When it comes to strange premises for video games, or strange pop culture in general, Japan seems to dominate the field. The past few years alone have brought creative but crazy games like Katamari Damacy, WarioWare, and No More Heroes.
The newest contender for the coveted Most Likely To Make People Go “Huh?” Off The Premise Alone award comes in the form of Catherine, out now for both the Xbox 360 and the Playstation 3. Possibly the only game that can claim to combine both a complex relationship-based plot and a block-pushing puzzle game in one package, it offers decent gameplay, but the unique presentation really helps to enhance the overall experience.
Players take the role of Vincent, a thirty-something man who is struggling to figure out his path in life. His main worries stem from his girlfriend of five years, Katherine, who has been dropping hints that she would like to tie the knot. Vincent commonly retreats to a local bar called The Stray Sheep every night, both to converse with some longtime friends and to drown his sorrows in alcohol.
But things really begin to spiral out of control when one night, as Vincent spends some time at the bar alone, another girl sits down in his booth and starts a conversation. Her name is Catherine (with a ‘C’, so you can kind of tell her apart from the girlfriend), and before Vincent knows it, a few drinks later he’s woken up at home the following morning with no recollection of the last night, and finds the scantily clad young lady laying next to him.
To makes things even harder (and more surreal), Vincent has begun experiencing daily nightmares with a recurring theme. Every night, he is forced to scale a tower of blocks that is slowly collapsing from the bottom. Making things even stranger, he encounters many walking, talking sheep that find themselves in the same situation as him – and some of whom seem to share voices and characteristics with his friends at the bar.
At the top of each tower, Vincent is forced to go into a confession booth and answer a moral question for a mysterious voice before he can progress. He also starts to realize that the voices’ claims that failure in the tower means death, in reality, may be tied into the recent rash of young men his age mysteriously dying in their sleep.
If you’re wondering why Vincent doesn’t try and pursue more information on his situation or talk about it with his friends when he’s awake, they all have the unfortunate side effect of not remembering their dream whenever they’re awake, along with exhaustion from a rough night’s sleep. The overall plot follows Vincent’s dilemma in conquering the towers, figuring out how to deal with the love triangle he’s created, and decide just where his life is headed.
The gameplay in Catherine is divided into two styles. The first one, which takes up the majority of the game, has the player control Vincent as he climbs the tower. Practice will make perfect here as you learn how to push, pull, stack, and climb the blocks in a way that enables you to get to the top. The developers were kind enough to add a powerup system to the game, as both in and inbetween levels Vincent can find or purchase things to make his trip a bit easier, like the abilities to create an additional block or to double the height he can climb.
I played the game on Easy, as the game itself recommended when I started that it was best for both novices and those who just wanted to get into the story. Even on this difficulty, there were still many times where I was stumped, and had to rely on trial-and-error, powerups, and a little luck to succeed. Thankfully, the game is very generous with how you start over – though you have a limited amount of lives (represented by pillows), additional ones are incredibly easy to come across and overall plentiful, and each level has 2 or 3 checkpoints as you go up.
The other sections, which probably take up roughly 1/3 or 1/4 of the overall game, involve Vincent’s nightly visits to the bar. There, you can do several things, including talking to your friends and fellow visitors, play a retro arcade game with gameplay surprisingly similar to your dreams, receive and send phone texts from the two love interests, and even get yourself as drunk as you want, which can increase your running speed in that evening’s nightmare.
The conversations are very straightforward and simple in how you play them: you have Vincent walk over to a character, converse with them and gradually uncover some of their own personal demons, and give them 1 of 2 possible answers, similar to the moral questions in your dreams. Ultimately, each character can end up overcoming their problems or succumbing to them by the end of the game based on what you say – my initial playthrough resulted in all but one character turning out okay, something I hope to correct on my second go.
The extremely unorthodox combination of gameplay styles and presentation certainly makes Catherine a unique title, and to a degree it is also a big part of what makes the title enjoyable. When I first heard what the game was about, I was interested in the story aspect but not so much the puzzling, as I’ve never been very good at or that into the genre. As it turns out, I got pretty hooked on the puzzles BECAUSE of the story – each day brings about new revelations and events to further complicate Vincent’s situation, and I kept going because I really wanted to see how it would all turn out.
While there were certainly moments of extreme frustration, it was very satisfying to overcome them, and the addition of a points and trophy system based on the items you collect and the speed you climb the level at adds extra intuitive to keep going at a breakneck pace. Further twists are thrown at you in the form of boss battles, where gargantuan monsters climb up the tower, using abilities to impede your progress and attempting to tear you to pieces at the same time. The game has each monster designed to look like a grotesque representation of one of the things troubling Vincent – for example, his fear of possibly being a father results in a huge baby with a chainsaw.
I would be lying if I said Catherine‘s plot was exceptionally deep and amazing, because it’s not. Each side character’s dilemma is spelled out to you very plainly, and even the female leads can be boiled down to a few personality traits (Katherine is uptight and dead serious, while Catherine is airheaded and possibly slightly psychotic).
I still found them interesting because of the piecemeal way the game delivers the information. One example is a journalist character who begins to tell you one night of a tragic event concerning a dancer he interviewed, but decides to leave and hold off on the conclusion until the following night. Learning more about everyone’s troubles and pasts is a good incentive to keep the player going, and I found myself playing this game in fairly long stretches as a result.
I should also give props to the people responsible on both the visual and aural aspects of the game. Like many games before it, Catherine uses the cel shading technique for its graphics – essentially, shading and coloring its characters to look more like hand-drawn 2D creations than detailed CG models. I’ve never seen cel shading used in such a way that it’s impossible to tell it’s not really CGI animation, and while that holds true here, I still don’t think it’s ever been done better. Character closeups (particularly on the eyes) give a good impression of a flatter, anime-like style that adds to the game’s overall appeal. The American studios who helped translate the game should also be commended, as both the script and voice acting for the characters is well-written and well-delivered.
Despite all the positives, there is no denying that Catherine can grow a bit repetitive. While new types of blocks are occasionally thrown into the puzzle section, the basic gameplay remains the same throughout 20 long levels of cube pushing, and the real life aspect never has any real additions made in how you play it. This more than anything contributed to my inevitable desire to take a break from the game for a while and do something different. The way the plot ultimately unfolds may be a disappointment to players as well.
Without spoiling anything, the game plays things very straight outside of the dream world, with nothing more than normal human interactions happening. Though, when Vincent finally figures out who’s behind the dreams and just what is going on, a heavy supernatural element is introduced that may feel abrupt and awkward to people who like consistency in a story’s plausability. I myself was not bothered by the later twists and even ended up intrigued as each revelation was unveiled.
The game also has a whopping 8 different endings – which one you get is determined by both a morality meter you build based on your answers to certain questions and situations, as well as a final series of questions delivered in the last level. I don’t know if I’m going to play through this game 8 times even though it only took about 10 hours total to beat (and probably a lot less if you skip the numerous long cutscenes), but it’s a nice incentive to give it a second go.
I must say that it was very bold of Atlus to put the time and money into localizing the game for Western audiences. I remember hearing about its initial announcement over a year ago, seeing what it was about, and immediately thinking that there’s no way it would ever leave Japan, but lo and behold here it is. In an industry that has a general focus on shooting and intense action, I don’t know just how well Catherine will do overall with most American gamers, but if you’re the type who likes to play something quirky from time to time, it will fit the bill.