Vincent Brooks doesn’t have to save the world from a pending apocalypse. He’s probably not cut out for that job anyway. The listless hero in Catherine has a personal choice to make. Should he stay with his possibly pregnant girlfriend Katherine who he’s been with for five years or leave her for Catherine, the alluring woman he had an affair with?
The choice is yours and determined by Vincent’s actions in the game. How you respond text messages from the two women is one factor. Vincent receives texts while he’s hanging out at the Stray Sheep and you can shuffle through phrases to answer them. What you say sways the pink and blue meter that pops up at the corner of the screen. Throughout the story, a cupid-like angel from the meter whispers in Vincent’s ear, affects his thoughts, and sways the story. The way Vincent answers people in the bar and even the random questions inside a confessional booth also shift the meter. Atlus created… some interesting questions for players and you can see how others answered if your console is connected online. It’s fairly clear how to guide Vincent down a particular path, but I found it more entertaining to answer honestly just to see where I would end up for my first time through.
Seeing Vincent fumble through relationships is part of Catherine. Scaling a block tower to avoid being stabbed with a fork by monster wearing a wedding dress is the meat of the game. In his nightmares, Vincent pushes and pulls blocks to build a staircase where a bell waits at the top. Ring it to escape and dream another day. Physics are different in the nightmare world because blocks hang in midair as long as they share an edge with another block. Vincent also has superhuman ledge hanging powers that rival Solid Snake. While Vincent cannot climb up more than one block, he can crawl left or right as long as there’s another block to hang on. In later levels, sheep impede Vincent’s path. You can knock them off with your pillow or remove a block they’re standing on to send them falling off the tower. Unkind, I know, but it’s every sheep for himself in Catherine.
Nightmares are broken into stages with save points and more confessional questions in between. Make sure you stop and talk to sheep between levels. Friendly sheep give Vincent tips on how to stack blocks. You can also buy items like insta-blocks, a bell that turn all nearby blocks into regular blocks, and an energy drink that lets Vincent climb two steps at once from a money grubbing merchant sheep. Items can make Catherine’s climbing sections much easier, so don’t be shy about buying them! Each day ends with a boss battle where Vincent must outrun a monstrosity that changes the tower as you’re climbing. I played Catherine on normal for my first run and there’s a cheat of sorts that makes the bosses easier. Normal gives players a chance to undo moves by pressing select. This also resets the boss’ attack pattern and reverses effects like blocks the boss changed.
Catherine is said to be a difficult game and I think the a chief reason why is Catherine doesn’t fall into an established genre. It’s a skill based game without a precedent like other platformers or shooters with familiar bullet patterns to dodge. You have to learn how to play the game as you go through Catherine. And when you just feel like you got the hang of things, the tower becomes increasingly complex. Each night players will have to figure out what to do with new blocks like slippery ice, spiked traps, and sentient blocks that move on until Vincent jumps on them. The other reason why Catherine feels tough is you can’t scan the tower to see what’s up ahead. Even when you pause, the game covers the screen with a filter. It’s impossible to plan a path when you’re going through the game on your first try, so I suggest experimenting and using undo a lot. That and don’t be afraid of dying if you just touched a checkpoint.
The North American version of Catherine has the balance patch released in Japan hardcoded into the game. This means on normal mode players earn two retries per mystic pillow (read: extra life) grabbed. Near the end of the game I had over 70 lives stocked up. As long as I was persistent, I knew I would be able to complete Catherine. A bit of outside of the "blocks" thinking helped too since the sheep don’t tell you all of the tips. For players who are more interested in the story, Catherine has a very easy mode, which lets Vincent literally leap through the tower. However, I don’t think the learning curve for the nightmares is as steep as it has been made out to be. The game (in normal difficulty) has just enough of a challenge where it feels rewarding when you complete a level just like Demon’s Souls or a classic Mega Man game, but is far from impossible either. Perhaps, that’s the old school gamer in me talking.
Rapunzel, an arcade machine in the Stray Sheep, is the real challenge. This retro mini-game uses the same rules as the nightmare portions, but Rapunzel is a pure puzzle game. There’s no time limit or evil babies to run from here. Instead you have a limit on how many blocks you can pull. Rapunzel is optional, but it’s linked to the story. While there aren’t as many elements to interact with in Catherine, almost everything comes together. Drinking at the bar serves a purpose. Talking to people at the Stray Sheep effects the game. There’s even a reason (or two) for Vincent to visit the bathroom.
The story and puzzles get more tense as Catherine progresses. Vincent’s personal problems swell each day, but I don’t want to say too much about those since it would spoil the story. I’ll just say… while Catherine is not a Shin Megami Tensei or Persona title, it shares the similar themes. Atlus did a fantastic job with the game’s dialogue. Lines in Catherine feel natural and fit the game’s setting, which is, believe it or not, America. There are a few spots of spotty mixing where voices are too loud during animated scenes and too soft at the bar. I noticed this mostly in the first few chapters and not as much later on. While Catherine does not have a Japanese language track, the English voiceovers are on point and this is because the voice actors that fit the main characters like a glove.
I think what makes Catherine memorable is because it’s different in both its gameplay and setting. The Persona team created a game based on modern life and turned a character who would be a NPC with one or two lines in an RPG epic into an interesting protagonist. When it comes to video games, I couldn’t agree more with Orlando.
With so many sequels on the market, it’s refreshing to see a game that breaks conventions like Catherine.