Catherine is a really hard game to judge at face value. Unless you’ve tried the game for yourself, it’s very easy to misinterpret Catherine as some sort of perverse porno game. Even by watching the recently-released Catherine gameplay trailer, it may only confuse you further. You might then be asking yourself even more questions, such as:
“Is this a puzzle game?”
“Is this a dating simulator?”
“How does this all even work?”
“How do you play out the sex parts?”
Before I continue with this review, I’ll answer the last question for you: No, you do not play out the sex parts. This is not a porno game and the act of sex itself is not as big of a factor to the game as you may have been lead to expect. What it is though, is likely a gaming experience you’ve never had before.
The main theme that drives Catherine forward is the concept of fidelity. The game’s protagonist, Vincent, finds himself at a crossroad in his life, as his long-time girlfriend Katherine has been pushing him to marry her. While he loves her, the thought of settling down at this point of his life doesn’t sit well with him. Complicating matters further is Catherine, a mysterious and smoking-hot blonde, whom Vincent has a one-night stand with. It’s up to you to decide how Vincent handles this situation. I love the premise of this game and how it plays off of that theme, as the medium hasn’t really taken on this subject matter before.
How does Catherine turn that core theme into a video game experience? The game is structured in a way that leads you back and forth between Vincent’s real life and Vincent’s nightmares. Within the real world is where much of the story plays out through cutscenes and your own intervention. I’m generally not someone that’s into cutscenes, but they’re really well done and they do an excellent job of driving the story forward. I never felt the urge to skip the cutscenes, as I felt invested in the story that played out each time.
When you’re not watching cutscenes, you have the ability to roam around the bar, talk to people and answer your text messages. Your interactions in the real world are relatively limited, but oftentimes your choices here will impact the game’s morality system, which will affect the direction of the story and your final outcome. I’ve played through the game once following one path, and I’m excited to play it again to make different choices and see where the story could have gone. I would have liked for the game to have a more even balance of cutscenes and gameplay during these segments, but it’s not a deal-breaker.
Most of the actual gameplay occurs in Vincent’s nightmares. Without going too deep into spoiler-territory, Vincent has nightmares where he must climb to the top of block towers to avoid dying. If he dies in his nightmare, he dies in real life. You may not like how it’s tied together, but the developers try really hard to tie these disparate elements together. Essentially, this portion of the game is a puzzle game. Before getting my hands on it, I was extremely turned off by the fact that the core of the gameplay was a puzzle game, as it can easily be interpreted as a cop-out way to make a puzzle game look more interesting. To my surprise, the core puzzle mechanics of this game are really fun. There’s a lot to learn about maneuvering and manipulating the blocks to your advantage, which makes each level really fun to play and rewarding to beat.
Prior to playing this game, I read a lot about how insanely difficult the Japanese version of this game was at launch. It was so hard, that Atlus felt the need to patch the game to make it more playable. With that in mind, I played through the game on easy. While the puzzles are tricky (and downright evil in some respects), I never felt like the game was overly cheap or unfair, at least on easy. It also doesn’t hurt that on easy, the game allows you to undo moves, as well as the fact that it gives you a ton of continues. I would recommend giving the game a go on easy first, then bump it up if you feel it’s too easy, which you can do between the nightmare stages.
When you look at this game as a list of components, it looks like Catherine would be a complete mess. However, I think it does a great job of tying its disparate components into a cohesive, exciting and fresh experience. I’ve never played anything like it, and I’d love to play more games that follow that path. For a game I thought would be nothing more than a creepy dating simulator, Catherine has won me over hard. When I start talking about the best of 2011 later this year, don’t be surprised to see Catherine come up in the discussion.