It’s a part of growing up that everyone has to eventually face… the idea of a long-term relationship and all that comes with it. Steady jobs, mortgages, little to no late nights out drinking with good friends and (let’s whisper this one) the eventuality of a family. Problem is, not everyone reaches this point in their life gracefully. Some people just want a no strings attached relationship, you know? One where lust is the main ingredient in keeping the chemistry going.
So what would YOU do? How would you feel at the sudden prospect of having offspring to look after? Would you do the ‘right’ thing and work hard to support your impending progeny? Perhaps you’d rebel, looking for that last amazing fling to brag about with your mates down the pub on a weekend? Catherine gives you a (relatively) pain free opportunity to test out just what kind of person you might be. Who knows, you might be surprised.
The game begins rather interestingly not with Vincent, but with a framing device: Trisha, a magnificently Afro-toting lady introduces the “Golden Playhouse,” which acts as a medium to experience Vincent Brooks‘ sordid tale. As the story goes, there have recently been a number of ‘bizarre incidents’ involving seemingly healthy people dying in their sleep with a look of anguish upon their faces straight out of The Ring. Peculiarly, all these victims are young men. Of course, the story spreads like wildfire, attracting speculation and theories as to just what might be going on. A curious rumour begins to appear that if a person dreams of falling, then they must wake up before they hit the ground or they will die in their dreams. Enter our protagonist Mr Vincent.
As we are introduced, Vincent is at a restaurant contemplating marriage to Katherine (With a ‘K’) McBride, his long-term girlfriend, who is ready to start taking life a little more seriously. That night at the wonderfully atmospheric bar The Stray Sheep (where you will spend most of your time outside of the puzzle-mode of gameplay), he meets the alluring and instantly attractive woman named Catherine (with a ‘C‘). One thing leads to another and, what do you know, the two end up getting to know each other a little better back at his apartment. After this rather dubious affair, Vincent begins to have nightmares night after night, bizarrely similar to those in the rumours. In these nightmares, he and other unfortunates in the guise of sheep must escape from various horrors trying to end their life prematurely.
Thus begins what could be argued to be the game proper. The nightmare mode is the puzzle mode for which Catherine has become infamous. In this mode Vincent must attempt to climb up giant block staircases that slowly collapse beneath him and, hopefully, safely reach the top in one piece. To achieve this, Vincent must push, pull and climb blocks as deftly as possible whilst navigating various traps such as spikes and ice and eventually, other climbers. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, right and wrong.
The game does an amazing job of introducing you to a basic few patterns of ascending the staircases that you quickly come to rely on. Problem is, if you get too caught up in not thinking outside the box (HA) and neglect more complicated patterns of climbing, you’ll soon find yourself whittling away at your continues and eventually end up a not-so-pretty corpse. Variety is the spice of life, so they say, and in Catherine it’s also the best way to stay alive. Climbing up steps impressively and in quick succession will increase a score multiplier and at the end of the level you’re given an award based on the score. Even seasoned Atlas fans shouldn’t expect too much at this stage until you’ve given the game a few hours. Don’t worry though, practise (should) make perfect, or at least… decent.
Each stage is split up into a number of acts, eventually culminating in a boss stage in which the object of that particular nightmare attempts to kill Vincent head on. The character designs at these points are often mesmerising enough to ensure a couple of deaths simply out of curiosity as to how the grotesque creature will do away with poor Vincent. Handily there is help in the form of a myriad of items to be found throughout the levels including; pillows which give extra lives (an obvious favourite), blocks that can be placed anywhere which can be a lifesaver in a pinch and lightning that can destroy fellow sheep climbers who hinder Vincent’s path. In the respite between the puzzles stages, Vincent can chat to his fellow sheep in order to spend coins on special items or more crucially, learn different techniques. Listening to your sheep chums can mean the difference between life and death in some situations, with their insight offering another possible escape route when all seems lost.
Is it tough? That question is quite frankly an insult to the very idea of toughness. There is an art-form, to be sure. Whether you can at least master the basics enough to be able to seamlessly traverse the first few levels is one of those make or break moments that will be an indicator of how you might fare later on. Struggle in the ‘tutorial’ sections and you might want to put in a few hours practise at the wonderfully handy arcade game Rapunzel at the bar. You also quickly learn that how you spend your time outside of the nightmare mode will not only affect the story and surrounding characters, but how easily you might progress in later levels.
Whilst outside of the nightmare mode, Vincent has the chance to wander around his local watering hole chatting to friends, other patrons who incidentally seem rather familiar or just waste away the time getting drunk and staring at pictures of Catherine on his phone… in the toilet. Naughty boy. It soon becomes clear that each action taken in these moments has not only an effect on what happens outside of Vincent’s nightmares but also inside them. People who were at the bar one day might suddenly disappear the next, after one sheep in the nightmare world may have been facing difficulties.
Do you get involved or look out for number one? Catherine isn’t just about relationships. It’s how you interact with the people around you as a whole. Rather deep, no? This is only emphasised by the questions posed to the player as Vincent ascends to each new level after completing each puzzle level. They may be in some cases quite obviously black and white with which is the ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answer, but the user poll that appears after each answer is given is a brilliant insight into the user bases psyche… or at least how they wanted to play the game their first time.
Catherine holds far too many subtle nuances to mention in one review (what Vincent drinks at the bar affecting his performance that night in the nightmare for one), and the storyline is something deserving of its own dissertation sized piece rather than something that could be encapsulated in just one review piece. Nevertheless Catherine is an addictive game worth persevering with for the multiple endings to the story alone. Sure, it might be a little tough, but don’t gamers complain about the lack of truly challenging games nowadays? Who can lament the mixture of a truly challenging game with an interesting plot and mechanics to boot? That said, as a masochist and a fan of the general Atlas catalogue for causing me many a stressful, yet enjoyable evenings gameplay, I might be ever so slightly bias.
Graphics: 5/5 - I’m a huge fan of the look of this game, I think it works well with the plot and the other general aesthetics of the game. Something more realistic just wouldn’t have worked with the quirky tone this game presents.
Sound: 5/5 - The mix of classical soundtrack with the suggestive visuals and dramatic boss battles just seems to work. Plus the added feature of other tracks from games such as Persona and the Shin Megami Tensei series should make any fan melt with bliss.
Gameplay: 4/5 - This might be a little high for some people as I know many have criticised for the toughness of the mechanics. I however think that a little critical thinking, a little perseverance and just a pinch of patience makes it more than acceptable.
Longevity: 3.5/5 - Why the slightly average score? Sure, Catherine does have more endings than you can push a block at and multiple difficulties to test yourself against to boot but I just wonder how many people can torture themselves enough to see them all?
Overall: 4 out of 5
Catherine is an amazing game. Not for everyone and certainly for gamers who lack the patience to try, try and try again. I think it’s a game that can pleasantly surprise, however, and will get more than a few people obsessively hooked on pushing blocks so much they might even experience their own sheep infested nightmares…