New York legalizing gay marriage troubles many people because it challenges what it means for people to be “a couple.” This was something Atlus was smart enough to use in its “Are you committed” trailer months ago for its provocatively styled game Catherine. So is the game “fluff” waiting to rot out your eyes, or is it an intelligent commentary on relationships?
The story of Catherine is a somewhat simple: 32-year-old Vincent Brooks has been with his long-term girlfriend, Katherine, for give years. In what seems like a chance encounter, he meets the perfect “monkey wrench” for their serious relationship: Catherine. She could be considered every heterosexual man’s dream: lingerie-like clothes, a fit body, long blonde hair and a sexually evocative attitude. She also shows up at his apartment even when he remembers going home alone. All the while, Vincent has a recurring dream that he and other sheep are climbing massive walls. And if they fall during this dream, they die in real life. What will happen to Vincent? Will he make sense out of his relationships? Who will he choose to be with? And who is this mysterious Catherine?
What Catherine does exceptionally well is its sense of atmosphere. It feels like a television miniseries, and the game revels in it. The feeling is completed with the “Golden Theater” symbol in the upper-left-hand corner of the screen, which is almost constantly seen in every part of the story along with the characters’ names seen in the introduction as if they were actors playing a role. The hostess of the game, The “Midnight Venus” Trisha, has the class of Dianna Rigg while dressing like a dominatrix. The 65-year-old twins, Lindsey and Martha, who are found in the Stray Sheep bar comment about their past lovers and events with amazing yet disturbing ease. Also, Vincent’s alignment (chaos verses order) influences the plot as it influences HIS thoughts and reactions to the events. Furthermore, the game is drenched in dramatic irony: We see things clearly while Vincent and his friends are, figuratively and literally, in the dark. Add in that fact that the dialogue isn’t just “mature” due to the coarse language spoken — it is sexual!
The graphics fit Catherine perfectly as well. It’s a highly stylized magna/anime look, with cleavage constantly seen, jaws dropping impossible lengths, eye movements, beads of sweat running down character’s heads, the flow of smoke, disembowelment of characters and disturbing nightmarish monsters (how about a baby with a chainsaw or Death’s Bride chasing you down with a massive sword?). It’s awesome as it helps set the tone for the game’s theme of traditional gender politics and relationships.
The music is also awesome. The game takes classical music and transforms it into dark, intense spaces that inhabit nightmares. Horns and strings mingle together and transforms the stereotypical high-spirited hunting music into a tense climb. Haunting organs are heard in a different track. And then there’s the rock version of “Canon in D.” The composers’ families might be receiving royalties, but the songs now belong to Atlus due to their unique and haunting feel. Furthermore, the voice acting is superb. Catherine’s voice is light, innocent and also mischievous while Katherine is serious and classy. Vincent sounds befuddled as he muddles his way through the story, Johnny’s deep voice betrays his idealism and the “Mysterious Voice” that resides in the Nightmare’s confessionals is an odd mix of comfort and creepiness.
So what is the actual gameplay like? Vincent has to ascend a massive tower (Babel, perhaps?) and has to pull out and push blocks to climb higher. The blocks have a strange “sense” of gravity: As long as a block underneath it is connected to another block’s edge (such as a checkerboard pattern), the block will stay put. If blocks are “floating” side by side, they will fall unless they have something underneath. It is harder than it sounds to scale the walls as it is a race against time because the tower is falling down from the floor up. Plus, Vincent can only climb blocks that are one block high, and nothing is impeding his path. Thus, it can be a real challenge keeping one’s cool and finding the proper path up by navigating the various blocks.
Each stage is broken into levels. There are plateaus with other sheep, a creepy ringing church bell and a confessional. Before you ascend the second section of each stage, Vincent enters a confessional and is asked a question about his values on relationships. This affects the plot (as noted above). However, this is not just the only area that you exert some control over Vincent’s personality: The game is loaded with opportunities of value questions to tilt his alignment.
Anyway, ascension is accomplished in multiple ways: creating stairs using a pyramid structure, dropping down and hanging to the edge to get to a better spot, pushing blocks away to cause droppings, springing upwards, skating across ice, dodging spike traps, crumbling blocks, coins to collect, sheep to dodge and the mystic wooden door that leads to freedom. It’s a massive action puzzler that starts simple but gets tricky very quickly as the amount of “wiggle” room changes from not only from level to level, but from section to section of the wall as well.
Thankfully, the controls work well. While the analog stick is adequate, the d-pad is a better fit due to the level structure. Holding the X button allows Vincent to drag and push blocks. Climbing on top of them is just as simple as pushing the d-pad toward the open block. Rotating around the sides is a little tricky as the controls “flip” whenever you stop moving Vincent. And the right analog stick moves the camera around to help find the optimal path.
So is Catherine worth your hard-earned cash? The answer is “yes” because it is a rarely seen complete package: The awesome sound design, the graphics emphasize the plot and themes, the addictive [heterosexist] storyline and intense puzzles all blend together to create a unique and sometimes unsettling experience. (I see blocks and sheep falling in my sleep!) It’s like watching an emotional train wreck that one cannot turn away from no matter how much one might want to turn around. So go get it! And if you have any doubts, you can download the demo off XBLA and PSN to see a tease of Catherine in action.