Almost everyone has nightmares. Some can be quite vivid. Some you will remember, some you may not. Some have a ridiculous premise that makes almost no sense whatsoever. Have you ever actually died in your dreams? Have you ever wondered what would happen if you did? Have you ever dreamed about having to constantly climb a tower made of blocks, while trying to avoid being pushed to your falling death by talking sheep? If you said yes, you need to get some help. If you said no, well, Catherine will have you dreaming those nightmares for days.
You play as Vincent Brooks, a computer programmer who enjoys living the easy life. He has a decent girlfriend, good friends, and a less than stressful life. That’s the way he likes it. Recently, his girlfriend, Katherine, has been pushing the marriage button on Vince, seeing as how they are both in their early 30′s and not getting any younger. Vince feels hesitant to agree. One night, while hanging out in the local bar with his buddies, he gets really drunk. That night he has a nightmare that consists of talking sheep, a giant tower made of blocks, and the constant fear of falling. When he wakes up, he’s in his bed, but he’s not alone. A beautiful young woman named Catherine is lying next to him-naked. Vince then realizes he has cheated on his long time girlfriend. Now begins his crazy downward spiral of either trying to stay with Katherine, or start up a new relationship with Catherine. It’s kind of crazy, right? It gets even crazier.
The game is essentially breaks down into two sections: the dream world and the waking world. While in the dream world, you control Vincent as he scales the tower of blocks, constantly climbing to the end of a section. Here is where the puzzle mechanics come into play. You will have to pull, push, climb, and shimmy across blocks in order to create a ladder to climb up to the top. That is the simple way of putting it. You’ll have to use critical thinking and sharp wit to make it out alive. If you fall, you die, and as the story goes in Catherine, if you die in your dreams, you die in real life. The first few stages are relatively simple. The game eases you into the puzzle game play. Later on in the game, the stages will test your skills, as well as your patience.
Even on Easy, some of these puzzles will drive you up a wall. Each stage has a special block that throws a monkey wrench into the mix. Some blocks will be made of ice such that, when you walk on them, you slip in the direction you were walking until you either fall off the edge or hit another block. There are bomb blocks that, when stepped on, will being to detonate and damage blocks around it. The damaged blocks will eventually crumble and you’ll be left with nothing to stand on. Each stage adds something new, upping the challenge of the puzzles. There are also power ups you will collect and use during your climbs. Some will allow you to jump higher, remove enemies or create helpful blocks.
Using these will help you out immensely, but bring down your final score for the level. At the end of the level, you are graded on your performance. A better rating mean more money to spend on powerups at a landing. At the end of each night, there is one stage that consists of a boss fight with twisted parts of Vincent’s sub-conscience. These bosses chase you up the tower. During these sequences, the boss will not only kill you if it catches up to you, but it will hinder your climbing with special attacks. Attacks will reverse your controls, knock you down a level of blocks or activate traps. These levels add an even larger sense of panic to the climb.
When you reach the top of a certain stage you are brought to a landing area. Here, you can take a break, learn special climbing techniques from the other sheep, save your game and buy power up items. This is also where you will discover that the sheep are really other men in the waking world that you run into at the bar. Listening to their problems and encouraging them here will help them make it through to the next level. You can also gain some very valuable knowledge, as some of the sheep share climbing techniques. Make sure to listen carefully to the techniques. These may very well save your life. After you are finished with the landing, you move on to the next puzzle. Before you leave, though, you are asked a question by a mysterious voice in a confessional booth. How you answer will swing your alignment towards chaos or order. The alignment will determine which ending you will get, so be careful of what you choose.
The waking world is where you’ll gain most of the story, and most of it is managed through cut scenes. You will talk to people at the bar about the happenings in the news, relationships and many other problems. Here, you will be tasked with trying to help out other people with their problems by trying to encourage them. Since most of the people you meet at the bar are the same sheep you meet in your dreams, they could fall in their dreams and, therefore, die in the waking world. While talking to the other patrons, you will sometimes be given an option of what to say. Some of these choices will affect your alignment meter as well. The alignment will also affect what is going on in Vince’s head.
You will notice that the meter will pop up in some cut scenes, and Vince will think to himself depending on what his alignment is at the current moment. Vince will also receive text messages from people he knows. Some of these, you can reply to. You can choose what you want to say from a series of different sentences and phrases. How you respond to certain people will impact your alignment. In the bar, Vince can also drink. Drinking will make Vince move faster in the dream world for that night, so go ahead and get plastered. There is also a video game you can play in the bar called Rapunzel. It is basically a video game version of the dream world. People will come and go while spending time in the bar, so if you want to help people, make sure you talk to everyone.
The game is a puzzle game at heart, but the simulation parts of the waking world are very enjoyable and have major significance in the game. It feels like Persona 3 or 4. There are almost two separate games to play that eventually tie into each other. The puzzles themselves made me feel like a genius one minute and a complete moron the next. The waking world does a good job of giving an ominous feel to the entire game. There are always talks of the latest victim, of the mysterious deaths around town and, towards the end of the game, you can tell Vince is stressing out about the whole ordeal with his girlfriend and the other insane amount of things that come along.
There is also a speed run mode, outside of the main story, called Babel. Here, you climb very difficult levels that progressively become longer and more challenging . You can even play this mode with a friend locally, but only after you complete the main story.
The visual style is superb. It has a good anime feel and even the in-game cut scenes give off a hand drawn vibe. The animations are great and fit well within the context of the game. Vince’s facial expressions and mannerisms are downright funny at times. The voice acting is another fantastic part. The acting feels genuine and really adds to the story and overall feel. Everything about the story, in both delivery and art style, is very well done.
The only real problems I had with the game are the puzzles. Some, even on the easy difficulty, will give you trouble. If you put the game on normal, the game becomes a constant game of trial and error. After a few puzzles, you’ll return to the waking world only to find out you still have two more stages to play through. Sometimes, you can get tired of the dream world and just want to hear more of the story. Another thing that got me was the fact that some of the questions are so ambiguous, that you don’t really know what answer will bring you closer to order or chaos. Then again, maybe the game is supposed to elicit honest responses from the player, rather than engineering the result with a specific mindset.
All in all, Catherine is a very different game from any other I have played before. If you enjoyed the different aspects and play styles of the Persona games of the past few years, you will enjoy the pacing of Catherine. The story is very interesting, and the puzzles, while difficult at times, can be very satisfying. I feel that it was a very refreshing game to play that offers up a good story and some of the most unique game play mechanics I have seen in a very long time.
Review copy provided by publisher. Both versions played through completion.