Catherine is rather extraordinary. If you were to simply pick up the box and see the artwork, you might put it back and dismiss it as a quirky Japanese dating sim that somehow washed ashore here to indulge the very, very lonely. I’m maybe an eighth accurate on that. Who or what is Catherine, you ask? Where to begin?
We’re introduced to Vincent and Katherine, a couple struggling to keep their relationship afloat. Katherine is ready to commit, while Vincent is, well, not so sure. He’s breaking in a new job, and he seems to be an overall nervous wreck about entertaining the notion of marriage. After a rather curt discussion, Katherine leaves, leaving Vincent to drown his sorrows in pizza and glass after glass of rum and Coke at The Stray Sheep, where he (and, consequently, the player) spends a lot of time at. A woman who I can only describe as anime’s take on Cindy Brady (commence cringing!) sits down at Vincent’s table and heavily flirts with him. She is Catherine, and she is temptation and sin personified. Later in the night, Vincent retires, heads to sleep, and has a nightmare. This is where the journey begins.
Perhaps the main course of Catherine, we guide Vincent through a puzzle of climbing, pushing, and pulling block after block in some deranged setting that may very well be a swinging bachelor’s version of Hell. All I’m thinking about moving through this introductory puzzle is the game Q*Bert — a version of Q*Bert that delves into the psyche of the neurotic male.
Survive the nightmare, and Vincent wakes up in terror, unaware he has spent the night with the mysterious Catherine, and from there we’re to determine how Vincent will handle this.
When we’re not guiding Vincent through the nightmares, we’re answering his text messages. Much like the dialogue wheels and choices seen in games like the Mass Effect and Dragon Age games, we can choose the tone of Vincent’s replies to Katherine and Catherine, whether apologetic, condescending, angry, or pathetic responses. There is, of course, some “morality” bar represented by an angel and a demon that determines whether Vincent is heading down a path of sainthood or debauchery. I couldn’t tell you the outcome of this, since I’m not completely done with the game yet. These choices possibly determine the future of his relationship with Katherine and whether or not Vincent achieves a certain kind of nirvana.
The game follows a particular pattern, but doesn’t feel repetitive or formulaic. Every new nightmare Vincent has is a different set of puzzles where he has to arrange blocks in a certain order and climb and race to the very top while the area is either collapsing and disappearing, or a manifested demon appears to try and kill Vincent. There is almost always a new obstacle, my least favorite being ice blocks that can send Vincent skidding along and falling to his doom. The puzzles definitely become more difficult, and I’m on EASY mode! If Vincent makes it through, however, he is given a challenge of morals at the end and then proceeds to go about the next day in the real world, trying to relate his nightmares to his relationship problems.
The entire game has an interesting style. Because of its more grounded, psychological tale of relationship woes and wants compared to the more direct, physical conflicts we get in most games, it takes advantage of traditional animation and tells the story as if we were watching an entire anime series. Sometimes the pacing becomes rather slow, especially as every visit to The Stray Sheep involves hearing whiny, expository comments from its patrons. Sometimes you’re bombarded with messages from Katherine and Catherine.
Although I can commend the game for exploring the more complicated facets of relationships compared to the more narrow approach taken by other games that include a romance arc, Catherine suffers from the typical Japanese style of dialogue where many lines can be rather misinterpreted and sometimes makes what is supposed to be an exploration of social functioning appear rather black and white. Of course, that is one person’s take on it, as there are people out there who may completely relate to these characters. This is certainly one of the few “mature” games that actually does feel like a game for adults.
Catherine is brought to you by Tokyo-based studio Atlus and as of this post I am hearing that this is, in fact, their most successful game in North America to date, which is great. The game itself is well-done (seemingly, as of the 6th floor level) in many respects and as the icing on the cake, the English dubbing is not half-bad.