I’ve played a fair share of games on my consoles but none even closely resembling Catherine, the Persona team’s first current generation endeavor. Catherine is a horror/puzzle/relationship game (is that even a genre?) aimed at telling you a tight, incredibly different story with some clever, metaphorical puzzles. Your first impression of her might be a tad sour, but given the second chance, Catherine is quite the looker.
Vincent Brooks, your fluffy-haired character, is in a pickle. Vince has been with his long-time girlfriend Katherine and, after some not-so-subtle hints, she wants to finally tie the knot. Finally, after all these years he’d want to settle down with the woman he loves, right? Well, not so much. Stemming from the commitmentphobia that men are stereotyped into, Vince’s man-baby ass is frightened of this proposition and deflects the things like this that might require some maturation on his part. But, like any other idiot, Vince screws the pooch up at the worst possible time. When I say he “screws the pooch,” I mean he “screws the hot lady at the bar.” Waking up next to this naked woman named Catherine with no prior knowledge of this incident, he must figure out how to undo his unforgivable mistake and come to a conclusion on what he wants. On top of this, he is having mysterious nightmares (which feed into the gameplay portion) that claim to kill him in real life if he does not succeed. Others are trapped with him and it they must find a way to get out of this hellish torture by climbing and figuring out the secrets of the unknown. The poor man’s life sucks even when he is asleep!
Right off the bat, I was immediately sucked into the narrative. No other game tackles these kinds of problems that are this relatable. Most games have the player saving the galaxy or killing massive amounts of monsters, which are fine in their own right, but not something I can directly relate to. Believe or not, I’ve never saved the world or been to space and fought aliens. Vincent is going through regular human problems that all of us have had in some way and this greatly enhances the story’s impact.
The content of the story, besides being believable (excluding the whole “killer nightmare” thing), grasped me as well mainly due to superb pacing to the game’s mysteries. Twists are thrown to the player at just the right times to keep interest levels at their peak. I hate using this phrase in a hyperbolic sense because of the sheer volume at which it is thrown out there, but my jaw literally dropped at some of the unexpected story revelations. There were times where I was glued to my seat, anticipating the next cutscene to carry the game to its satisfying conclusion. I should probably say “conclusions” because the game has eight endings based on your decisions you make throughout the game. Finding them all will be a delight and inherently gives the game replay value.
Characters share the same strengths as the actual story. Everyone from Vincent, Katherine, to his knucklehead friends felt genuine with their well-delivered lines of dialogue and believable personalities. Chances are that you actually know people like this and their insecurities, senses of humor, and mannerisms give character to reflect those of real people. Vincent in particular really struck a chord with me because, despite all of his stupid decisions and indecisive actions, I really rooted for him to find what he wanted.
A couple paragraphs in this video game review probably warrants me to speak about the actual playing part. Unfortunately, this is probably where most people will start to have a beef with Catherine. In fact, I was one of those people. In Vincent’s nightly nightmares, you climb up by moving cubes to reach the eventual goal at the top, all the while avoid imminent death from falling or other hazards. It sounds just peachy, right? Something unique and challenging for the brain sounds refreshing, right? It is a new, interesting mechanic at its core but it isn’t implemented all that well most of the time for most people (especially at first) to realize it.
The puzzle gameplay is hard from being cheap and just straight up difficult. These routines go from zero to “fuck you” in only a few levels, leaving frustration to become an inevitability. These types of puzzles require a certain amount of thinking and since you are always on a timer, you don’t have the luxury a la Portal 2 to steadily figure out a solution. The first thought action is usually the action you’ll take to desperately try to do something to stay alive and these rushed moves can screw your later moves up fairly easily. There is an “undo” feature on lower difficulties and multiple ways to climb up, but sometimes the damage is already done, leaving death as your only choice. More often than not, because panic and stress plays into the puzzles so much, your brain is left out of the equation favoring your muscle reflexes rather than your brain.
Boss battles and certain cubes may also cause, like they did to me, some rage quits. In addition to the bottom row of blocks constantly falling into an abyss, these boss stages introduce new ways for anger and rage. These oversized titans will knock you off, instantly kill you, randomly destroy blocks, and make your climbing even more hellish in general by adding a whole other dimension of things to die from. It’s as if I didn’t have enough things to worry about on my ascent to freedom. Imagine doing math homework while playing dodgeball with bricks and you’ll have a decent idea of the boss battles.
Checkpoints, or lack thereof, can be disheartening. There are only a few checkpoints per level and since some of these levels are long (and sometimes cheap), just the pure fact of redoing puzzles can be enough to walk away with a red face and clenched fists.
Oh I forgot to mention that you have a finite number lives! Coming straight out of 1998, you only get a limited number of continues in your journey. Granted, I only ran out once (and I died a lot) but this just adds another stressful check mark on the list of stressors. Surprise deaths don’t help as well. Right as you think you are about to nail a section, a spike block appears out of nowhere and kills the last five to ten minutes of flawless climbing and your last nerve. Catherine‘s puzzles are unforgiving in almost every conceivable way and in turn, could be a turn off for a majority of the audience. There is, however, some hope.
After about sixteen or so hours into the main quest, I finally, after countless deaths, sort of felt competent at getting around the cubed towers of death. After enough time I had learned enough tricks to finally feel like I could overcome most of the obstacles required to succeed. But, strangely, that’s just it. It took me sixteen hours to latch on to the main mechanic. That is more than enough to make most other people just turn around and give up. Even though I’m still no pro at these puzzles, I can at least have more fun with the actual game part, rather than just slogging through to see the next cutscene. I’ll also need these skills if I’m ever to conquer the other modes packed into Catherine.
Surprisingly, Catherine has more modes than you might think. There is an arcade machine called Rapunzel with sixty-four stages that nabs the game’s block pushing mechanic and puts it into a stress-free area where you must finish the puzzle in a certain amount of moves. It basically takes the “fuck you” out of the game’s normal story mode missions and slaps a retro art style on it. It provides something to do while adding another layer of complexity to the core gameplay.
Achieving gold medals in single player, which is freaking hard (go figure), nets you the opportunity to play challenge maps on other courses in the main menu. Named Babel stages, these can be played with a friend and add replayability by adding more maps and multiplayer. Competitive multiplayer also finds its way in here in colosseum battles, pitting two players against each other to the bitter end. All of these extra modes not only ensure Catherine will be with you for a while, but they all stretch the genius basic idea and apply it in different ways.
Looking at Catherine (and Catherine for that matter) is always pleasing. Striking anime-like visuals ensure that the game always looks its best. Everything pops with flat but vibrant colors and all the characters animate well enough to make sure your eyes never bore of looking at this game. This is a prime example on how far a brilliant art style can take you.
There were times in Catherine where I was struggling to make it work with her. I wanted to get deeper inside of this tale, but the ridiculous difficulty would often force me to the edge of my sanity. I kept pushing through for story reasons and finally found solace as I got better with the puzzle gameplay. Conquering the story finally gave me the needed respect for the block pushing so, in a way, the need to discover the finale led me to discover how enjoyable the core mechanic was. Catherine taught me to stick with it, even though all of the hardships. I guess all of the relationship profiling the game did on me actually helped.
+Strong, unique story with multiple endings
+Interesting cast of relatable characters
+Core puzzle mechanic is creative
+Meaty story length with extra modes
+Gorgeous anime-like style
-Relentlessly difficult most times
-Too easy to box yourself in and fail
Final Score: 8/10