I didn’t go on my first date until I was 30. I won’t bore you with the details, but for a long time, my role model was this guy.
Now, that’s an odd way to open a review. Why on earth would I share such a personal (and possibly embarrassing) piece of information with you, the reader? Well, the fact of the matter is that Catherine is a game that makes players stop and think about life, love, and the way men and women treat each other. This is a game aimed squarely at gamers “of a certain age”—in this case, that age would be early 30s. I’m only a year younger than Vincent Brooks, our perpetually panic-stricken protagonist. As such, I found it easy to understand and empathize with the character, where perhaps a younger gamer may not. This isn’t to say that there’s no enjoyment to be had by gamers 17 and up, but it is certainly refreshing to find a game that deals with mature issues in a relatively serious manner. But I’m getting ahead of myself. To understand what Catherine is, we first need to meet Vincent.
Vincent Brooks is 32 going on 20. He has a new job that doesn’t require much of him. He lives in a tiny apartment that looks more like the living area of a college student than a professional, and he is more than content to spend every evening drinking at the bar with his buddies from high school. Despite all of this, Vincent has been in a committed relationship with Katherine McBride, who also grew up with him. Katherine is everything that Vincent isn’t: Independent, motivated, and successful. She cares for Vincent and wants to help him grow up and become the man she knows he can be, but she’s also starting to wonder if their relationship will ever take that next crucial step down the aisle. One night, Vincent gets drunk and has a crazy nightmare, only to wake up to find another woman in his bed. This younger, vivacious woman also happens to be named Catherine. From that moment on, Vincent is cursed and has to survive his ever-increasingly dangerous nightmares.
If that is quite a bit to process, perhaps it would help if you knew that this game comes from the team behind the wildly successful Persona games. This is their first foray into HD game development, and the content of Catherine is just as experimental as the tech is. Besides the excellent anime cutscenes that move the narrative along, Catherine is broken down into two core components: Talking at the bar and navigating the tower in Vincent’s nightmares. It would be best to look at these elements one at a time.
You’ll start your night out at the Stray Sheep, sitting at a booth and drinking with Vincent’s buddies. You’ll get what you give in these parts of the game; take the time to talk to everyone and drink up for tons of character development and information, or just skip it at your peril. I found the characters that walk into the Stray Sheep to be pretty interesting, thanks to translation and voice acting that make the game feel much more grounded than I was expecting. You can walk around the bar talking to your friends and the other patrons, which not only shapes the story but gives you one of the only ways to make any decisions for Vincent. You’ll be able to choose responses at certain points, and this will affect a meter (not “good” or “bad”, but the meaning of it will be revealed at the end) that plays into which of the 8 endings you can get. You’ll also get text messages from Katherine and Catherine, and you can decide how you want to respond to them, if at all. These messages offer a lot of flavor to the game and have cool little details, like the way that Catherine’s texts are written like a woman in her early 20s.
It’s little touches like this that add so much to the admittedly sparse package of Catherine. The animation in particular helps build the game; Vincent walks with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders stuck in a perpetual shrug. He comes across as every bit the poor schlub that the story portrays him as. The character models are full of emotion and go a long way to make the story more convincing, especially the priceless reactions on Vincent’s face. The soundtrack during these sections is generally smooth jazz, adding a chill vibe to the socializing. Finish off a drink and you’ll not only get a boost to your speed during the puzzle section, but you’ll get treated to some trivia about the drink you consumed. For a teetotaler like me, this was very interesting. I was never bored during these sections of the game, and if anything I wanted a little more from each evening. I’d like to give special mention to Troy Baker and Laura Bailey, the voice actors of Vincent and Catherine, respectively. They bring a great deal of personality to this game, and were a joy to listen to.
Eventually, though, Vincent will have to leave the bar and face his nightmares. This is the bulk of the game, and will also be the most divisive. That’s because, for all of its sexy marketing and slick anime interludes, Catherine is a puzzle game, pure and simple. Vincent is tasked to climb a tower of blocks before he falls to his death or gets killed by one of the many traps peppered around the levels. You can push and pull blocks to make a path upwards, and one of the main skills involves pushing blocks so far out that only the edges touch, which in this nightmare world creates a stable place to stand. As you navigate your way to the top you’ll need to be mindful of how much time you have, as the floor is slowly falling away. This makes for a hectic and sometimes stressful experience, because Catherine is a tough game. It defaults to the Easy difficulty, and even then it can be quite the beast. You can buy items between levels to help out a bit, as well as learn climbing techniques from the other men (depicted as sheep) that are in the same boat as you. The only problem with that is that you can’t rewatch these technique videos. There was more than one occasion as I powered through the game that a certain move would have come in handy, but I had forgotten about it in the stress of trying to make my way up.
But making your way up is all you can do. This is all there is to the core gameplay of Catherine, and your mileage will vary on how compelling you find it. Personally, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Each stage brings with it new elements to the formula, right up to the very end. If Catherine was just a puzzle game on, say, the iPhone or XBLA it would feel like a robust package. But gamers expecting a hearty single player campaign along the lines of a Persona or even a Silent Hill may be disappointed. The biggest complaint that I can lodge at the puzzle elements is a pretty damning one, and that is the fact that the controls just aren’t up to snuff. Sometimes Vincent will seem to move an extra spot than the player intends, or he’ll end up hanging off the back edge of the level. In this situation it is extremely difficult to get him back where you need him. The camera controls are barely serviceable, and for some strange reason his controls get switched around when he’s in that position. Fortunately, there’s a handy “undo” button (on all but the hardest difficulty), and the game is pretty generous with the extra lives. Even so, this can be a frustrating game that might keep people from reaching the end.
And that would be a real shame, because Catherine is a story that needs to be experienced by those aforementioned gamers “of a certain age”. It’s a challenging topic that the Persona team has decided to tackle, and for the most part, they succeed. There’s a part in the story that would make a perfect conclusion, but they don’t quit while they’re ahead, and the game goes on for a bit too long and explains things that don’t really need to be explained. But one of the most amazing things about Catherine is that it’s a game that shines the light on the player, and sometimes that light can be uncomfortable. Between each level you will be asked a question that will challenge your thoughts on relationships and marriage. In a nice little twist, you can see how your answer stacked up with other people online. There’s really nothing out there like it, and this is a game that I could see couples playing together and talking about for days afterwards. Thankfully, there’s also a two player mode that unlocks after completing the game, which is perfect for testing the strength of a relationship. Like New Super Mario Bros., the possibility of controllers getting thrown at significant others is pretty high.
Every so often, a game will come around that is just different from most everything else that’s on the market. Games that break with the notion that all gamers want big guns, bigger explosions, and experience points to mess with. Games that make us stop for a bit and make us ask questions, either about ourselves or about this hobby that we love so much. I can say that the story of Vincent Brooks hit me pretty close to home, and I truly believe that this is a game that needs to be experienced by any gamer that can remember when The Legend of Zelda was a new thing. For the rest of you, well, you may want to take a look to see what the fuss is about, but I don’t know if you’ll get the same enjoyment out of Catherine that I did.