Call it fascination with the unknown, but Catherine was one of the most interesting titles showed at the 2011 edition of the Gamescom. The game has already been available in Japanese stores for several months, and its just hit the US at the tail end of last month. In Europe, however, the title still awaits a concrete release date - though its expected in the next couple of months - and the trade fair in Cologne turned out to be a good opportunity to see it in action.
Fascination with the unknown, we said. In fact, the bulk of interest in this title is partially dictated by the absolute aura of mystery that surrounded it since its very first appearance in Japan, thanks to a significant silence from the publishers and the substantial lack of screenshots depicting any "true" gameplay. This mystery still continues to be one of the most fascinating aspects of the game, given that Catherine - just like the charismatic young girl shown on the cover - is very different from initial appearances.
At first glance, Catherine might seem the classic Japanese adventure game, a mix of horror and eroticism relatively unseen in the West. Certainly that provocative cover and the first few minutes of gameplay seems to confirm this.
Vincent, the protagonist of the story and our alter ego in the game, sits in a bar, downing a few beers with some friends, sending text messages and answering questions that determine the position of a karma-meter. An unorthodox answer pushes the meter to the evil, and vice versa. We are told that the answers determine the game's ending, and everything suggests the presence of a game with social slash psychological mechanics, as often happens in many Japanese dating games. Yes: "dating games". But before you dismiss, read on.
After having talked with several people and with his blood and alcohol levels just about evening out, Vincent is dragged home where he falls into a deep sleep. Events take a sharp turn, and the true nature of the game unfolds. The short, primarily social session in the bar in which we only answered questions bobbing from table to table, turns out to be only a small interval between one level to another.
Catherine is a puzzle platformer. Nothing more, nothing less. Its dynamics are in some ways reminiscent of Q-Bert, with a large staircase made of cubes on which we must jump. The player can climb or descend, and move cubes with his hands, the goal being to reach the top of this perilously-positioned tower before the collapsing wave dropping boxes like sugar cubes below reaches him.
You need deft hands, quick wits and logical intuition of how the cubes displace each other in moving to make it. During the half-hour presentation we hadn't the opportunity to examine all the techniques to reach the top of the tower. In any case, we learned of the possibility of acquiring objects before each level, such as extra blocks or additional lives (represented by pillows), items that make for easier ascents.
Sometimes you reach a boss, in which we find ourselves face to face with the representation of a nightmare. As such with dream worlds, the characters are bizarre: men turn into talking sheep, while Vincent adorns a pair of ram horns for example. All the environments and dialogues are anything but plausible.
In the Gamescom boss level we found ourselves being chased by a giant baby, creepily screaming "daddy" every now and then. The child represented Vincent's nightmare of becoming a father. The level turned out to be extremely disturbing, as well as particularly difficult.
Even in the puzzle sections, however, we can see some social interactions. Again we have to answer some questions (which are also able to influence our karma) with one big difference: these questions are crucial, and seem to be able to change the Karma bar in a more incisive way. In addition, as long as you're online, your answers are stacked and compared against the choices made by everyone else. Who wouldn't want to know how many people in the world prefer the appearance to the substance?
Overall, the game is extremely ironic. From the dialogues of the sheep during the hallucinatory nightmares, to the malt-flavored speeches in the bar, the game exudes a certain humor that borders on black-comedy. Suffice it to say that beer in the game has a particular effect: it allows you to move faster on the blocks in the nightmare section. Almost as the game wanted us to push Vincent beyond his alcohol tolerance, in order to read the absurdity of the ensuing dialogue.
The developers have promised that, including puzzles and sessions at the bar, the game's clocking in between fourteen to eighteen hours depending on the skills of the player.
The extreme difficulty of this title, already highlighted by the usually stoic Japanese players, has forced the developers to add a mode called "Super Easy" in the European version of the game. But for purists: the producers confirm the presence of the Japanese language in the game, alongside some excellent English voice acting.
Catherine is one of those games that, thanks to good word of mouth, we are extremely pleased to see reach our shores. If you like your games edging on the unusual, and are looking for relief from the more traditional battlefield this winter, you're likely not to find a better candidate than Catherine.