For the past few years, the video game industry has been drowned in a see of First Person Shooters: relatively the same plot but with different skins and largely the same weaponry. It's a tirade of similarity that make me wonder how the gaming industry is going to continue keeping the masses in check knowing that every franchise seems to be blending into the same situation of nonsensical multiplayer extravaganzas. But when has a game ever questioned your beliefs in terms of physical relationships? When has a game solemnly put you in a situation where your feelings towards video game characters and your real life past experiences have merged into one whole massive journey? I can tell you once I picked up Catherine, I was in for a trip. And a damn good one at that.
Catherine puts the player in the shoes of one Vincent Brooks, a 32 year old Engineer living day to day with his long time girlfriend Katherine. An avid drinker and smoker, he spends his nights after work hanging out with his friends reminiscing about the good ole' days at the local bar, The Stray Sheep. After one particular night of drinking, he wakes up the next morning in the bed with another woman, named Catherine. While he has very little memory of how this occured, he becomes induced with strange nightmares around the same time as meeting the mysterious woman: sheepish nightmares where Vincent must strategically climb several rows of blocks to escape certain doom and to make it out alive, where he may wake to live another morning.
Catherine's main gameplay comes in a form of block-climbing puzzle game. Vincent is able to pull and push blocks in a 3D zone in order to climb up each succession of blocks in order to reach the end goal: a bright door to freedom. The gameplay is as simple as pushing and pulling blocks while running up and down said blocks to reach higher ground; but Atlus brings a satisfying difficulty to the puzzles, really making the player focus on their decisions carefully before pushing or pulling a certain block. Each puzzle as the game progresses adds more difficulty by adding special blocks to the mix. These blocks range from: dark blocks, which take longer to move; to ice blocks, where the player will slip and fall off if run upon. Keeping in mind all the tendencies of the special blocks along with navigating a lane to freedom can really test one's brain, not to mention Vincent is under a time limit: the blocks under him slowly break off, leaving little time to stop and think.
These nightmarish levels are established in Stages for each night, with a boss battle at the end of each night. These boss battles all range under fears of Vincent that all correlate to the story and put the real test of skill and patience into the player. Boss battles will not only places numerous special blocks ahead of your path, but also use special moves to make the climb even harder: from switching blocks on the fly to climbing the block wall itself to try and kill you, the stakes run even higher as the level progresses. Catherine's style of gameplay will be new to many players, and these bosses are terribly unforgiving: most players will run into multiple re-tries and increasing frustration as the bosses show no mercy in making sure Vincent does not make it out alive. Controllers can and will fly as these bosses will test the patience of many.
If Vincent manages to make it out of the nightmare alive, he will awake the next morning, unsure of what happened in the dream. Here the game progresses into the main portion of the innovative title: the intoxicating Stray Sheep sessions. Here Vincent will drink and partake with his three friends, as well as hear out the problems and tales of the locals that enter and exit the bar. While conversating with friends and strangers, Vincent also can use his cell phone to receive and reply to text messages, from Katherine and possibly Catherine. What Vincent says in these text messages will sway his emotional meter, that will move to either naughty or nice text messages and change the course of the story's one of eight endings. The Stray Sheep caught most of my attention throughout the game, and wanting to see more of the story got me to yearn through the nightmares to see what would unfold in Vincent's next day.
Catherine's focus on the ever-changing plot and characters is one of the major pluses to the title. Each characters portrayed has a specific likeness to each of them, and Vincent's actions has a very big effect on each character. As the game progresses, the player will feel a sense of care for each person they talk to; especially when Katherine and Catherine start a conversation with him on his phone. Catherine also changes the course of each ending by using a Confessional during Vincent's nightmares. After safely coursing through the puzzles, Vincent will be able to talk to other people who are witnessing the same nightmares as Vincent. To access the next stage, Vincent must answer a question, in which Atlus hopes the player answer honestly, about specific topics ranged from what may or may not be cheating in one's eyes, to what they would do if their former lover wanted them back. These answers sway Vincent's bar to the course of how you answer, and will ultimately decide how the game ends and in what way. A fun little add-on included is other players' first time answers to the question the player answered, showing how the population looked at the question and what they answered with.
The style of Catherine comes in a form of anime-ish, Cel-shaded mixture of perfection. With the game being rendered in beautiful Cel-shaded graphics, the pre-rendered cutscenes play out like a TV Anime show and have a great look to them. Catherine as a whole plays a lot like an Anime television show, with most voices coming from prominent American voice actors with Anime backgrounds. Having a cast of voices with a previous knowledge of TV and movies helps drive the style and art of Catherine into pristine territories.
Catherine also has a host of side-missions once your main journey has ended. Babel mode is Catherine's Time Attack mode where Vincent must climb a series of blocks in as fast of time as possible. Each try of the course switches the placement of the blocks, so no two tries are the same. Colosseum mode; which is unlocked after the player beats the main story, is Catherine's versus mode, where you and another player race to reach the top first. Friendships will be tested as one player can possibly trap or strand another player as they succeed to the finish. The Stray Sheep also holds an Arcade Machine with the game, Rupunzel. Rupunzel is a retro-style version of the nightmares, where instead of having a time limit and unlimited moves, the player is given no time limit and a certain amount of pushes and pulls to reach the top of the level. Rupunzel is a fun little sidetrack to the main game and an interesting take on the formula used in the main game.
Catherine is the first game in recent years to not ask how one would shoot and kill countless men in war battles, or how one would valiantly save millions from medieval fantasy doom: but to ask how one would handle a week of infidelity and lies to the one you love, while also questioning ones place in society and in life, wondering if that player is either happy or just comfortable, fearing change? Atlus' high risk on Catherine plays out fantastically and really drives home a mature plot worth talking about and playing through multiple times over. Though certain aspects of Catherine will be nightmarish to your patience and tolerance, it's worth the 12-15 hour look into the life of Vincent Brooks and playing one of 2011's most interesting titles.