shove you aside to reach their destination. As you’d expect, this can prove to be quite baaaaaaad (sorry, couldn’t resist) for Vincent. However, one smack from his trusty pillow and you might delay them long enough to be on your way. To say Catherine’s learning curve is demanding would be an understatement. The game switches from asking you to make spontaneous decisions to forcing you to plan moves at least three steps ahead of time in a heartbeat. Those with short fuses be wary, as this is a title that will repeatedly frustrate you if your cognitive abilities are not firing on all cylinders.
On a slightly negative note, the control scheme has a few wobbly moments. Traversing from the front of a stage to its rear can lead to a bit of confusion. If you travel left and continue to do so until you reach the flip side Vincent will continue moving to his left. However, once you let go, left will then become right. After a while you will get used to it, but will probably seem a bit weird at first.
To mix things up, every now and then you will encounter a boss puzzle that will charge you with running from a mutilated, mostly creepy version of something that is bothering Vincent in waking life while escalating the wall. These “bosses” all have unique little powers of their own that you will need to find a way of anticipating and dealing with.
As challenging as it might be, Catherine is not without a heart. In the heat of “battle” you will be able to call upon the convenient “undo” function that allows you to go back one move at a time for up to nine moves. Obviously, death cannot be undone, but if you notice your mistake in time you can most certainly attempt to correct it. Along the way you will also encounter at least one checkpoint per puzzle, continues in the form of pillows (yes, pillows) and an assortment of useful power-ups.
After each puzzle you will be asked a relationship related question, which the game keeps track via online servers for comparison with others. These choices eventually begin to affect the plot of the game swaying your “morality meter” one way or the other. This is where Catherine starts to blend genres as you’re asked to make decisions that will affect Vincent’s life and subsequent cutscenes.
In the waking world, you’ll find conversations and choices ascend to another level. The Stray Sheep Bar is where the interaction takes place and you’ll find all manner of personnel residing there. Chief among them being Vincent’s friends who serve as the proverbial devil and angel perched on his shoulder. It’s rather surprising how much control you have over how other people perceive Vincent, most decisions changing the story along its way. You’ll soon start caring about the character and his place in the world. To add to the interaction, you will also get text messages sent to you from your lady and your mistress that you can respond to, allowing you to customise each line of the text out of three options. Your responses trigger other events such as phone calls and even affects the anime inspired cutscenes.
You’ll also run into some of the sheep who have been trapped in the nightmare world with you each night as you attempt to solve their life problems in return for different wall scaling techniques in the puzzle section of the game. Keeping as many people as possible happy in the day can benefit you in the long run. This feeling of continuity keeps everything rolled up neatly in one ball without anything ever feeling out of place.
Other distractions include drinking, which might get Vincent hammered and stammering while he is awake, but once back in the nightmare it will make him faster depending on his levels of intoxication. There’s also a neat little arcade meta-game called Rapunzel on offer that neatly reflects the nightmare puzzles in the game, tasking you with reaching your goal within a certain number of moves. Frighteningly, Rapunzel features a massive 64 levels, meaning that could quite possibly be considered a game in its own right.
Catherine is not without its multiplayer options, but just like everything else in the game they are hardly a walk in the park. Coliseum is probably the most attractive of the two multiplayer modes, purely because it is the most accessible. Unlocked by finishing the story mode, which is no mean feat, it allows you and a friend to tackle any of the single player puzzles in local co-op via a first to two points mini-tournament. Points are earned from being the first to the finish or the last one alive. The fun comes in trying to make your way and obscuring the other player at the same time, whether it be trying to block their path or just plain shoving them from the wall. It is such a pity that there is no online functionality, as the ability to humiliate your friends with your mighty brain power would’ve been a great addition.
The other mode included is aptly named Babel, tasking you with scaling a seemingly endless randomly generated series of blocks. It goes without saying, these levels (there are only four), are much longer than anything found in the single player and task you with getting the highest continuous multiplier (obtained by reaching the next block level continuously, as quickly as possible). The difficulty of these sections could go some way to explaining the excessive unlock method required to play them. To get all four levels you will need to have earned nine gold trophies in single player, a task which is far from the easiest thing in the world! This might mean that the vast majority of players won’t even get to experience all this mode has to offer due to insurmountable frustration. Again, this a pity as it is possible to take on the mode with a buddy (who will play as Katherine), but made that much harder by the fact that if either of you die it is all over.
The average playthrough of Catherine’s main game will last around 10 to 15 hours play, but this figure can be extended if you choose to experience all eight endings. Throw in the arcade meta-game, which supplies its own challenge and 64 levels, and you have a puzzle game orgy waiting to happen. Finally, you have the multiplayer aspect, which takes the genius of the core game and makes it longer, harder and more frustrating with the added bonus of leaderboards!
In a generation that has been flooded with sequels and first-person shooter clones, the release of Catherine is much welcome breath of fresh air. Atlus has masterfully managed to merge genres that have no right to work together, flaunting the end result in all our faces. It’s a game that’s so ridiculously challenging and rewarding, you might think you’re back in the glorious 90’s. If it wasn’t for the ill thought out unlocking method and slightly awkward 3D controls, Catherine would’ve been worthy of an astounding 10/10. As is stands, the consolation prize isn’t too bad…