It only took a few minutes of playing Catherine to know that I was going to enjoy it. On the surface, Catherine is a puzzle platformer with a grim premise: Climb a collapsing tower of blocks in a terrifying nightmare world or fall to your death below. Wrapped around this is a dating sim that forces you to weigh your (increasingly bleak) prospects with two competing women.
The result: A macabre game with pitch black humor and stylish animation that explores the morals of marriage, relationships, cheating, and gender politics. Oh, and death. There’s lots and lots of death. I simply love these types of games that take dark, violent gameplay and coat it with a nice layer of surreal humor. Think No More Heroes, and you’ll get what I mean.
Catherine places you in the shoes of Vincent, an indecisive thirty-something-year old with a long-term girlfriend named Katherine (with a ‘K’). He leads a mundane life, working as a programmer by day and hanging out with his buddies at the Stray Sheep bar by night. He is at a crossroads in his life – most of his friends are getting married and settling down, but he’s plagued by thoughts of being trapped by marriage and kids.
Katherine, on the other hand, is growing impatient with Vincent trying to get his life together – she keeps dropping hints at marriage and is secretly ready to force his hand if necessary. Vincent has a hard time hiding his unease, bumbling through his conversations while trying to avoid the topic altogether.
Things go nuclear, however, when a seductive girl named Catherine (with a ‘C’) appears out of nowhere and sleeps with Vincent while he is drunk. Horrified by his infidelity, Vincent is caught between an overbearing girlfriend whom he has cheated on, and a mysterious new girl who refuses to leave him alone and insists that she wants to be with him.
And that’s when the real nightmares begin.
Out of nowhere, Vincent starts being dropped into a horrific nightmare world whenever he falls asleep at night. Here he is told that he must climb to the top of a tower or fall to his death. What’s worse, he’s warned that if he dies in his dream, he will die in real life. It’s climb or die, no other choice.
That is Catherine in a nutshell. The majority of the game takes place during these nightmares, where you must push and pull blocks to form stairs that will allow you to ascend the tower. Pieces of the tower slowly fall away behind you, urging you to reach the top in a panicked frenzy.
The mechanics of these puzzle sections are surprisingly deep, so much so that I’m surprised I haven’t seen it done before. You must push and pull blocks that are aligned to a grid in order to create platforms to climb up, but you can only climb up a single block at a time. This often means arranging the blocks so that they form “staircase”, allowing you to ascend.
To make a simpler comparison, Catherine is a lot like a Sokoban puzzle (that 2D game where you push boxes around a warehouse), except Catherine is vertically-aligned and has far more complexities. Like a Sokoban puzzle, there are limitations to where you can move blocks – for example, you cannot pull out a block if another block on the space behind you prevents you from moving backwards. Thus, it is necessary to think out your moves ahead of time so that you don’t block your own way up.
Likewise, the game’s verticality means the blocks obey gravity, and they will fall when unsupported. This can be used to your advantage. However, a block will also suspend itself in mid-air so long as one of its edges is touching another block’s edge. These properties lead to advanced techniques that are crucial for later stages.
Each night is divided up into three stages, with the third usually containing a monster that you have to flee from. Along the way you’ll bump into anthropomorphic sheep – other people in real life suffering the same fate – as you climb the tower. These guys can get in your way on your climb up, so you may need to push them off just to save yourself. Nevermind that you just killed some poor soul in the real world.
In between stages you’ll get some rest in a save area, where you’ll also get to chat with these other sheep, each of them trying to cope with the prospect of imminent death. Some are selfish, vowing to push off anyone that gets in their way. Others give in to despair immediately, offering the excuse that death is an inevitable reality of life. Others complain bitterly that the whole situation is unfair. Still others cling to hope, and teach you advanced techniques for climbing the tower. I found this to be an interesting commentary on how people react during life and death situations.
These nightmares worlds are also, for lack of a better word, absolutely hellish. Sheep hang from the walls in cages or strapped to torture devices. Your safe haven been stages is a dilapidated church, complete with a confessional and a mysterious voice taunting your efforts. It is from this voice that you learn that someone put you here on purpose – someone who cursed you and wanted you to die.
Survive all three stages in each night, and you wake up to live another day. You’ll be back again the very next night, however – freedom can only be found by reaching the top of the eighth floor, meaning eight consecutive nights of terrifying survival platforming.
Thus the cycle begins: By night, you fight for survival to reach the next floor of the tower. By day, you watch Vincent’s spiral into free fall as he is forced to contend with Katherine, his girlfriend, and Catherine, his new lover.
These “day” sections between nightmares comprise the dating sim section of the game, where the pace tends to slow down. They are roughly divided up into two sections. The first part is an extended cutscene where you watch Vincent have lunch with Katherine at a local cafe. Watching these conversations is like witnessing a train crash in slow motion, as Vincent fumbles his way through Katherine’s attempts to secure your commitment.
The second half of the day has you at the Stray Sheep bar, where you have frank chats with your three buddies about your relationship and the nature of romance itself. Besides talking with your bros, you can also wander around the bar and talk with the other patrons.
It’s here where you get to see a lot of game’s themes played out. The topic of conversation almost always revolves around gender politics: What women look for in a man, why people cheat, and whether or not men or women have it worse in life. Sprinkled in is a healthy dose of machismo as some of the patrons (and the bartender himself) brag about their exploits with women, whether contrived or not. Many of the patrons will also be fellow sheep from your nightmares, though you’ll never recognize each other in-game, since no one can remember anything from their nightmares besides being chased by a monster.
While at the bar, you also receive texts from both Katherine and Catherine. Here you can choose how you want to respond: Are you ready to accept the responsibilities of marriage and children, or do you push Katherine away and the pursue the tempting advances of Catherine?
Neither seems like an attractive option, which puts a lot of weight on your shoulders when choosing your path. As a wife, Katherine outright promises you that she’ll be controlling your finances along with the rest of your life. You need to stop smoking and drinking so much. You need to get your laundry done. You need to empty the trash in your apartment. At one point you can even catch the slightest smirk on Katherine’s face as she breaks the news that she might be pregnant, hinting at some more sinister manipulation at play.
But Catherine seems almost too good to be true. She’s inhumanly beautiful, avoids commitment, and is endeared by your sloppy nebbishness. What is her ulterior motive? It only makes you more suspicious that she’ll eventually stab you in the back.
Before the very end of each day, Catherine shows up at the bar to drink with you. No matter how much you rebuff her advances, she almost always finds a way back to your room whether you like it or not. The cycle then repeats itself: Nightmare, Katherine, bar, Catherine, and then back to sleep again.
This, perhaps, is my one major complaint about the game – that it gets very repetitive very fast. At first there feels like a ton of things to do while your inside of the bar, but it quickly becomes apparent that you are simply making your rounds to all of the patrons to cycle through their conversations. The dialogue is excellent, as is the voice acting, but the conversations can be long.
The same thing goes for the lunch scenes with Katherine, which are entirely non-interactive and feel more like a cartoon segment within the game itself. There’s a lot of great humor in these scenes as you watch Vincent desperately try to avoid a total meltdown, but their length slows the pacing a lot. The bar segments, though interactive, are likewise quite slow.
But what Catherine lacks in content, it makes up for in spades with style. The juxtaposition of climbing through a gothic-inspired nightmare world with just your polka-dot boxers and a pillow adds a touch of silliness that I really enjoy. The dialogue between characters also feels really natural, and the subjects they discuss feel relevant in an age where marriage is a dying tradition.
My one reservation about offering a full recommendation, however, is that a lot of the levels get pretty tough. Be prepared to face some difficulty climbing the later levels. I expected to breeze through them, but I was quickly proven wrong.
The Bottom Line: Although slow at parts, Catherine combines highly original puzzle-solving with an intriguing storyline and a pitch black sense of humor. If you love surreal games, you should give Catherine a shot.