The Mature rating on Catherine is an understatement, but not because of its anime-style partial nudity, overtly-suggestive sexual themes, devilishly-crafted cut scenes, and frequent use of alcohol. Catherine deserves an M for its mind-bendingly realistic adult themes that force the player to make decisions that are all too true to real life. That’s not to say that every person cheats, or even thinks about cheating, but that’s also only the initial hook to draw players into the heavier overtones of how humans choose to live. More importantly, the game deals with the issues that arise after real human choices, even simple decisions like how many drinks you have one night, or how you respond to a text message. This real-life simulator works, and at its best, Catherine is an example of why games are more than just pretty pixels.
I spent a lot of time debating how to write this review. You see, Catherine has a lot of personal meanings to a guy like me. For starters, Vincent, the main character, is in his early 30s, he likes his day job well enough to keep it, but doesn’t pass out daisies to his co-workers. He spends more time drifting through life in a partially inebriated state than is recommended by even the most desperate pub owners. His long-term girlfriend, Katherine, wants more of a commitment, but Vincent would rather keep life the same and not worry about the future. His friends, love them or hate them, are his world and have shared his highs and lows since grade school. Yes, Vincent’s characteristics run true for just about every guy my age. As a special note to that specific group of guys: don’t play this game in front of your significant other. If you do, she may stare you down based on the decisions you make for Vincent, especially the ones involving Catherine’s text messages—you’ll see why when you play it.
Catherine has two key gameplay elements. About one-third of the game is a dating simulator, where players are tasked with managing Vincent’s basic life actions. The other primary element involves nightmares as told through puzzles. During your waking life, you’ll decide what alcohol he drinks at the local pub, the Stray Sheep, which serves as the primary setting. You’ll ask your friends for advice, pick songs on the jukebox, play an arcade game, and, of course, figure out how to respond to your girlfriend when she starts to question your fidelity. This part of the game tells the real-life style story that, midway through becomes more like a soap opera, and ends in a trippy, almost spiritual quest.
Each day you are exposed to more of Catherine – the vixen, not the game. You see, Catherine as a character is carefree like Vincent, young, sexy, and eager to please. At first she’s a tease, but later you see that even the cutest of girls have a dark side, and unfortunately Catherine’s is, shall we say, potentially deadly. Players make decisions throughout the entire game, and Catherine is only part of the overall equation. How you react to her advances, your friends, and your girlfriend have a direct impact on the game. This is shown through a gauge that at first seems like a Catherine vs. Katherine meter, but it’s a bit more freedom and youth vs. responsibility and maturity. Sometimes I was surprised how the game judged my answers or actions and at times it felt a bit arbitrary.
The bulk of the videogame-style action happens during Vincent’s nightmares. These nightmares play out as a giant puzzle-platformer experience. Players are tasked with moving Vincent up a giant stone wall composed of movable blocks. Like everything else in Catherine, this is really an analogy with themes that fly through the television and slap you in the face. There is virtually no subtly in Catherine, but even in that I wonder if the writers were making a point that the male target audience wouldn’t recognize complex ideas like the manly reluctance to attend therapy or even make that final step into adulthood.
These nightmares are truly brutal. The lighter side sees Vincent sprout sheep horns, while the darker moments sees his fellow ‘sheep’ dreamers slowly die off in the real world. The gameplay is extremely fast. As you move Vincent higher up the walls, cubes fall from underneath you, and if you miss your step or climb too slowly, you’ll fall to your wooly death. There are multiple paths to the top of each level, where you are rewarded with the option to buy an item, chat with fellow sheep, learn new techniques, and eventually enter a confession booth to answer that floor’s pressing question. For example, you may have to confess whether you envy males in porn. It’s answers to questions like that and your actions in your waking life that help unfold the story—and ultimately lead to the game’s numerous endings.
Each night, at the end of the level, Vincent must face off against a trippy boss. Players must quickly scale the block wall to avoid his cryptic bride, or the baby with chainsaws, for example. The boss battles are tough, but the game as a whole is actually quite difficult. The puzzle-platforming portion is downright nasty at times. It’s not the blocks with spikes that are so frustrating, or the slow-moving dark blocks, it’s some of the mind-bending concepts the player is forced to consider as they guide Vincent up narrow pathways. I like hard games and I fit in the boat that feels this generation has lost that certain punch the Golden Age packed. But, Catherine is difficult in a rewarding way. I spent about an hour on one particular level, but once I figured out the pattern, it helped me breeze through the following level in that particular nightmare. Camera angles or the lack thereof, were really the only shortcoming in the nightmare sections. There were times I needed to see the back of the wall, but the camera only swings so far to each side, meaning some of your actions are done blindly.
I will say the frustration kicks in towards the end, but it’s mainly out of repetition. The latter levels are quite tough, doable, but tough; however, the game started to drag after the eighth hour. The game is a lot longer than I thought it would be, especially considering the drawn-out ending. Levels got a bit too drawn out and frustrating, but luckily the reward of waking up the following morning and learning more about the story was enough to keep me pushing further. I can say I enjoyed the story and gameplay outside of the nightmares so much that it forced me to play through the monotony of the puzzle sections even when I was ready to stop. You even get multiplayer challenges once you beat the game. Match that with the numerous endings and different ways to play through each level, and you have a game with great replay value.
Catherine’s attempt to capture the more realistic side of gaming works because it’s one of the first titles to push moral decisions on its players, and provide real-to-life reactions and results. While you get a chance to guide the narrative, at times it’s unclear how exactly your decisions are shaping the plot and end result. But at the end it all works quite well. I had some issues with the ending I was given, but I suppose I’m the only one to blame for that. And that is part of Catherine’s mystique. Sure, the puzzles grow repetitive and some of the camera angles are frustrating, but the reality that these could very well be your co-workers, your older brother, your girlfriend, or your pub mates may strike nightmarish fear into the generation that grew up when games were nothing more than moving pixels on a television screen. It just goes to show that a lot has changed since Mario and Donkey Kong ruled the gaming world.