In a season defined by sequels, trilogies, and re-imaginations of older works, big new properties are a rare breed. Catherine is not only new, but it's unlike any other game I've played before - in more ways that one. A tale of tragedy bound up in sexy packaging and wacky Japanese presentation, Catherine suffers the unfortunate fate of being an extraordinarily fun, challenging game put together in an arty, experimental narrative that will prevent the world at large from being able to appreciate the love and attention that was packed into the parts of the game that actually look and feel like a proper video game.
Catherine is a puzzle platformer wrapped in the shell of a semi-interactable soap opera experience. You star as Vincent, a thirty-something computer programmer who's feeling increasingly pressured by his girlfriend, Katherine, to make a long-term commitment. When a sexy stranger named Catherine walks into Vincent's life and mysteriously winds up in his bed the next morning, Vincent knows he's in a heap of trouble. His days are thrown into chaos as he tries to juggle his conflicting relationships, while his restless nights are plagued by mysterious sequential nightmares.
Get all that? If you've paid any attention to the marketing bullets for the game, that you've probably caught a whiff of this storyline thus far, because the game and everything around is completely enamored of its ability to tell a story, as though such a thing had never been done in a game before. The marketing bullets for the title talk almost entirely about story or story-related mechanics.
Uh ... sure! Whatever you say! Let's bang!
Unfortunately, for all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the narrative and the game's desperate want for you to learn and care about the story, it fails to come across as engaging after the first couple of hours once you settle into the game's rhythm. Part of this is the nature of the game - a linear action title with sequential levels: Vincent's "nightmares." These nightmares feature Vincent (and other men from around town, all mysteriously visualized as anthropomorphic sheep) desperately clambering up a block puzzle before the bottom drops and they plunge to their deaths. The fight to survive the dreams seem to have real-world repercussions - anyone who dies within the dream world dies in their sleep back in cutscene land. It becomes painfully clear that neither Vincent nor anyone else will make any major discoveries about the nature of these nightmares or why they're happening during the overall course of the game, which is frustrating because Vincent and his drinking buddies seem to literally spend all day just sitting in a booth contemplating the mysteries of the world around them, only to find that their memory is hazy. The same goes for the riddle of the strange girl Catherine, whose presence in Vincent's life becomes progressively more invasive and insane as the game goes on - without actually going anywhere until the game is practically finished.
Don't be fooled by this screenshot. Nothing happens in this game. Never.
Added to this is the insulting insinuation that your moralistic choices within the game will influence the results of the story. Unfortunately, all this really means is that you can influence which ending you get (eight in total.) While this isn't a terrible feature to have, the way that it's presented makes it seem like Vincent's dialogue choices and story events will actually be changed based on your preferences. This is completely false, and it prevents the player from developing any real sense that they're crafting Vincent into an avatar that they consider appropriate to the situation. This hurts the game in a big way, because as-is, Vincent is completely an utterly unlikable. His circumstances seem progressively more and more idiotic even as they become more and more serious. The game tries to play off his reactions to wildly serious adult situations with half-hearted anime gasps and eyeball-pops, but neither the glaze of comedy nor Vincent's impotent attempts to extricate himself from his situation do much to make him or the people around him any more interesting. For that matter, very little of the game comes across as "sexy," either. While sex and drinking are featured pretty prominently, the sensual parts of the game come across like a risque foreign film that you secretly owned as a pre-teen - rather than tits and fauxgasms, it's simply a random ass shot and a lot of ennui over unchilled martinis.
Foreplay doesn't usually make my eyes do that. ... OR DOES IT?
I've give the story and its presentation a lot of shit, and that's mostly because I'm angry at it for getting in the way of one of the most fun platformer titles I've played in a long time.
Blocks and blocks and blocks!
Once you get past the endless cutscenes of people being sad and nothing fucking happening is a charming little puzzler where you can manipulate blocks in order to build a path up a wall that is constantly crumbling away at its bottom. Because the block-stair that you build is comprised of pieces of the very wall that you're trying to climb, you must constantly juggle the conflicting goals of climbing an ever-changing ladder while not inadvertently demolishing the path beyond your current goal. As levels go on, special blocks with unique properties are added, as are items that allow you to create new blocks or otherwise change the state of the battlefield in some beneficial way. It's a ton of fun, minus some irritating camera and control issues (mostly to do with moving around to the back-side of the 3D wall.) It's also SUPER challenging at times. I tried the "Hard" mode of the game on my initial playthrough and I got stuck on level 2 for about three hours before tucking my tail between my legs and scurrying back to the main menu. The map designs appear to be completely different between difficulty levels, so people who enjoy playing the game will get a lot of bang for their buck. There's an extensive challenge mode to play, too.
Each level is a race to the top ... and you're racing the level itself. Unless it's one of those monster baby levels. Those exist. They're weird.
All-in-all, I'm glad that I gave Catherine a shot, but I didn't beat it ... and honestly, I'm not too sorry that I didn't. I got to the very last level after 10 hours on regular difficulty, and I had to wait through a lot of irritating story segments to get as far as I got. I'm not sure that the game totally deserves to have me give it the honor of defeating it. The core gameplay is a treat, and one that I wish more people would have the chance to play. The exact same mechanics would be a top-selling mobile app if they were ported over correctly. As-is, it seems like someone came up with an interesting plot premise, wrote a first draft of an ending to the story, and neglected to go back and create a beginning and middle. If you're going to put so much story into your game, you owe it to at least have a complete tale, and put forth the effort to make it a good one.
What is there to compare Catherine to? Game-wise, I don't play a lot of sexy survival horror action platformer titles. Catherine's a sick amalgamation - puzzles and drama and occasional glimpses of scrambled-Skinemax softcore pornography - the kind that errs too heavily on story and begins and ends with David Duchovny walking wistfully down a road while clutching a telegram.
Have you played this, reader? I fully admit, I expected to have a much more positive review of my experience when I first started playing. What'd you think?