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I guess I should start off by saying that I have never played a game quite like Catherine. Maybe if I played more Atlus titles that would be different, but I haven’t, so I took some time after beating it to reflect on the game I had played and the experience I had before sitting down to write this review. The protagonist is Vincent Brooks, a 32 year old guy that is meandering through life. He has been dating his girlfriend Katherine for about 5 years but experiences a personal crisis when she starts hinting that she wants to settle down and start a family. He’s also started suffering from weird and terrifying dreams at night that he can’t seem to recall when he wakes up. These dreams are the nightmare levels.
The nightmares are the puzzle levels of the game. The objective is to climb a tower of blocks by arranging them into stairs as Vincent can only scale one block at a time. There are all kinds of techniques and strategies you can employ to navigate your way to the goal but you need to be careful, as you can easily make a mistake that will leave you trapped and unable to advance. All sorts of hazards await you during the nightmare levels, such as sheep blocking your path, or bosses trying to kill you. Also, the bottom of the tower is constantly falling away as time passes, which assures you to stay focused on climbing towards the goal. Not long after the nightmares start, Vincent’s life gets even crazier when he meets a little temptress named Catherine. He ends up having a one night stand and soon Vincent’s life seems to be spinning wildly out of control as the nightmares get crazier and his heart and moral compass are tested. To make things even stranger, mysterious deaths are being reported around town, all of healthy young men.
After each nightmare stage Vincent wakes up and you are then treated to a story driving cut scene. He will meet up with Katherine for lunch and also his friends at his favorite bar, the Stray Sheep. During these scenes, you will be given opportunities to respond to questions during conversations. These responses, along with the characters you interact with, can have a dramatic impact on Vincent’s story. The end of each day will find Vincent firmly planted in a booth at the Stray Sheep and you can once again take control of Vincent. While you are in the bar you can drink (it makes you faster and more agile in the nightmare levels), chat up other patrons, play music on the jukebox and even check your phone. You can use this as an opportunity to try and find out why Vincent is suffering through these nightmares as well as advance the relationships with Katherine and Catherine by sending text messages to them.
The game on Normal is not for the faint of heart, but it isn’t impossible. The puzzles, at times, can be very challenging, but once I figured them out, I had that sort of ‘Ah-ha!’ experience that made me feel silly for not realizing the solution sooner. One thing I have to say is that Catherine punishes stupidity without mercy so be careful and try to think a couple moves ahead. I had my fair share of mishaps and moments of frustration but there were other times where I breezed through the puzzles. I really enjoyed my time with Catherine and will continue to do so. The ability to make choices during conversations means there is definite replay value. The story has multiple endings that you can unlock depending on how you play the game and interact with the other characters. It is clever and well written with nice moments of comic relief as the game gets progressively darker. Although I’d prefer an option to play with the original Japanese dialogue and English subtitles, I have to admit that the voice acting was well done and did not get on my nerves.
As I said at the start, I’ve never played a game quite like it. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to pidgeon hole it into a genre, I’d have to say it’s a sort of relationship sim/puzzler. Name any western developer and I assure you, none of them were capable of creating a game like Catherine. It is VERY Japanese and that’s a good thing! When given the freedom to do new things, Japanese developers are more than capable of creating unique and interesting experiences that you can’t find anywhere else. So if you’re looking for a new game and you’re tired of most of the stuff out there, give Catherine a whirl. I doubt you’ll be disappointed.