Catherine is a unique proposition that frustrates partially because of its potential. Cumbersome gameplay design, a hokey save system and a rotten narrative twist detract from the intelligent storyline that's at the centre of its premise. The game's originality makes it worthwhile, but expect it to try your patience.
With the budgets of video games increasing, more and more publishers are looking towards certified hits to make their investments worthwhile. Modern military first-person shooters, open world games involving gangsters and racing games with big budget licences are all safe propositions. They're also dime-a-dozen, and at the very least Catherine deserves credit for trying something completely different. This is a wholly original experience, and while it fumbles with its own ideas far too frequently, the game's worth experiencing purely because there is nothing else like it.
Developed by Atlus' Persona team — and surely a test-bed for said franchise's jump into high definition — Catherine is a boys-to-men love story focusing protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your stance) Vincent Brooks, a 32-year old male trying to fight his own maturity. The plot itself is quite closed, focusing on a small cast of characters and a limited number of locations. It feels like a theatre production in this regard.
As news bulletins fill with reports of young men dying in their sleep, you find yourself juggling the two ladies in your life by day and climbing curious block towers by night. As you progress the two worlds collide, giving the narrative an intelligent density that's fairly interesting to follow.
Vincent Brooks himself is a shallow character, dominated by his powerful long-term girlfriend, Katherine, and unmotivated by anything in his life. Just as he questions his commitment to Katherine, he finds himself embroiled in an affair with the voluptuous Catherine, a younger, carefree lady who seemingly represents the same ideals in life as the protagonist. It's from here that Vincent starts having nightmares: chased by terrifying figments of his imagination, he must climb curious block towers to escape the visions alive. It's in these nightmares that Vincent happens upon other figures, sheep that are lost in the same dream world as Vincent. While we appreciate some of the supernatural aspects of the storyline, the plot takes an unnecessary twist towards the end of the game that detracts from the seriousness of its opening.
The biggest problem here is the game's misleading morality mechanics. During the game's day time sequences you'll receive text messages from the two ladies in your life. The game offers the option to reply to these texts, allowing you to choose from a selection of pre-defined sentences in order to compose your own responses. The content of your messages has implications on your morality, adapting some of the game's dialogue sequences as well as its ending. While the implementation is cool, the game feels rigid. Vincent's behaviour rarely jives with the choices you make, leaving the decisions feeling ultimately meaningless.
Other moral choices come during the nightmare sequences, as you are taken to a confessional booth and are asked a series of questions in a pseudo-personality test. While these questions make good use of online integration to give you a pie chart overview of the responses other players made, the content of the trivia feels completely detached from the narrative. It's a pointless addition.
Yet for all its faults, Catherine's plot is the game's best component. The gameplay of the nightmare sequences revolves around a series of block puzzles that require you to scale skyscraper-sized towers as quickly as possible. Here you'll need to push and pull blocks in order to create makeshift staircases to get to the top. The whole mechanic is brushed off as a metaphor for Vincent's development as a character, but it really just amounts to filler to spread out the campaign. Puzzle fans will probably derive some enjoyment out of these block puzzles, but we just found them frustrating and stressful. Even on Easy difficulty, the block puzzles are devilishly challenging, and the frustration is compounded by the game's dodgy save system. You're only given the option to save between each puzzle, so if you get stuck at the midpoint of a tower, you're compelled to keep climbing in order to get to the next save point.
While the game is constantly trying to teach you the best ways to solve the puzzles, it never really clicks until the very end. Bizarrely we found ourselves rushing through the game's final (and presumably hardest) levels with ease, while we spent upwards of an hour cursing under our breath at some of the earlier levels. We reached controller tossing levels of frustration at times, and that's never fun in any game.
Beyond the game's difficulty, Catherine is just supremely repetitive. The block puzzles rarely change, and when they do it's at the expense of a poorly balanced boss stage. The structure is also way too predictable. During the day you'll spend your time in the Stray Sheep bar, walking around and chatting to customers. Once you've spent an hour or so listening to what everyone's got to say, Vincent will go to bed and be challenged with another sequence of nightmare puzzles. The structure never changes, and there's very little else to do to break the monotony. An arcade cabinet in the Stray Sheep bar allows you to play a quirky 8-bit re-imagining of the block puzzles from Vincent's dreams, while a jukebox allows you to toy with the game's admittedly brilliant soundtrack. But that's really it.
Thankfully the game has wonderful production values. The story sequences themselves are told through a combination of in-engine cel-shaded visuals and animated cut-scenes. The character models and locations are vibrant, colourful and packed with personality, and the dialogue is surprisingly well executed by the game's voice cast.
Catherine is by no means a bad game, but it's certainly a frustrating one. After a promising opening, the game takes its narrative in a completely unnecessary direction, and it substitutes its lack of compelling content with too many out of place puzzles that are more infuriating than enjoyable. Despite giving the illusion of plot involvement, you never really feel in control of events. That said, the game deserves credit for doing something original, and while it falls short in almost every respect, is still worth experiencing on the basis of how unique it is.