Which girl would you choose?
32-year-old Vincent Brooks is content with his life. He’s got a decent job, a steady girlfriend by the name of Katherine, and really, he’d be happy enough if things never changed. So it’s no wonder he’s uncomfortable when Katherine starts talking about getting married and raising family – but is that any excuse for a one night stand with the engimatic and beautiful Catherine? As nightmares take over his nights, and resolving his cheating ways occupy his days, can Vincent hope to find a way out of his predicament?
From Atlus, creators of the popular Shin Megami Tensei, comes Catherine, a quirky and unique game that combines elements of two different genres – the visual novel and the block puzzle. It’s an unusual marriage of styles, and yet one that provides an addictive and compelling experience.
Something a little different
A step away from the usual teenage protagonists of Japanese games, Catherine is a more grown up experience, focusing on themes of (in)fidelity and the conflict between remaining carefree and settling down. The story takes place over nine in-game days and nights, during which time Vincent must struggle through his nightmares even as he chooses between tying the knot with girlfriend Katherine or throwing it away for the free-spirited Catherine.
During the day, the game plays out like a visual novel, with Vincent finding himself ever more inextricably drawn into a tangled web that involves keeping Katherine and Catherine unaware of each other’s existence. Although this part of the game is mainly cutscenes, Vincent’s reactions are determined by decisions made elsewhere in the game that can swing him towards the Lawful outcome of staying true to Katherine, or the Chaotic one of throwing it all away to be with Catherine.
Come evening, however, you’ll have the chance to take control as Vincent hangs out with his friends in the Stray Sheep pub. As time passes, different patrons stop by the bar, and by talking to them, you can save them from falling prey to their own nightmares. You can also respond to text messages, get drunk and play a special arcade block puzzle that resembles the main game play – but more on that later. Your actions here will have an effect on how the game proceeds – for example, requesting sexy picture messages from Catherine is not a good choice if you’ve got your heart set on proposing to Katherine.
Where things really get intense, however, is during the Nightmare Stages that take place while Vincent sleeps. A punishment for unfaithful men, each Nightmare Stage is a block puzzle that involves climbing a tower as the bottom of the stage slowly falls away – tricky enough on its own, but made worse at the end of each night, when an oversized homicidal boss will also be chasing you. It takes a combination of speed, strategical thinking and trial and error to make it to the top of each tower – and even on the easiest of difficulty settings, the gameplay can prove quite challenging. It’s usually stressful, often frustrating, and yet somehow still completely addictive and fun.
Fortunately, each night is divided into a number of sub stages, with the option to save, talk to rival climbers, buy items to assist in the climb and learn climbing techniques through indirect tutorials. You also get a chance to enter a confessional and answer questions that will further affect your Law/Chaos alignment – and also get sent to the internet so you can compare your responses with other players. Of course, this is somewhat biased by people tailoring their answers to get specific endings, but it’s still an interesting little feature.
But if this isn’t enough block puzzling for you then fear not, because there’s plenty more to keep you sated. At the bar, a similar tower-climbing block puzzle game called Rapunzel is available, in which you must complete 128 different stages to rescue princess Rapunzel from her confinement. Unlike the main Nightmare Stages, there is no time limit, but there is a limit to the number of moves you can make, switching the focus from “do whatever you can as quickly as possible” to “sit back and think things through”. In fact, despite its simple graphics and retro appearance, this mini-game is potentially more deep and involved than the main game itself.
Also available are a number of other play modes outside the main game. As well as a competitive mode in which two players race to the top of the Nightmare Stages, additional challenges await in Babel Mode, a series of four levels unlockable by turning in a gold trophy level performance in the levels of the main game. The Babel levels are basically the Nightmare levels on steroids, featuring tall towers and increasingly complex and precarious block layouts that force you to use all the techniques learned in the main game. Babel mode can be attempted solo or co-operatively; the co-op version has somewhat shorter levels, so it’s not imposslble to achieve on your own with two controllers.
Unfortunately, however, the English language version of the game has a fatal glitch that it’s essentially impossible to defeat the final Babel level, Axis Mundi, on single player mode.
Catherine’s story is based around a simple concept, and yet it’s one that’s executed very well. With each passing in-game day, Vincent gets more and more entangled in his situation, and while some of his excuses are pretty feeble and outlandish, you can’t help but feel for him. Meanwhile, many of the supporting characters have rich back stories of their own, inspiring you to care about them and want to save them from the nightmares. Whether or not you end up thinking that all men are cheating scum after this game, however, is probably down to your own experience.
Catherine is a gorgeous visual experience, with beautiful cel-shaded graphics and plentiful anime cutscenes throughout. Even the Nightmare Stages are beautifully designed, with exceptional attention to detail even for simple blocks. The only part of the game that’s more simplistic are the Rapunzel stages, and while this is obviously intentional, it is a little disappointing given how much time you can potentially sink into that side of the game.
The background music is low-key and well-suited to the game – it’s unlikely to be anything you’d listen to on its own, but it does the job in maintaining the atmosphere. Similarly, the sound effects are all high quality, and for once, I have no complaints about the English voice acting.
Sexy and flirtatious, Catherine is a unique and addictive experience that certainly stands out from the crowd. Don’t be put off by all the tales of how hard it is – if you’re up for a bit of a challenge, this game is more than willing to provide ample reward.