Truly original games are few and far between these days. But I had my reservations for Catherine; despite the developer’s great reputation and the potential for their recent puzzle thriller, I foresaw too many stumbling blocks. How can you build an entire game around the same sort of puzzle? What if someone really isn’t a fan of anime? Is the gameplay too frustrating? What if the characters fail to be interesting? However, after playing for quite some time, I realize I should’ve had more faith. This is a refreshing, tantalizing adventure that offers an interactive experience like none other. The puzzles can be infuriating, but the overall package is special.
The production utilizes an interesting combination of high-definition anime cinematography and standard albeit colorful graphics during the gameplay portions. The movie segments are excellent from an artistic standpoint; they’re sharp and clean, and the characters are richly drawn. The in-between sections – like when you can wander around the Stray Sheep bar and talk to people – are just as accomplished, and as for the gameplay, the puzzle design is flat-out ingenious. The bosses (yes, they exist) are just insane and even the minor special effects are decent. It’s a strange combination, granted, but these visuals are top notch.
The sound is just as, if not more important than the graphics in such a game. There’s a ton of voice acting, the soundtrack needs to fit every element ranging from the erotic to the nightmarish, and the basic effects punctuate our frantic climbing. It all excels with the possible exception of the soundtrack, which gets a little repetitive the more you play. The voice performances are fantastic with only a few small exceptions, and the audio really shines during boss sequences. Even effects of lesser importance, like sudden spikes and crumbling blocks, are well defined. If you care, though, there is a balance issue, as the gameplay sound is about half as loud as the movies. Gotta keep the remote handy.
...okay, this is getting ridiculous. I’ve been sitting here way too long, trying to figure out how best to describe the gameplay. I’ve considered being emotional and artistic, as that would indeed pay homage to Catherine’s storyline. But it takes too long and I’m not sure people care. So let’s go with the straightforward: first and foremost, this is a puzzle game and as I mentioned above, you’re always tackling the same sort of puzzle: it’s all about climbing. You have to move blocks around to create a pathway; you can only clamber up one step at a time, and you can’t jump. The blocks will attach to the edge of another block, which means they can sorta hover in the air provided an edge is touching. The latter is key to grasping this concept, and that can take a while.
Puzzle-climbing techniques will be revealed as you progress, provided you talk to the sheep at these safe spots that exist between trials. You’ll learn how to clamber along edges to find better paths, create the simple pyramid climb, and how falling and shifting blocks can be used to your advantage. You’ll come across different blocks; some don’t move at all, some have spike traps, and some crumble if you touch them twice. You’ll also locate items here and there, like the all-important pillow that gives you two extra Retries. Oh, and you don’t have all day: the puzzles are crumbling away beneath your feet as you climb.
Then there are boss encounters, which force you to climb even faster, as something diabolical is giving chase. If you fall at any time, you’re done. The idea is to keep finding those pillows and Checkpoints, and try to remember everything you’ve learned in tense situations. Now, about the control: the game tells you to use the directional buttons but you can also use the analog stick. Do not use the analog. The reason you’re told to use the directional buttons is because it’s more precise. I kept trying the analog and Vincent would leap atop a block when I just wanted him to face it. You just move too fast; you need to go step by step.
You wouldn’t think using the directional pad is fast enough, but it is, and it’s by far the most precise. It still can get a little annoying, though, especially when trying to avoid all the traps, and while you can move the camera, that doesn’t always help. After a while, I just stopped using it. If you can make it to the top, you will be rated on your performance; if you used any helping items (like the one that creates a block), your chances of getting the Gold plummet. But hey, your chances of getting higher scores during your first attempt is essentially nil, anyway. You can always go back and replay stages if you want better medals.
But as you might’ve guessed, the puzzles are only part of the experience. It’s the story and atmosphere that sets Catherine apart. The plot involves morality; depending on how you respond to people, you will swing towards good or evil. This includes replies to text messages on your phone, and most importantly, the answers to questions you receive in nightmares. You are committed to Katherine, your long-time girlfriend, but when you wake up in bed with Catherine, a cute little blonde bombshell who sidled up to you in the bar, things go a little crazy. Vincent starts having these nightamares and if he dies in them...he dies for good.
His friends aren’t big on the idea of marriage and kids, and Vincent is permanently confused. Katherine has been pushing for him to settle down, which has given him second thoughts, so Catherine’s timing is bad. ...or good, depending on how you look at it. The ending will depend on your views on the two distinct lifestyles: settled down or free as a bird. Of course, none of it will matter if you can’t survive and by the way, both girls in question will absolutely lose it if they find out you’re cheating. For me, the story doesn’t fully deliver on all counts; I’m left with several critical questions that go unanswered. Furthermore, I found the characters to be a little too one-dimensional for my tastes.
But as far as game premises and plots go, it’s pretty damn good. Plus, the production value is very high, and there are few flaws to speak of. The control can betray you – especially if you make the mistake of using the analog – and some of the dialogue is a little bland (too much filler; i.e., Vincent’s continual nervous and noncommital responses). That all being said, this is a unique experience that you cannot find anywhere else, and even on Normal, the challenge isn’t absurd. It’s hard and it may take you some time to wrap your noggin around the overall concept, but it’s amazingly addictive. You just can’t stop until you’ve conquered the climb.
Catherine is like nothing else but it doesn’t succeed on originality alone. It features a spectacular puzzle concept, fast-paced and very rewarding gameplay, interesting characters and an effective story, and an atmosphere and style that’s second-to-none. The pacing is just about right, the challenge is stiff but not overwhelming, and the addictive nature of the puzzle-solving keeps us coming back for more. Finally, we never want to skip the movie sequences due to the quality of the production; good voice acting and nice artistry round out the presentation. It can be irritating, the control is tight but not flawless, and the story has a few holes.
Overall, though, it’s one heck of a game. It isn’t for everyone but if you’re looking for something completely fresh, Catherine comes highly recommended. So, are you a family man or a free-wheeling bachelor?
The Good: Slick, sharp presentation and great atmosphere. Good voice acting. Ingenious and addictive puzzle design. Storyline is compelling and intriguing. Great pacing and overall balance. Success is very rewarding.
The Bad: Control isn’t perfect. Puzzles can be downright infurating at times. Plot has a few holes.
The Ugly: "Did I tell you to climb on the block? Did I? No, I told you to face it."
7/28/2011 Ben Dutka