Catherine is obviously result of the classic Japanese dating sim sashaying over to consoles and saying, “Let me slip into something more comfortable.” With the slightest hints of Intelligence Qube and Qbert at its heart, this relationship-sim-meets-3D-puzzler is an intoxicating mix of anxiety-inducing gameplay and romantic drama-rama.
The difference between one letter—and, well, a one-night stand in spite of having a long-time girlfriend—tosses the main character Vincent into an ethical dilemma that's literally nightmarish, making him choose between a future with his near-fiance, Katherine, or the flirty title character who he has a fling with, Catherine. By day, he confronts (or depending how you play, avoids) increasingly complicated romantic entanglements; by night, he enters a nightmare world and scrambles up deadly block puzzles alongside a flock of sheep, most of whom represent other human males with reprehensible pasts. If Vincent can climb the entire tower, he'll be granted “true freedom,” which promises to absolve him of his romantic woes. Surrounding Vincent's personal drama is a string of mysterious deaths involving young men who pass away in their sleep from unknown causes.
Several stipulations quickly set gameplay apart from mere Tetris block arranging: As time passes, rows of blocks will crumble one-by-one, threatening to swallow up Vincent into an abyss if he doesn’t keep a quick enough pace while climbing. Murderous new traps ranging from spikes to murderous sheep are phased in throughout the game. And each night, Vincent finishes his escape from the nightmare with a boss battle that involves a disfigured, monstrous representation of his real-world problems that chases him up the tower and attacks him as he climbs. “Harrowing” is a word that's rarely used to describe block-based puzzlers, but it hardly begins to describe the calamity and sheer OMG factor of Catherine's traps.
Gameplay is gauged at easy, normal and hard modes, and the gradual learning curve puts just the right degree of difficulty to the puzzles—you'll be able to scale the towers but not without a couple close scrapes or feeling like you got your butt kicked along the way. Because of the nightmare world’s wonky rules and physics, learning how to build staircases and footholds from the mess of blocks can take a little bit of practice. But as many times as I accidentally sent Vincent to his death, I always had plenty of Retries tucked away on normal mode. A forgiving Undo button also lets you backtrack on your last handful moves if you happen to block yourself into a dead end (Hurr, get it? Block?).
The graphics are sharp and often detailed, and the storyline is peppered with dramatic anime cut scenes that bring an extra level of liveliness to the nicely animated in-game scenes. The voice acting is top-notch and brings the well-translated and often funny dialogue to life. The background music, a spiraling remix of classical melodies in the puzzle portions and mellow rhythms reminiscent of Persona's tracks for the non-nightmare sections, is enjoyable, although there are a few occasions that will have you reaching for the mute button. For example, if you start to take too long on completing a level, the background music can get repetitive. You’ll also hear enough bells tolling to last you a lifetime of Sunday church masses, as the ringing sounds to signal the final stretch of block puzzles (which always seem to take the longest) and also at the save zones in between them.
Catherine is unique not only for its mechanics but the ridiculously awkward and emotionally painful situation it places its characters in. The daytime parts of the off-kilter story play out in a way that eerily mirrors real life—talking over troubles with friends and hanging out at the local bar. It does a nice job at simulating this hypothetical situation. You did a bad thing, and the plot and characters around you acknowledge that. But do you try to fix it or venture down a more chaotic path? Or do you waver between Catherine and Katherine, trying to keep promises to both girls? It feels like less of a dating sim and more of a dating experiment. The story plays out in such a ridiculously interesting fashion, it’s easy to wonder what a second play-through is like.
Catherine is the pinnacle of a quirky Japanese game. If you can embrace its oddities, you'll be rewarded with a pretty crazy story and addicting puzzle gameplay that extends well past one round of story mode, which is enough to school you in some of the game's more advanced mechanics but really only gives you a taste of what it takes to completely master its puzzles. If you’re a Persona fan, Catherine is a no-brainer purchase (especially with a couple Persona Easter eggs tucked into it). For gamers outside the typical Atlus fandom, Catherine is still a very, very attractive package.
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