The bizarrest thing about Catherine is that it isn't as bat-shit crazy as you'd think.
That's despite this being a game that merges dating sim, tower block puzzler, nightmares and life-altering choices on life, love and responsibilities.
But it isn't. It's just rare to see something so inventive and steadfastly outside convenient genre classification. Niche title or something truly special: however you view Catherine, it's hard to ignore.
The game introduces us to Vincent, a slacker who spends the majority of his evenings in trendy bar Stray Sheep, conversing with his closest pals and a rotating cast of fellow drinkers.
The relaxed air, all lounge jazz and alcoholic tidbits, is in complete contrast to his nights. Vincent finds himself trapped in an ongoing nightmare as he transcends numerous stages of block towers, either keeping himself ahead of the tower's gradual collapse or escaping a titanic boss. Bosses that take the form of his greatest fears: his unborn child. The girlfriend he's just cheated on. A gigantic slavering arse-faced fiend (we're still deciding on the origin of that particular one).
Plumping for generous doses of conversation and drink during your consecutive nights at the bar will see about a 40/60 split in game time between Stray Sheep and your nightmares. The two start bleeding into each other as with creeping horror you realise the other male bar patrons join you in your ascent every night in the form of humanoid sheep - and those that plunge to their death in this dream world die in real life. It's a Japanese-style curse specialising in cheating men.
In both worlds you're assailed with questions and conversation branches, the choices of which will ultimately decide your fate alongside your friends - and even strangers.
Share block climbing techniques with exhausted sheep during mid-stage breaks and you'll see a comradeship grow against adversity. Provide encouragement to loners and despair becomes resolution. Give a shit about your fellow man and you'll be rewarded tenfold; but the game doesn't ask the best choice of you. It asks for your honest one.
Catherine is about relationships, or more specifically, causing you to confront your beliefs in monogamy, friendships, responsibility. Of, to paraphrase one question posed near the halfway point, whether life begins or ends when you enter into a life-long relationship with another. How deftly or poorly it deals with these issues, or whether its even worth caring about, depends entirely on the player.
Decisions on fidelity and longer commitment will likely resonate with some who've been through the works as much as it'll be answered flippantly by others untouched by the issues here. But engaging with the story and its characters is necessary if you're to see how realistically Catherine portrays Vincent's plight.
Conversations tip-toe around the real subjects, sentences trail off mid-flow. You'll need to write texts, all with multiple options for each line. Expect to see yourself sitting a the bar for some time as you antagonise over which response to give, what consequence it'll bring. Fretting over text messages something we have too much knowledge of in real life.
Likewise there's uncomfortable familiarity in sneaking glances at smutty pictures on your mobile - curiosity, thrill and guilt mixed in your gut. They're sent as part of an ongoing text conversation with Catherine - her who you've cheated with - and you've got the clear choice to be firm and stop them, or to continue to flirt. Making it isn't as easy as you'd think.
Nor is the situation over-sexualised. Sure the shots are titillating, but it's a realistic snapshot on relationships in the modern tech-heavy age. Where it's all too easy to ping the same messages to multiple people over social networks. To compartmentalise your life. To be someone you're not. To promote a different identity to different social groups.
It's all about perception. We found ourselves awaiting the return to the Stray Sheep eagerly. We had vested interest in the daily news of everybody's lives, and as the game progressed, to see which patrons disappeared from the bar, and how the Catherine (your beau going by the "K" version of the name) situation would become further tangled. The "date" part of the game was more alluring than the puzzle side, and made up for the latter's deficiencies.
The tower block climbs require you to pull out blocks to create ascendable staircases, but paying attention to how your moves effect other cubes on the stack. You'll encounter unmovable blocks. Ice ones. Weak ones. Each requiring different strategies in tackling. However, it feels more blind luck at times to find a way up the peaks, and the boss escapes are the most frustrated we've been with a title for some time as solutions fail to reveal themselves in the mere seconds we have to out-climb the boss's clutching limbs.
And it's ludicrous that the camera doesn't rotate round the back of the stacks given that you'll need to clamber round the back at times to progress, as well as see how back blocks are attached to the rest. Even with generous restarts skipping you back block move by block move you'll often feel like putting your fist through a wall. That extremity is only matched by the pleasure that comes with reaching each peak - fist punching air rather than cement, nightmare conquered.
There's also a growing disparity between Vincent's dream state and his real life persona: in nightmares he slowly becomes more assured, confident. His exchanges with fellow climbers and the disembodied voice that haunts his dreams more confrontational, assertive. Yet you don't see that reflected in his real life - his body language, his nervous speech in Stray Sheep all run counter to his manning-up in his dreams. Given the emphasis put on the character choices in the game, it'd have been good to see the alteration bleed through to the Stray Sheep evenings, and have a better pay-off in conversations.
What you get out of Catherine will be entirely dependent on who you are: concerns of infidelity won't be given credence by particular players who'll enjoy the game instead for its dark humour, nightmarish dream sequences and cool presentation.
Yet simultaneously the questions and responses raised by Catherine will be terrifyingly important to others, and unearth flaws and memories that make uncomfortable digestion. To the rest? Catherine will be dismissed as a narrative-heavy pseudo-Chose Your Own Adventure with anime stylings encasing a frustrating puzzle game.
None of these views are wrong.
- System:PS3, Xbox 360
- Developer:Atlus Persona Team, Studio 4ºC
- Publisher:Deep Silver
- Offline players:1-2
- Age limit:From 18 years
- Release date:10 February 2012
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