The greatest thing about video games is the sense of empowerment you’re treated to. Be it the wanton chaos you can indulge in in Just Cause 2 or the sweet plasmids of BioShock, it’s all about making you a protagonist who is, in one way or another, a bad a*s. Then there’s Catherine, where you’re unforgivably cast as Vincent Brooks, a guy who climbs blocks. In Polka dot underwear. As a sheep. And no, there’s nothing special about you. No magical powers. No guns. No superhuman strength. Nothing. You’re nowhere close to being the stereotypical saviour of the world/universe/restroom that most video games let you be.
You’re a 30-something slacker who is confused about making a lifetime commitment to Katherine, his girlfriend of five years. To further compound your agony, you’ve met the girl of your not so dry dreams, incidentally named Catherine (see what Atlus did there?), decide to be unfaithful and thus embarked on a week of nightmares that have you climbing the aforementioned blocks in order to save yourself from waking up dead. According to your friends, you’re on the receiving end of such tribulations because you’ve cheated and have been cursed for doing so. Hence, your only choice is to survive the ordeal.
As you can see, Catherine, if you can excuse the poorly constructed pun, leaves you naked, saving a pair of innerwear and, of course, your brain. The latter is of prime importance if you want to see this game to its intense, well thought out finale. There are two distinct parts to the game; one occurs during the day at the Stray Sheep, a local bar, and the other, in your nightmares. During the sleeping hours, you’re a sheep in boxers climbing from block to block. This segment of the game, being based in a dream world, has its own set of physics such as blocks not falling even if they’re connected to the very edges of other blocks. Such quirky rules make themselves present from the very outset, forcing you to exercise your grey matter into creating what eventually is a flight of steps that lead you to freedom. The layout and gameplay are such that precision is paramount. You’ll find yourself making greater use of the d-pad than most other games because each step on each block is just that important.
When you’re done, you’re put into a confession box that takes you from one level to the next, before which you’re asked a question which could be as inane as asking if you’re cool, your lover having a sexual interest in diapers, or if you’d steal your best friend’s girl . The replies affect the ending you get and, more interestingly, lets you know what other players chose on their first play though if you’re connected to the Internet. This aside, if you’re spatially challenged like yours truly, you’d be happy to know that between climbing segments, besides speaking and aiding your fellow herd with words of encouragement (or sarcasm, both of which affect your ending), you can learn a variety of climbing methods, or “techniques” as the game calls them, from other sheep. These serve as mini-tutorials that help make your trek a little easier.
Oh, and you’ll need all the help you can get. You’re never really eased into a level and allowed to work it out at your own pace. This is because the blocks crumble after a set period of time, forcing you to move as fast as possible. Throw in death traps such as monster blocks, spikes and black holes as well as other climbers (read: fellow cheaters in real life) and you’re in for a frenetic, albeit slightly strategic, time. Did I mention that there’s the odd boss or nine, all of whom are monstrously huge and have at least one special attack that would result in your instant death? Plus, there seem to be odd spikes in difficulty, what with a few of the earlier bosses being tougher than the latter ones. It seems like the Persona team are gunning for the Most Sadistic Studio of the Year award. Until you realise there are a few things you can do to help you on your way.
Much like those algebraic formulae that required rote learning in school, Catherine requires you to remember and apply the climbing techniques in order to progress. There are items to help you out by allowing you to climb faster or remove enemies. Also, you can undo your moves at anytime if you think you’re stuck. Though you maybe on the receiving end of a severe ego-bruising to begin with, the sheer satisfaction of passing a level makes it worth the while. Towards the end of it, you’d be able to create stairs out of the air as it truly becomes as easy (and addictive) as breathing provided you have your wits around. As mentioned earlier, your waking hours are spent at a pub. Here, you can hang out with your friends and play Rapunzel, an arcade game based on the same principles as the nightmare segments. Occasionally, you’d receive texts from either Catherine or Katherine. How you choose your answers decides whether you end up with one of the several chaotic or peaceful endings. Ditto with how you speak to other customers (and prevent or hasten their death).
It’s during these times that you’re subjected to a major part of the game’s story, which is by far one of the most mature and interesting narratives around. This unravels itself with some gorgeous anime cut-scenes, complete with great animation, slick voice acting and a fantastic music track. In terms of presentation, there’s a lot of attention to detail, from the inscription on Vincent’s jacket to the tribulations of the bit part characters. The guys at Atlus appear to have gone through a lot of trouble to make Catherine (if you could excuse another horrific pun) a believable ride, and it works. By and large, it’s a down to earth and relatable with a few supernatural elements that, if you’re arty-farty enough, could pass for a methaphor of what people go through when they’re faced with life-altering choice. Being a video game and not a hipster website, we prefer the former.
Clocking around 14 hours, eight different endings, and two different modes of play that actually work well in spite of being diametrically opposite, Catherine is a fine game that’s well worth your time and energy. This is just the single-player mode. There are co-op and competitive climbing modes as well, unlocked when you complete certain pre-requisites, such as finishing the solo campaign or getting a good enough rating during your solitary climbs. So if you’re willing to slip out of the comfortable confines of the usual checkpoint-laden, action scripted dudebro shooters that make up the landscape of modern day gaming, you can experience something wildly different from what you’re used to. Well, minus being a superhero of course.