I don’t ever want to be bored with video games. I’ll loathe the day any sighing fatigue returns. I’m not predicting a wall of collective unoriginality, but it is still fair to say there have been dry spells before, so it wouldn’t be out of the question for it to happen again. This year has been good to us. Even if they aren’t the masterpieces of the ages, the fact we’ve been given Eric Chahi, Suda 51 and Tetsuya Mizuguchi games in relatively the same month does speak about the gear publishers are currently willing to work in. Japanese game makers, some more vocal than others, have been lamenting the decline of their contributions to the gaming environment, their popularity, their originality. Final Fantasy, Silent Hill, Devil May Cry, Katamari, among others, seemed mere years ago the most potent titles. But that age has apparently ended. Why? What has happened to those game makers, or at least, what steam did those franchises lose? And most importantly, what’s a fair tramp like Catherine willing to do that those other games aren’t even sure they could do if they tried?
Vincent is a slacker. He’s got a cozy job in a sleepy town, a modest watering hole with undemanding friends and a very, very patient long-term girlfriend, Katherine. One afternoon, Katherine catches up with Vincent and appears to be uneasy, suddenly egging on the idea of getting married while also getting ready to reveal that she suspects she may be pregnant. Vincent collects himself in the company of old friends and new drinks, though the night takes a strange turn when an unusually young, nubile girl named Catherine enters the small town hole-in-the-wall and, of all people, latches on to Vincent. After meeting her, Vincent begins to suffer horrifying dreams that depict demented towers that need scaling, offering up deformed variations of his personal issues. It’s a place where he and other love troubled men have become sheep. When he wakes up from these dreams, he discovers he’s slept with the new Catherine. To make things more uneasy, men begin to die unexplainable deaths around town, some of whom Vincent has seen in his sleep.
Catherine, the game that is, often bounces between moments of sheer quirkiness, genius, and bullshit. It seems that the closer to the ending light you get, the more the game feels comfortable to pull developments out of a hat, and your patience will be tried with some marathon length cutscenes. The anime-style graphics are great, so good I sort of wonder why they leaned on drawn animated cutscenes for reasons other than nerd familiarity. To its credit, Catherine confronts very basic fears and issues looming in the mind of any lovesick animal. When Vincent’s core fears about his life manifest themselves they do so in truly deranged ways.
It’s important to address the fact that there are basically two radically different states of play throughout the many hours of Catherine. There is the day, where you control Vincent’s social life and conversations. These activities seem fairly frivolous in most games, but they are much more pressing in Catherine. Who you talk to and how you talk to them not only affects your moral compass, but many of the characters in the game will only live to see the end credits if you help them confront their problems. There’s even a simple yet elegant way you answer text messages in game. Many games have the ol’ moral compass, but it’s rare that one has such a constant presence. How far along the scales you slide dramatically effect Vincent’s tone, and if others see him as either the hero of the dreadful dreamscape, or just another miserable lamb. There are eight endings in all, with some fairly semantic paths to unlock them, two of which ask you to balance your morality in the dead center.
Then there are the other, more game-like sequences, the nights, the dreams. Gone is the social small talk. The only real crossover is the booze (the more you drink in the bar, the faster you are in the dreams.) In the dream world, Vincent must scale demented, grid towers, which require a steady mind, steady hand, or compensational rapid fast frantic ones. The goal of these towers are simple, you are at the bottom, get to the top before the void of the pit swallows you whole. Vincent can only go up one block at a time, he can push and pull blocks, so long as he has the footing for it, and he can push any amount of blocks to the foreground excluding the specific immovable type. If Vincent pulls a block that pushes him off an edge, he will hang down below and can scale along the walls. It starts and sounds simple enough, but the ante stacks up very fast with special trap blocks and fairly cruel configurations to deal with. There are many techniques to memorize and master, which Vincent can discuss with the other stray sheep, but you’ll be a little reluctant to climb behind the structure, out of view of the camera, not because you’re obscured, but because the controls get a little grumpy when you do.
What’s nice about these puzzles is how tough, but fair, they are. Certainly some have rigid solutions, but the bulk of them are surprisingly flexible. Flipping out and moving blocks en masse can sometimes turn out to be a surprisingly reliable solution. When you nail some of the tougher cookies, it can feel pretty satisfying. We’ve all thickened our skins through hard games before, but in Catherine, just knowing that there is a concrete solution to be found will push you onward. With very generous continues and plenty of ways to experiment, managing to scale that last block is an enriching experience.
Catherine adds new context to the morality bag and shakes it all up. There are, of course, the good/blue and red/bad decisions to be made, but unlike most games they aren’t a question of whether or not to shoot a defenceless virtual puppy dog. These are questions about relationship politics, some simple and others deep. Unless you’re aiming for a specific ending you’ll find yourself responding fairly honestly. Even some of the non-righteous endings may seem more appropriate to players who feel sternly opinionated on where characters deserve to end up by journey’s end. All said, though, those with significant others may feel compromised to play Catherine in their presence.
Catherine displays something, a certain richter that hasn’t been felt out of big Japanese releases for a while. Confidence. Confidence in its ideals, its direction, its look and feel. The carefree embrace of biblical imagery, intentionally rabid symbolism and enthusiastic misappropriation of classical music from Chopin to Borodin, it’s colourful use of implanted, lifted theatrics is like that of a egotistical pencil-stashed diamond thief. The story goes long, and just when you think the last ribbon will wrap it all up, the package bursts open into something even more outrageous. You can say that it’s a puzzle game with very extravagant dolling up, but the puzzle game is balanced and satisfying while the dolling up is too overwhelming to be considered a mere layer of makeup. It’s a bit of a legacy project from the Persona Team, but they don’t drag any Persona iconography kicking and screaming into it. There are no zombie dogs, Pyramid Head or pretty pan blonde boys with goofy swords. Catherine‘s pastiche is conjured from scratch. And that’s one hell of a reason to start a steamy affair.