Catherine is unlike anything you've played. To be honest, I was quite skeptical about Catherine, from its initial announcement; a game where the bulk of the action involves climbing stairs in a Q*bert like fashion just didn't sound all that exciting. However, any doubts vanished as soon as I started playing Catherine for the first time, and began to ascend those steps myself. The action requires quick thinking and quicker fingers, requiring you to strategize a little as you work your way up. When you're not climbing for your survival, you'll be engaged in a compelling story of love, betrayal, and even murder. Catherine is definitely not for everyone, but it's so fresh and different from everything else out there that you just might fall in love with it.
In Catherine, you'll be stepping into the shoes of one Vincent Brooks, a typical blue-collar man in his early 30s, with the lone remarkable trait being a pretty unremarkable guy all-around. Vincent is in an extended relationship of 5 years with a woman named Katherine, and even at first glance it's quite clear who's wearing the pants between the two. While Vincent is content with the current arrangements in their romance, Katherine is already looking ahead to the future: marriage, starting a family, the works. And as luck would have it, this pivotal moment in their lives becomes more complicated as Vincent wakes up with a girl named Catherine (not to be confused with Katherine) in his arms after a night of debauchery fueled by alcohol.
Sexy, fun-loving, and with a bit of a wild streak, Catherine is everything Vincent envisioned in the perfect girl for him. Over the week-long journey, Vincent's commitment to Katherine will be truly tested against the temptations of this wanton sex goddess, and the stress of the situation boils over to the night-time to induce vivid nightmares. Meanwhile, reports of strange deaths have been popping up all over the news, of unfaithful men found dead on their beds. Are there any connections between the seemingly random events? The plot in Catherine touches on subjects that people come across in real life, and is undoubtedly head and shoulders above anything we've come to expect from video games.
When playing Catherine, you'll be dividing your time between Vincent's nightmares and the Stray Sheep. Vincent's nightmares are a manifestation of his psyche based on his real life situation, and are where you'll find all the frantic action sequences. Every night when Vincent goes to sleep, he'll wake up donning nothing except a pair of boxers, armed with a pillow, and be forced to climb a tower of blocks that is continuously falling apart. Failure to reach the top in time spells certain doom for Vincent, and you'll be forced to either restart from the beginning or the last checkpoint. Scaling the tower is a lot more difficult than it sounds, since the way is littered with hazards and obstacles, with rarely a clear path towards the finish line. Heavy and unmovable blocks will impede your progression, and icy, cracked and exploding blocks threaten your footing at every step. To navigate the tower successfully you'll have to arrange the blocks, by either pulling or pushing them, and carve out a route one step at a time. At the end of each night you'll encounter a boss stage containing one gigantic abomination of a creature, each with its special abilities that alter the playing field as you scramble your way up.
There's a lot of trial and error when trying to scale the towers, where a single misstep or wrong move would send you plummeting to your doom and the subsequent restart. This might be frustrating for some people, but the game does offer several features that help alleviate the issue: checkpoints are spaced out across the stages so a death will set you back a reasonable distance, and an undo option on normal or lower difficulty that enables you to erase the last action. The game also does a good job of easing you into the action by slowly increasing the difficulty of the levels, and offers tips in between each stage to help you along. There's a huge thrill involved in this mad dash to the top, knowing that you're racing against time. And when you finally do reach the end of the stage, the sense of accomplishment that follows is a feeling like no other. It may not look it, but the nightmare mode is definitely the highlight of Catherine.
Stray Sheep, a local bar that Vincent and his friends frequent on a daily basis, constitutes the other half of the game. Inside Stray Sheep is where the bulk of the story plays out. You'll be spending time talking with other patrons over drinks, as they share their own personal issues and inner turmoil. By interacting with the other customers, you can influence the outcomes of the side plots by offering words of encouragement, which in turn shifts your morality alignment depending on the choice of words. In addition to chatting up the patrons, you'll also be able to keep in touch with the various people in Vincent's life through his cell phone, via texts and the occasional phone call. You can reply to texts in different ways, and the game allows you to mix and match the options to construct your message. Choose your words carefully though, because the responses sent will influence the way the recipients feel about Vincent.
If you're not in the mood to mingle with the crowd or answer the cell, there are several distractions inside Stray Sheep to occupy your time. Drinking offers cool trivia information on the type of alcohol you sample (and provides a nice speed bonus in nightmare mode), an arcade machine sitting in the corner of the bar lets you play a variant of the nightmare mode, and the jukebox lets you to enjoy the music in Catherine. The Stray Sheep section is pretty cut and dry, but necessary to propel the story along; the intriguing story is the focus here, and easily overshadows the minor shortcomings of Stray Sheep. Couple a compelling story with the anime-****graphics and cut-scenes, and the resulting outcome is actually quite a treat.
Clocking in at roughly a dozen hours, Catherine is a unique gaming experience that few should pass up. The game engages you in more ways than just the frantic action, but also with an interesting story that involves a cast of characters, each with their significant parts that to add to the overall plot. Morality isn't a coin toss between good and evil, and Catherine has successfully introduced a dynamic one that many games have failed to do. If you're going to plan on purchasing only one game this summer, make it Catherine.