In Catherine, players are put in the role of Vincent, a 20-something who, like many his age, isn't ready to jump on the train of adulthood. He's dating a woman named Katherine who is almost his polar opposite. She's straight-laced and seeking to settle down and get married, and she's not being very subtle in her hints. His life is thrown into disarray when he meets a girl named Catherine at his favorite bar. One night and too many beers later, Vincent wakes up to discover that he cheated on Katherine with Catherine. It's a, ahem, sticky situation even if things didn't get worse. As Vincent struggles with this problem and tries to figure out which girl he actually cares for, he has the strangest nightmares wherein he's chased by horrible monsters and barely escapes. They may be nightmares, but other people around the city are mysteriously dying in their sleep, and Vincent isn't willing to take the risk. He must find a way to escape his nightmare world and deal with his girl problems. Of course, there's some indication that perhaps these problems are connected ....
During the daytime, Vincent visits the Stray Sheep Bar. While there, he can talk to people to potentially start new plot points or threads. Your responses can have an impact on what happens to Vincent's friends and loved ones over the course of the game. There's also a surprisingly in-depth texting function that allows you to respond to texts from various characters. You can write a line-by-line reply, choosing from multiple choices to best portray how Vincent is supposed to feel. The Stray Sheep Bar also has an arcade machine that lets you play extra levels of the "Nightmare" stages.
Most of Catherine's gameplay occurs when Vincent falls asleep and is transported to a strange dream world where he's surrounded by sheep-men and forced to climb an endless tower. In this nightmare, the tower is a hellish landscape filled with traps and dangers aplenty. To survive, Vincent must quickly push and pull blocks to reach the top of the tower before time runs out. If he fails, that's the end of Vincent's life. If he succeeds, he lives to see another night.
That's right: Catherine is effectively a puzzle game. The primary focus is figuring out the quickest way to reach the top of the block tower. Vincent doesn't have many abilities; he can push and pull blocks and do some basic climbing and hanging, and that's about it. You must figure out how to use these basic abilities to get around and ascertain which blocks are helpful or harmful. Some blocks shoot spikes up from the floor, so if Vincent is standing on one, it doesn't end well for him. On the other hand, leap blocks let him jump up, so if you position these properly, you can skip some segments of the tower to get to the top faster. There are also items that let you somewhat alter the tower, such as a white cube that lets you create one pushable block. You can only hold one item at a time, but it can save your life. You can also buy these items between stages, but doing so will hurt your score.
The game also has boss battles. Every so often, Vincent is attacked by a terrible creature that appears to be comprised of his insecurities and problems. These creatures add a twist to the challenge. For example, one boss shoots hearts into the air that fall and attempt to spear Vincent. Being hit screws up his controls, and it's problematic because that slows him down while a monster is in pursuit. If it catches up, it can and will kill him instantly. Another is a horrible mutant hag version of Vincent's girlfriend Katherine, who turns all of the tower blocks into hard-to-move stone; this slows down Vincent as the monster attempts to impale him.
In Catherine, your primary goal is to get to the end of the level, but each level is also graded. Finishing a level earns you a trophy, with the quality of the trophy dependent on a number of factors: how quickly you finished the stage, how many times you died, how many coins you collected, and various other factors. Do well, and you'll get a gold trophy.
Catherine isn't just single-player, either. There's actually a competitive or cooperative gameplay mode. Both players are put into the role of the generic sheep that Vincent encounters and must make their way up the tower. Players can choose to help or hurt each other. If one player falls, he loses, but if two players work together, they can successfully get up the tower.
There's another multiplayer feature that is slightly unusual. Once you finish a stage, Vincent is taken to a confessional, where he's asked a question. Most of the questions are fairly innocent and can include, "Is your job the most important thing in your life?" or "Do you enjoy boxers or briefs?" Regardless, you're given two choices. Picking one records your choice and uploads it to the Internet, where you can see other people's answers, and you can even filter it by gender to see the most popular choice among men or women. Many choices in the game have an impact on Vincent's morality, and the choices can be roughly summed up as being between "straight-laced" or "wild," or perhaps "law" or "chaos." These choices correspond to Katherine or Catherine, and in turn, your overall morality impacts the story.
The Japanese version of Catherine suffered from a number of complaints about its difficulty level. The game was so difficult that Atlus had to release a patch that offered difficulty tweaks and a new Normal mode to make things easier. The North American version of Catherine is based on this newer, easier version, although it was stressed that this doesn't mean that the difficulty has been dumbed down. Instead, the difficulty curve has been smoothed out, so areas that were poorly implemented have been redesigned to exclude brick walls that prevented people from finishing the game.
Part Persona-style social links and part puzzle game, there's not really anything else like Catherine on the market. The puzzle gameplay is actually a boatload of fun, but players waiting for a Persona 5 are probably going to be disappointed. If you can approach Catherine without Persona expectations clouding your view, you'll find a curious and intriguing puzzle title. Hopefully, the final game will add new gimmicks to keep the puzzles fresh, but what we've seen has us eager for more.
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