Catherine ReviewBy Stephen Johnson - Posted Aug 03, 2011
The world's first dark-horror erotic puzzle relationship game, Catherine's weirdo-story and demanding puzzle elements provide brave gamers with strange delights.
- Surreal story delivers drama
- Something totally different
- Intellectually interesting
- Controls a bit wonky
- Camera controls wanting
- The difficulty is uneven
Sometimes it seems modern gaming is nothing but movie tie-in games, endless sequels and new IP that’s almost exactly like existing IP, so it’s no surprise that more and more gamers have been clamoring for something different from game companies. Well, squeaky-wheels: Here’s your grease. Catherine is like no other game that has ever been released. How’s this for a game description: Catherine is a platform-puzzle relationship, survival-horror game that revolves around the nuances of romantic fidelity and the nature of Sin and Guilt. It’s a little like Qbert. And a little like a David Lynch movie.
Something this original runs the risk of being so different, jarring, quirky and “weird-for-weird’s sake” that it isn’t actually fun. Thankfully, save for some nuts-and-bolts gameplay annoyances, Catherine maintains its strange internal consistency and displays a sensibility that will hold your interest and provide you a gaming experience like nothing you’ve played before.
Like real life, Catherine is divided into two parts: Consciousness and unconsciousness. In waking life, we see the world through cel-shade-style Japanese animation cut-scenes and a semi-interactive bar. Our protagonist, Vincent, is a 32 year-old hipster everyman. He works a normal job, hangs out in a bar with his friends and lives in a ratty apartment. Vincent is ambivalent about the relationship he shares with Katherine, a beautiful, supportive but naggy longtime girlfriend. Katherine wants to take “the next step” and get married to Vincent, but like many young men, he’s not sure he wants to give up his freedom, so he hangs around a bar (the Stray Sheep), plays video games and endlessly dissects his relationship with his long-suffering pals. He also learns of a strange series of deaths, where otherwise healthy young men are dying in their sleep, seemingly for no reason at all. Into this cheery scene steps Catherine, the classic temptress.
After a foggy night of drinking, Vincent wakes up next to Catherine, the prototypical “Other woman.” He doesn’t remember their encounter the next morning, but is wracked with both guilt and a reluctance to break up with the beautiful, sexy blonde.
When Vincent sleeps, the game part of Catherine begins. Vincent’s dreams take place in a hellish nightmarescape where he must spend all evening climbing a gothic tower of stone blocks. It’s clear that falling off the tower in the dream will result in Vincent’s real world demise, and he’s been placed in this situation because of his real-world sins.
Japanese People Can Be Really Weird
Dream-Vincent has ram horns and shares his nightmare with a flock of sheep, well, man-sheep-hybrids to be precise. All of the sheep-men are climbing the tower too, desperate to stay alive through the night and continue upwards. The sheep are clearly dream-versions of people Vincent knows from his real life; each has his own reaction to the terrible, surreal situation he has been placed into, depending on the kind of person he his. I’m using the masculine pronoun here because there are no women in Sheep-World. Women in Catherine, are viewed as either the cause or the solution to men’s problems, as opposed to fellow humans with different shaped bits, who also must ascend the existential tower.
Upon waking, Vincent can’t remember his nocturnal torture and neither can anyone around him, but each night at the Stray Sheep, things get stranger and stranger, with more television news reports about unexplained deaths, and more cryptic conversations with hangers-on and barflies.
Catherine’s dream world gameplay is very, very difficult. You pull blocks on the tower to create pathways upwards, overcoming seemingly impossible spatial-relationship challenges, while the bottom parts of the tower continually fall away, giving you a ticking clock to keep you on-task and always striving upwards.
Each level introduces new block types, from exploding cubes that wreck the blocks around them, to bouncy bricks that let you skip sections of the course. As you go, you’ll learn different climbing techniques-- either through trial-and-error, or through conversations with your fellow sheep-men--and you’ll need all of them. Catherine’s gameplay is difficult in that “Is this impossible, or am I just stupid?” way. Even bumping the difficulty down to “Easy” won’t allow you to just breeze through every level. Catherine’s “Easy” is harder than many games’ most difficult settings. Thankfully, Catherine provides you with a lot of chances, special items that do things like add a free block, and even a button that lets you instantly take back the last move you made.
This Is A Very Difficult Video Game
Just traversing a “normal” level is hard enough, but then there are the boss levels. Each of Catherine’s eight dream sequences culminates in a boss battle, where Vincent is pursued upward by a grotesque creature that mirrors and represents a dilemma Vincent faces in his real life. Example: A pregnancy scare from Katherine during the day results in a nightmare baby with chainsaws pursuing Vincent up his tower, yelling “Daaadddddy!” Dalliances with Catherine result in a horrible Ass Creature from Hell trying to rip Vincent off his tower.
For the most part, the sweat-inducing pace and difficult puzzles are very fun, but the gameplay is not without its flaws. The controls can be a bit tricky, with the “rewind” button a necessary feature for errant button-presses and moves. Catherine’s camera causes the occasional issue as well. There are parts of the tower you can climb to, but can’t easily see, even if you take the time to swing the camera around. This wouldn’t be too huge of a problem if you had as much time as you needed to complete each puzzle, but when there’s a gigantic ass creature with a tongue between its legs right behind you, ready to do something unspeakable if it catches up, it can be a pretty big problem.
The difficulty curve is a bit off as well. Things don’t really progress evenly in terms of complexity. Some of the puzzles in the beginning of the game are frustratingly, throw-your-controller hard, where some later sections are a breeze.
Catherine also features a number of morality tests that appear in both the real and dream world. These ultimately determine which ending you’ll get in the game. When Vincent is presented with different situations, his reactions in conversation indicate where he stands on morality meter. Each dream sequence contains a “confessional” in which Vincent’s responses to questions like, “Is it easier to lie to someone or be lied to?” is compared against everyone else who has played Catherine’s answer.
I tried to answer all questions honestly, and I found that the questions were interesting and subtle enough to keep my meter right in the center. In other words, these aren’t typical, black-and-white, “Should you pet the puppy or smash its head?” video game questions.
The Wages Of Sin Are Video Game Fun
Overall, Catherine is an intriguing game. Story-wise, it deals with issues that rarely appear as the main driving force behind video games, and the idea of taking existential questions that plague all of us (Should I get married? Should I settle down?) and expressing them as punishing, deadly logic and reflex puzzles comments on the human condition in a way that no other art form can. It’s fitting that the game is punishingly difficult – so is Life, buddy.
Catherine also runs up against the common problem in “interactive fictions.” In order for the story to progress, the player must make certain decisions. Even if you think Vincent would be better off dumping Katherine altogether, or getting married, Catherine keeps you in the place of a cheater, whether you like it or not. Ultimately, neither you, the player, nor Vincent, the character, has chosen to sleep with Catherine, and this lessens the story’s impact.
Catherine’s treatment of serious “adult” themes is adolescent at times, and the real life sequences tend toward melodrama and the kind of weirdo relationships that only seem to exist in Japanese comic books and cartoons. Many of the problems between Katherine and Vincent could be solved with a little honesty… but then, an honest, healthy relationship between the characters would probably result in a trip to Macy’s to pick out china patterns instead of angst-ridden existential nightmares where giant deformed babies swing chainsaws at your face.