If I had to pick one word to describe "Catherine", it would be "intelligent." True, there are other games I'd describe this way, but "Catherine" swaps typical shooting or brawling for puzzle-based gaming. It's a smart game that makes you feel smarter for playing it. And while there's a mature and (for the most part) smartly-written story and some fine-looking cutscenes and graphics, your enjoyment of the game will probably be determined directly by how addictive you find the puzzle mechanics.
Framed as an episode of a late-night cable show, hosted by the enigmatic "Midnight Venus", the game, after an interesting (though long-winded) intro, throws players straight into the action. Vincent Brooks, the main character, is having a nightmare in which he must manipulate blocks in order to ascend a rapidly-crumbling tower. When he awakens, Vincent's life is complicated when his long-time girlfriend Katherine starts dropping some not-so-subtle hints that it might be time for the commitment phobic Vincent to buy her a ring, and when he hears a rumor going around his favorite bar that lousy boyfriends have been having a nightmare similar to his, and that if they fall in their dream, they end up dead on the morning news in real life.
That night at the bar, Vincent's approached by gorgeous Catherine. Unlike brunette Katherine, blonde bombshell Catherine's a free-spirit looking for a good time, and, in a moment of weakness, Vincent shows her one. The story, a mixture of romantic comedy and supernatural horror, is told through a combination of stunning cell-shaded graphics and genuine anime cutscenes. The voice acting for the English dub is top- notch, with voices I recognized from my favorite video games and animated series.
Gameplay takes place mainly in the nightmares, in which you must push and pull blocks to create a path up increasingly tall towers. These puzzles are actually pretty freeform, and different players will be able to improvise completely different paths to the pinnacle of each stage. Different types of blocks are added into the mix as you progress through the game, with various "trap" blocks requiring skill and timing to bypass.
While the puzzles can sometimes be frustrating initially, on subsequent playthroughs you should come to look forward to the challenge of later stages and to find boss "fights" more rewarding. The boss battles, or, more accurately, boss chases, feature monstrous manifestations of Vincent's worries trying to kill him, forcing him to climb more quickly. This creates some of the game's more terrifying sequences, like one where Vincent is being chased by what I think was the "beast with two backs", firing hearts out of its . . . well, you'll just have to see for yourself.
After completing each puzzle, you'll find yourself in a confessional booth where you'll be asked your thoughts on relationships. These questions are randomized each time you play and, along with questions you'll be asked by other characters on the landings between stages, where you're expected to encourage other lambs, and the Stray Sheep, Vincent's bar, as well as text messages you can send Catherine or Katherine, influence the game's nuanced morality system. Instead of pure "good" or "evil", the system is based on which of two viewpoints on relationships you lean more towards, with no consistent indication which choice will lean towards which polarity. Unfortunately, while these choices effect the NPC's around you, Vincent's story path will be the same for every player. Vincent's internal monologue at several points will change, and maybe a line of dialogue here and there will be different, but the story makes all the same stops no matter how many sweet texts you send to one girl and nasty texts you send to the other, at least until the game's finale, when your actions throughout the game will ultimately determine your alternate ending.
However, scenes set in the Stray Sheep do a good job of capturing the feeling of relaxing at your favorite pub, allowing you to choose your responses to the texts from the women in Vincent's life, lend a sympathetic ear to the many interesting characters that make up the rest of the bar's regulars, and chat with Vincent's circle of drinking buddies and the bar's proprietor, the Robert Goulet-like "Boss." There's also a jukebox to change the accompanying BGM and an arcade booth to play a faux-retro version of the game. Of course, you can also pick your poison and drink, which not only gives Vincent a boost during the puzzle sequences but, in one of the game's finer touches, will also provide you with some interesting trivia tidbits on the liquor of your choice.
Other clever touches include the quotes from famous writers and philosophers on love and marriage that display during the game's loading screens, or the game's great score. Original jazz compositions provide accompaniment for Stray Sheep sequences, while climbing sequences feature ultra-modern remixes of classical compositions by Beethoven, Bach, and the like.
"Catherine", perhaps fittingly, is more of a commitment than it seems at first. On at least two separate occasions, I put the controller down, thinking I'd finished the game, only to be treated to a long series of cutscenes and then flung back into another puzzle. And while the game's central mystery provides a couple great twists, once the party responsible for Vincent's plight is revealed, the motivations behind the plot seem more than a little convoluted. Also, a final hosting segment after the game's conclusion beats players over the head with the game's themes.
Other gameplay modes include Babel, a more randomized climbing puzzle that can be played single-handedly or cooperatively, and Colliseum, which is meant to be a competitive climbing mode but plays more like a tacked-on Deathmatch. In the end, it's the game's unique puzzles and interesting characters that made me want to play again as soon as I finished.
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