It has been a long time coming but
Now it’s our turn to fall in love with it. And fall in love we will.
Catherine revolves around a core of distinctly adult themes; commitment, loss, personal maturation and deciding how you’d like your life to turn out in the long run. It’s hardly the stuff that games are known for tackling head on.
More immediately though, this is a game about protagonist Vincent choosing between Catherine and Katherine. Vincent is your average early-thirties guy, stuck in a job with few prospects, living alone in a one-room apartment and sporting the kind of messy dress sense that screams confusion with life. His primary concerns revolve around getting home safely after a night of drinking and avoiding the big questions in life.
A typical night out at his favoured watering hole, the Stray Sheep bar, throws his life upside down when he meets Catherine, a young, exciting, provocative girl with the kind of looks that every teenage otaku fantasises about.
It’s here that Vincent must make his first choice. Does he accept Catherine’s upfront advances and indulge his sexual curiosities and desire for fun without limits? Or, does he stay true to Katherine, his girlfriend of five years who is ready to take the next terrifying steps – marriage, kids, eternal connection.
And thus the game begins.
Over the course of the eight days across which Catherine plays out, the Stray Sheep bar remains the one constant in Vincent’s life. Visiting there every evening, Vincent can talk to his friends and other regulars in a bid to work through his problems and absorb those of others. The place is small, but so packed full of personality, intrigue and charisma that it leaves a lasting impression long after the final decisions and the roll of the credits.
This is largely thanks to top-notch writing, brilliantly conceived characters and a calibre of voice acting that eclipses almost every other game in existence. Everyone in Stray Sheep is instantly believable, resulting in you genuinely caring about what they’ve got to say and how their own personal stories will play out.
As you learn more and more about the patrons of the Stray Sheep, you begin to see similarities between their problems and those of Vincent. Turns out that they all seem to be linked by a curse that only affects young men who are having a difficult time staying committed to their partners, often resulting in them dying in their sleep through unexplainable and suspicious circumstances.
Many of Vincent’s decisions about his future with Catherine and/or Katherine are made from within the confines of the Stray Sheep through way of text message. Text message options are never so cut-and-dry that one response will lead to an obvious outcome. Instead they are designed to judge your moral inclination towards certain issues, your viewpoint then affecting the way Vincent acts in cutscenes. In turn, that alters your relationship with Catherine and Katherine and determines what Vincent eventually decides is important in life.
The pressure that Vincent is under to make a decision between a long-term relationship or keeping the status quo and living for the ‘now’, takes its toll at night when he’s besieged by constant nightmares. These are playable and make up the ‘traditional’ portion of the gameplay.
Nightmares are set in a hellish world of falling blocks whereby Vincent must climb to the top before the blocks fall from his feet and he’s plunged to his death. Each night sees you climbing a series of these puzzles (anywhere from three to six), the finale one of which is a ‘boss’ level of sorts in which you must outrun a hideous creation that plays into Vincent’s real life fears – a bloody bride, an unborn foetus, a bizarre abomination with a giant tongue and ragged teeth sticking out of its *ahem* vagina.
The rules of these puzzles are easy to grasp but that doesn’t make them easy to play/complete. Even on the ‘Easy’ setting, they can be enormously challenging – on ‘Normal’ those from the game’s mid-point and on are a real slog, requiring serious skill to conquer. Trial and error is often the best (sometimes only) way to progress, making for an experience that can sometimes be off-putting and is usually time consuming.
That being said, things never feel unfair and once a puzzle has been worked out you’ll kick yourself for not realising the solution sooner. The truly masochistic will want to beat the thing on the hardest difficulty, but to do so means the wait between Catherine’s story driven portions is long and arduous – which kind of misses the point of the game.
Between puzzle sections you’ll be asked a question as you’re lifted up to the next set of blocks. Like the options in the Stray Sheep, your responses work their way into Vincent’s moral construction and form his personality. Interestingly, you’re given a rundown of what other players have answered and whether you’re in the majority or the minority. What the results reveal are fascinating, and offer an insight into people’s truel thoughts, rather than those that they present to the world.
It’s a welcome and creative way of breaking up the difficult gameplay with something not only fun but educational and rewarding in its own right.
No matter how difficult the nightmares may be, you’ll want to complete them because the plot and your effect on it is mesmerising in its portrayal. There are so many paths to take through the game that multiple playthroughs are almost a requirement rather than an option.
One completion will result in Vincent seeming weak and dominated by Katherine, a man using Catherine as a means of escape from the claustrophobia. Another set of decisions depicts a man of power, using the good fortune of Catherine’s entrance to have some fun before he settles down with Katherine for the rest of his life. Or, you may see him as a confused young man who fails to come to any conclusion and ends up with nothing as a result.
Catherine is a brilliant look at how one week can change your life dramatically, for better or worse. The way it manages to wrap up its central aspects in a game of brilliant construction and outstanding flair stands testament to what this industry is capable of when designers are given the freedom to realise their ambitions.
For all intents and purposes, Catherine makes a mockery of the term video ‘game’ and what most people associate with the term. Yes, Catherine is a game, but it’s also so much more than that. By placing you so elegantly into Vincent’s world, and doing so in a way that makes you feel as though you are Vincent as opposed to ‘just’ playing as him, Catherine manages a level of intrigue so rare in the boxed console game space.
I’ve never played a game quite like this before, and I want to play it again.