The strangest thing about gaming is that if you are fortunate enough to sit in the average video game user age group, then you’ve probably been in that group your whole life. Over the past 30 years, video games have grown alongside the gamers that were introduced to them, and in the early 80s those gamers were mainly children. Those children, and the industry itself, are now in their 30s, so while technology has advanced to a point where videogames can portray stuff that was never possible, gamers are looking to be entertained in ways that also have never been possible; in short, they’re wanting something a bit more mature.
It’s only recently that truly mature games (I don’t mean blood, gore, swearing and nudity) have been possible. LA Noire tried to help gamers get into the minds of criminals, while Heavy Rain made gamers decide what they would and wouldn’t do to get back a member of their family. While Catherine doesn’t dabble with quite such dramatic situations, it does deal with themes most people in their 30s are familiar with: cheating, heartbreak, and stupidity.
Catherine is a game about a 32 year old guy called Vincent. Vincent has been in a relationship for a few years with a girl called Katherine, and while there doesn’t seem to be much passion or romance in their relationship, they seem happy, or at least content. After feeling a little pressured by Katherine to get married, Vincent hits a bar with his friends, one drink becomes many, and he eventually finds himself talking to a young girl by the name of Catherine.
Catherine is a bubbly and eager, blonde-haired, big-breasted girl, and soon enough all those drinks inside Vincent mix with the stress and uncertainty sitting in his stomach. A bizarre nightmare later, and Vincent wakes up in his room, with Catherine (not Katherine) naked next to him. He’s done the unthinkable; he’s cheated on his long term girlfriend.
In any other game this might be a throwaway plot device to further a story, but this is the bread and butter of Catherine. How you, as Vincent, deal with Catherine’s advances, such as suggestive PXTs and TXTs - and how you allay Katherine’s fears that something is up - will lead you through a rather interesting story of how a modern day relationship can be, and will ultimately decide the fate of our almost unlikable anti-hero. There’s only so much that can be said about the story without spoiling too much, but needless to say you will be umming and ahhing your way through conspiracy theories the whole way through. The tale here is captivating and presented so well that it almost seems strange that Catherine ISN’T an adventure game, but a puzzle game.
The meat of the game comes in the form of nightmares that plague Vincent’s sleep. Every night Vincent finds himself at the base of a block tower which he, and numerous sheep people, have to climb. The majority of the different sections of tower have lower sections that fall away over time. If Vincent falls he’ll die, and if that curse he’s heard rumours about are true, when he dies in his sleep, he dies in real life. If the bottom of the tower isn’t falling away, there’s a boss Vincent needs to deal with. Vincent’s fears gain physical form, and end each night of sleep trying, in differing ways, to make him fall, or to kill him then and there.
But it wouldn’t be much of a puzzle game if all Vincent had to do was climb. The problem with this tower is that there doesn’t seem to be any straightforward way to progress. He’ll need to push and pull blocks around to make the necessary steps to continue his way up the tower, and with the tower crumbling away underneath him and different blocks causing different things, he’ll need as much cunning as possible to get to the top. Vincent will fall though, and he will get crushed, spiked, pushed off or mutilated. The puzzles are hard, even on easy mode. And while you will learn new techniques from your new sheep friends, they probably won’t be something you fully integrate for a while, as you get the hang of exactly what it is you’re doing.
That’s not to say that all of the gameplay lies in the tower climb. How you react to different situations, or answer certain questions, can cause the story to alter and lead to one of 8 different endings.
The hardest part of playing through Catherine isn’t the fact that you’ll find even the easiest difficulty a challenge, but the fact that you’ll need to specifically remind yourself that this is a puzzle game, and that the tiny offerings of exploration (the inside of a bar) and the conversations (with people in the bar) aren’t anything more than a way to find out more about the people around you and the growing story. Early on you’ll be forgiven for dreading the next puzzle in the same way Vincent might dread his next nightmare, but the promise of having your questions answered will be more than enough to keep you going.
The graphical engine the Atlus team have used is amazing, and really shows that they have a bunch of talented artists that could, by all means, create their own 3D anime. In fact, it’s so good that the more traditional 2D cutscenes almost look worse and out of place. The only gripe with the art side of things is that no matter how good a game looks, incorrect lip sync is offputting. Surely this is just a remnant of when the lips matched the Japanese voices perfectly, but it ends up detracting from the beautifully rendered and acted cutscenes.
In fact, the voice acting is probably one of the major high points for this game. For the most point, lines are delivered believably and, thanks to the mature content and how it’s handled, swearing doesn’t sound out of place. Sadly, it seems that all of the sound design budget went into the cutscenes and Stray Sheep bar. While you’re climbing the tower you’ll be subjected to the same one or two lines out of Vincent’s mouth the entire way up. It’s a minor gripe, but when you’ve heard ‘Alright, I’ve got it’ eight times in three seconds it starts to grate.
Those aren’t the only gripes to be had here though. Despite Vincent’s utter guilt and sorrow for cheating on Katherine and, depending how your game is going, his want of having her back, you never actually see him and Katherine happy together, even before the affair. It seems a bit disjointed, especially since Katherine never really comes across as that nice a person.
Still, despite the few minor flaws, Catherine is a game that anyone looking for something a bit more mature should own. If you’re not a huge puzzle fan, then allow the dread of each night to help you feel that much closer to Vincent. It’s a great looking game that presents itself more as a guilt simulator with puzzle elements, and anything that tries, and succeeds, to be this unique and mature deserves to be played.
Lasting Appeal: 7
Available on PS3 and Xbox 360.