Vincent, the main character in Atlus’ “Catherine,” is a 32-year-old with commitment issues. He’s been with his current girlfriend, Katherine, for five years, but he spends every night drinking with his friends before stumbling back to his bachelor pad. He’s just found out Katherine might be pregnant, and his reaction is to have a fling with a hedonistic blonde named Catherine.
“Catherine” (rated M, $60 on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3) traverses rare territory for video games, revolving around themes of adulthood, responsibility and commitment. Despite racy dialogue and the kind of partial nudity found on late-night cable, Vincent spends a huge chunk of his time having heavy conversations with his friends and other patrons of the Stray Sheep, the bar they all hang out at.
“It sounds like a soap opera,” one of my colleagues quipped. That’s fair, so long as you keep in mind that “Catherine” is like a soap opera directed by David Lynch after a “Nightmare on Elm Street” binge.
That’s because when Vincent goes to bed each night, he’s plagued by a recurring nightmare where he must continually climb an enormous tower, pulling and pushing blocks to create a path to the top as the tower slowly disintegrates behind him. If he falls to his death to the dream, he dies in real life.
As TV news reports of young, healthy men dying in their sleep make clear, Vincent’s not the only one having the dream. He has a knack for running into other Stray Sheep denizens on landings between some of the levels. While on these landings, Vincent and company swap stories about their nightmares and share climbing tips. Even though it’s painfully obvious to the casual observer who these guys are, Vincent and his fellow drinkers don’t recognize each other at first, because they all appear as sheep in each other’s dreams.
The block-moving puzzles can be nightmarishly difficult, though an easy mode is available if you just want to experience the story. Because the levels slowly disintegrate from the bottom up, Vincent must keep moving. While the existence of an “undo” button allows for some experimentation on the trickier puzzles, the threat of death if you move too slowly creates some nerve-wracking moments. After several late nights of playing “Catherine,” I expected to have the tower-climbing nightmare myself.
Between stages of some of the multipart block-moving puzzles, Vincent must enter a confessional booth and answer a question before proceeding to the next area. The questions, such as “Does life begin or end at marriage?” are transparent attempts to get Vincent to choose between Catherine or Katherine, but Vincent’s choices affect the directions the plot takes. After answering each question, Vincent is whisked off to a new area.
In the final level of each night’s dream, Vincent takes part in the same stressful puzzles, while also being chased up the pyramid by some sort of manifestation of his internal conflict. On one stage, Vincent is chased by a giant, crying baby, while in another Katherine tries to stab him with a fork.
Though the extra tension is not unwelcome, these battles can feel needlessly difficult because one or two of the antagonists partially obscure the puzzle if Vincent allows them to get too close.
A similar limitation occurs occasionally in other areas. Vincent can slide around the back of puzzles to climb, but “Catherine’s” camera angle doesn’t change. You can rotate the view 90 degrees either way, but even still, Vincent is often partly or entirely obscured when he slides around back. What’s more, pushing left moves Vincent to his left. When Vincent is facing you, pushing “left” actually makes Vincent move to your right. It’s even more confusing when your view of Vincent is blocked.
When you fail at a game because you can’t see everything the character you’re controlling is doing, it feels like bad game design is holding you back more than your own lack of skill. These moments, while atypical, make “Catherine” more frustrating than it needs to be. It would’ve made the puzzles less punishingly difficult had Atlus included a freely rotating view of the proceedings, and made the bosses semitransparent once they started to block the player’s view of Vincent.
That said, these moments of frustration are rare enough that, once you get past one, you’ll get a reprieve. With the possible exception of the very last level, the climbing, in-game movies and interactive scenes on the tower’s landings and in the Stray Sheep are spaced out well enough to keep the game from dragging or feeling overwhelming. The puzzles themselves are also well-arranged. Chances are if you’re really struggling with a puzzle, an easier one is just around the corner.
Even though its difficult puzzles may make you curse vigorously or want to throw your TV out the window, once “Catherine’s” supernatural soap opera has its hooks in you, you’ll want to keep playing to see how it all pans out. The game features plenty of replayability, with eight endings, an in-game arcade game and offline cooperative and competitive puzzle modes to keep you coming back.
The soap opera plot, puzzle-driven gameplay and high level of difficulty mean “Catherine” is the very definition of a niche title. (After Japanese players knocked the game as too difficult, Atlus added the “easy” difficulty for the North American release.) But for jaded older players looking for something different, it’s hard to top a game whose main character spends the bulk of the game wandering around in his boxer shorts, clutching a pillow.