Catherine is hard to explain to people when they ask about it. What aspects do you talk about? Do you just focus on the tower climbing, since that is the only 'game' part of it? Do you treat the plot as something important, even though you have no meaningful input in what happens, short of the ending? It's a strange title, and there's really nothing like it on the North American market.
Really, you can't talk about this game without going into its plot, which is something new. You can argue with me until you're blue in the face, but plot has never been much besides a footnote in a review of any console release (Indie games notwithstanding). Even Metal Gear Solid 4, probably the only game besides Catherine with such an emphasis on plot, could be reviewed without mentioning the quality of the story.
I'd argue that the story is the central part of this game, moreso even than the tower climbing parts, which are all that makes this into a game at all. You don't play Catherine because you want to climb some towers with a neat story in the background. You play it to hear a good story, one where the gameplay itself is almost intrusive.
But let's talk about the gameplay, anyway. During the game, you are sent to a tower every few nights, one where you have to push and pull blocks into steps that will allow you to ascend. It sounds really simple and straightforward, but it is anything but. The bottom of the level continually falls out, and you have to really keep moving in order to stay ahead of it. The first time I noticed it, I wasn't all that concerned. It's block moving, how hard could it be?
Very. This game is harder than most any shooter or action game I've ever played. A lot of thought went into the block placement in each level, requiring the player to know what is going on above and below at all times. If you have a mind for chess, this would probably be a good use for it, as this game expects you to have a plan that reaches up higher than just the next platform. You routinely have to know how to manipulate what you're building to make something completely different on the fly, adapting to changes in the environment or unexpected missteps. There are also lots of little tricks meant to bait you into making a wrong move, getting you sent to the game over screen in a hurry.
On normal or lower difficulty, you can undo the last few moves you've made, though, which helps a lot. In this game, one wrong push or pull can leave you in a position you literally can't fix, costing you several minutes worth of work. One click of the back button returns you to fighting shape, thankfully, undoing the last thing you did. You can do it several times in succession, too, which helps a lot when you find out you've really messed things up. Hard mode removes this option, so I recommend that you never play on that difficulty unless you have a lot of money to spend on new consoles and televisions.
That button will only help you so much, though. You can't use it when you've made a fatal mistake, which is something that happens often with the trap blocks that come in later stages. Spiked floors, ice, and bombs all exist to make things that much harder. They're usually not that bad on their own, when you're paying complete attention to the game, but once you hear that bell telling you you're almost at the top and you get a little excited and careless, that's when they get you. Trust me when I say that there is nothing more infuriating than stepping on ice a single step away from the finish, sliding right on by and falling to your death.
All the same, I liked the tower sections. They managed to be challenging in a way I felt was fair, and I only ever had my own carelessness to blame when I died. No matter how many times I failed each area, I came back looking for more, never feeling like I'd died a cheap death. It managed to be hard without being frustrating (Well, not unfairly frustrating, I guess).
But that's not what you come to Catherine to play. You want the story, the one about the clueless thirty year old who's bound for marriage and childbirth. Within a few minutes of the start, happy-go-lucky Vincent gets told that his longtime girlfriend, Katherine, is pregnant. Not only that, but she wants to get married, to control their finances, and for Vincent to basically stop having fun altogether. After lamenting it to his buddies, along comes Catherine, who is fun and doesn't seem to have an interest in changing Vincent's current life. Before he knows it, he's cheating on Katherine with Catherine.
You have no effect on that story whatsoever. You have a morailty meter that changes based on how you answer questions in the game, but whether you go chaos or law, it doesn't do anything besides dictate your ending. Go full law and you get married, go full chaos and...well...something much weirder happens. Other than that, you're just along for the ride, watching Vincent continue to mess up both relationships. No matter what way you feel things should be going, you will find yourself continually frustrated with his inability to pick a person and stick with her. He will never do right by either girl, and as such will leave the poor player always wishing he'd just do what you tell him, already.
For the most part, that's part of the appeal. If it were easy for cheating adults to do the right thing, I doubt cheating would happen as often as it does. If I could make a series of in-game selections about whether I liked to pop bubble wrap or if I would punch out someone who hit on my girlfriend and have that clear up all of the relationship confusion, I don't think the game would have as much staying power. No, Catherine wants you to experience the full discomfort of such a relationship, and it does a fine job of it, dragging out every painful moment of it.
Then...it loses its mind. The most unfortunate part of the game is when it decides to explain why all this is happening. Without spoiling anything, it basically tries to make up some nonsense supernatural explanation for it that dilutes the entire work. All of a sudden, you go from an interesting work on adult relationships and their hardships to something about demons trying to do idiotic things. It sours the ending, and kind of ruined the story for me.
It needed to have a strong, serious finish, one that had a little mystery left behind. It failed, though, and because of that I didn't like it as much as I could have. It is solid in almost every aspect before that, though, providing an intriguing, thoughtful narrative on top of a frantic and fun game. If it had just put some faith in its players to look at it intelligently, then it could have really been incredible. Even so, I highly recommend it to anyone who thinks video games can have smart discussions on real topics, and not all be focused on kill/death ratios and teabagging.
If You Liked Catherine, You Might Also Like...
Deadly Premonition – I know I already reviewed this, but it really is a close fit with Catherine in that both of them challenge the player to think about things outside the game based on their events. With its wonky gameplay, though, you may find yourself having a much harder time slogging through this game.
Limbo – This game did plot right despite never saying a single word. It gives no indication about what the events in the game are, nothing to tell you how or why you're doing these things. It leaves its entirety as a huge mystery, and I've talked more about just the ending of this game than I have about every aspect of every single other game in the past few years. A definite milestone in games with intelligent narrative.