A fresh take on the horrors of adultery...and sheep.
On the surface, Catherine plays like a reality television show. Vincent, our humble hero, is in danger of losing his comfortable life to his girlfriend Katherine's need for change. Any chance of normalcy disappears when a leggy blonde named Catherine shows up in his favorite bar and then his bed one night. Vincent, a very non-confrontational and unassuming man, must now balance two relationships while keeping his sanity and his balls.
Simple, right? It is until you throw in a raging case of nightmares. As soon as the insanity starts, Vincent begins to have dreams in which he must scale a tower or risk falling and dying. Oh, and the catch? If he dies in his dream, he dies in real life. To add to the distress, young men have been dying left and right in the real world with no clear reasoning behind it. Connected? You bet your boxers it is.
The story in Catherine is enough to make any player antsy. The gameplay only adds to the tension. The only way for Vincent to scale these towers is to move blocks and form stairs. He can only climb one block at a time and, with few exceptions, these blocks must be connected. As he progresses, he finds that some blocks break and cannot be moved, some of them have spikes, some of them will make him slide right off the tower, and some will, uh, lick him to death. You'll want to laugh at the absurdity until you actually come across these blocks and need 40 tries to get past them.
To make matters worse, Vincent is on a time limit. As he climbs, the bottom parts of the tower begin to collapse. If he takes too much time he'll fall to his doom. Then there are the bosses. If you weren't having nightmares yet, you'll be having them just as much as Vincent. These abominations are big, fast, and they want our hero dead. They'll attack him with forks, temper tantrums, chainsaws, and anything else they can get their limbs on. Just their presence is enough to make Vincent push the wrong blocks or slip from his ledge in a mad dash to reach the top.
This is where Catherine really shines. The level of panic it induces puts horror gems like Siren (a game known for raising stress levels to the max) to shame. You need to focus and you need to plan your routes, but you need to do it quickly and efficiently. One wrong move can ruin your entire climb. With falling blocks, bloodthirsty bosses, and even other sheep trying to hinder your progress, you'll feel the fear and stress even if you're a seasoned horror or puzzle game veteran.
So, you need to take this game seriously and you need to be ready for failure. Yes, you will fail. You'll die over and over again, especially after you reach the mid-point. This should not, however, deter you from playing Catherine.
First of all, the story is one of the most compelling to hit shelves in the last few years. Vincent's plight is one that, if we haven't experienced it ourselves, we know someone who has been in that position. The characters are fleshed out and easy to connect with. You'll find yourself concerned about them and sympathize with their feelings. Even the sheep from Vincent's dream, who share eerily similar characteristics to the bar patrons, will earn your sympathy.
Don't believe me? Let me put it to you this way: there are 8 possible endings you can earn, and only the most callous gamers won't be trying for the Katherine True Ending by Stage 3. And it won't be based on how well you've been doing with your climbs.
Second, you learn very quickly what patterns work, what patters to avoid, and what weapons and tricks work best to get you to the top. With a few exceptions, you will play through a few sub-levels that act as trial runs. During these portions, Vincent is introduced to new block types, enemy sheep, and different climbing techniques. The game is cruel, but not cruel enough to throw you immediately into a boss fight when you're still recovering from the last one (of course, some will stick with you the entire game).
There's a lot of trial-and-error, which accounts for the failure you'll deal with. Catherine compensates you for your work, however. There are things like money to buy weapons and pillows to add lives that Vincent collects to aid him. But more importantly, there is the sense of accomplishment and relief both you and Vincent will get at the top of the towers. Think back to those levels or bosses in other games that drove you bananas, and how excited you were when you finally cleared them. Now multiply that feeling by 100 and you'll understand how beating a boss level in Catherine will make you feel.
Finally, this is a game that will get under your skin in a way that draws you in and holds you hostage. The law vs. chaos meter can be fun to play with, but most of the time you'll find yourself answering honestly. Catherine makes you consider about the consequences of your actions. How much you drink determines how fast Vincent moves in the dream world. How compassionate you feel determines how Vincent deals with the sheep-men. How you answer the voice's questions determine what ending Vincent get. By the time you realize what's going on, you've put yourself in Vincent's place and handled the situation that way you would have in real life. And you'll love every second of it.
Not every game is perfect, and Catherine suffers from its own flaws. There are points where it will feel like a chore. You'll do the same things over and over again, especially in the last few levels, finely tuning your climb until you eventually make it to the top. The controls are wound so tightly that it makes precise movement difficult. You'll direct Vincent to turn only to find him impaled on the spikes he was facing. Or worse, you'll tell him to move one block over and watch helplessly as he slides across the entire tower and right off the edge. The challenge modes need to be unlocked, which can be frustrating if you're having trouble with Normal of Hard Mode. Finally, the lack of checkpoints in the later levels are irritating. After clearing numerous towers with a handful of checkpoints, it's disheartening to reach a later level with 100 trap blocks, a case of "holy s**t what the hell is chasing me?!" and only one checkpoint near the bottom.
Despite the problems, this is a game that any hardcore or story-driven gamer should pick up. Casual gamers will likely be turned off by the difficulty and the puzzles themselves, but the story and the characters will be enough to draw in even skeptics. It's a game that stays with you long after you put the controller down.
Bottom line: Catherine is unlike anything on the market right now. It will challenge you, it will frustrate you, it will crawl into your brain and build a summer home there. Only the most persistent players will make it out alive, but I can promise you that the sense of accomplishment will be unlike anything you've ever felt.