Counting sheep will never be the same again…
Do you consider yourself a pervert? Would you dump your partner if you found out they were a robot? These are just a few of the questions you’ll get asked in Catherine, Atlus’s unique puzzle adventure. Catherine is the quintessential ‘not-for-everyone’ game for various reasons but whether you’re hopelessly addicted or have no interest in playing, its originality cannot be over-looked. A quick glance at the box-art or the splash screen and you know you’re in for a gaming experience like no other, one that explores various themes including sexuality, love, marriage, infidelity and guilt…quite a tall order for a puzzle game.
The story of Catherine revolves around Vincent Brooks and his long-time girlfriend Katherine. Katherine is looking to take their relationship to the ‘next-level’ but Vincent is quite happy to leave things as they are. As Katherine starts to mount the pressure, Vincent begins experiencing strange nightmares. However Vincent has more things to worry about when he ‘accidentally’ has an affair with a blonde free spirit named Catherine. Things get more ominous when Vincent realizes that dying in his nightmares means dying in real life as well – and with men dying in their sleep all over town, Vincent is determined to survive the nights…that and to keep his polygamous situation a secret from both Katherine and Catherine. Thus the torment begins…
Catherine takes place in two ‘realms’: the Stray Sheep (the real-world bar Vincent and his friends hang out in every evening) and Vincent’s nightmares. In the bar, Vincent can talk to his friends, the bar keep and other customers, he can drink and listen to music or he can play Rapunzel, an arcade puzzle game available in the bar. When Vincent is done with the Stray Sheep, he can go home and sleep…effectively initializing the nightmare sequences. In his nightmares, Vincent is donning only his boxer shorts and holding a pillow…oh and he has sheep horns as well.
These sequences constitute Catherine’s main gameplay mechanic which is scaling towering structures by arranging and climbing blocks. If that sounds a bit weird it’s because it is, but its also great fun and quite challenging. Vincent can only climb one block at a time so he needs to push and pull blocks to make staircases. Each type of block has different properties. Some blocks can’t be moved while others are heavy and require more time to move. Cracked blocks crumble after standing one them twice and as you progress you’ll encounter a variety of other blocks with properties that I won’t disclose so as to not spoil the element of surprise. Catherine’s block mechanic requires a lot of practice for you to be able to think within the game’s constraints and to plan accordingly. A good example of this is the game’s twisted sense of gravity. As long as a block is connected by one edge to a block below it, it won’t fall. It will only fall when there are absolutely no blocks below it, which can take some getting used to.
As is the case with most Japanese games, leniency does not feature heavily. The tower you’re ascending is constantly crumbling so you are required to think fast and act fast. In certain boss-type levels you’ll also be haunted and attacked by massive (and quite terrifying) manifestations of your fears and anxieties…often linked to developments in Vincent’s story. These ‘creatures’ are constant threats and will make your job substantially more difficult. When you finally reach the end of a sequence, you’ll escape through a door to the welcome sounds of Handel’s Hallelujah chorus. Nightmares are generally made up of 2-5 sequences separated by “landing” areas where you can save and discuss climbing technics with other ‘sheep’ trapped in the same nightmare. To progress to the next sequence requires you to step into a confessional and answer a random question. The questions change every time you repeat a level but they are all of the same variety and your answers affect the game’s strange morality meter. Depending on how you answer questions and how you interact with the sheep on the landing or with people in the bar, Vincent’s story will conclude differently. A nice touch no doubt, but generally not enough motivation to replay the story mode.