What can I say about the game Catherine? It is truly one of a kind. Its Wikia guide calls it a "horror/romance/puzzle/adventure video game", not something you see every day in a market dominated by generic FPS games and it certainly stands out by occupying a very specific niche.
The story itself focuses on a 30-something guy called Vincent who's at a crossroads in life. He is happy with his girlfriend Katherine, but she wants commitment, marriage and children, and Vincent likes things the way they are. He goes to his favourite bar, the Stray Sheep, every night to spend time with his friends, he has his own apartment and he likes his life the way it is. Basically, he is in no hurry to settle down.
This isn't the first time in a video game that a romance takes centre stage in the plot, but this is not about saving the girl, your princess is not in another castle, it's a lot more complicated than that. One night at the bar he has a few too many and wakes up with a cute blonde girl called Catherine. She seems like his ideal woman, sexy and free spirited, and now he is in a dilemma... Katherine, or Catherine? To make matters worse, men have been dying in their sleep and there are rumours that it is a curse for men who cheat on their partners. Vincent has started having nightmares - could he be the next victim? Definitely not your standard video game plot.
The gameplay is split into two parts. During the day you play Vincent in the Stray Sheep bar. Whilst you are there you can chat with your friends, send and receive text messages, observe and interact with the other bar patrons and staff, watch the news on TV, change the music on the jukebox and play a mini game called Rapunzel which is an arcade machine in the bar. Oh, and get drunk of course! (And you should get drunk, I will explain why shortly). All the conversations you have in the bar have different answers you can choose, which will tip a morality scale one way or another and lead to different endings in the game. When you are done with the bar, go home and go to bed, and this is where the nightmare begins....
The second part of the game play is Vincent's nightmare world. In this part of the game you are solving puzzles, which take the form of towers of blocks. The blocks must be moved by the player in such a way that you can make a clear path to the top, and escape the nightmare to live another day. In between each puzzle there is a landing floor, where you will find others trapped in the nightmare, all of whom appear to you as sheep. They see Vincent as a sheep, although you see him as himself but with sheep like horns. You can save your game at these stages, talk to the sheep to learn puzzle solving techniques, and buy items to help you.
Before advancing to the next level you must enter a confessional and answer a moral question, which will again effect your morality scale and potentially the ending of the game. At the end of each level you will face a boss character who will try and hamper your progress whilst climbing the tower. Successfully navigate the boss level and Vincent will wake up to face another day. Fail and "Love is Over". Tip: The more you drink in the bar, the faster you can move in the nightmare section. If only alcohol had such positive effects in the real world!
So, that's what the game is all about. Still interested? Good. Here is what I like about the game. Graphically, it is very nice indeed. The cut scenes are like watching an animé cartoon, and the music is quirky and suits the game well. The nightmare scenes also look superb, with bosses so grotesque I could not believe my eyes! On the whole the voice acting is great, although there are occasions where the lip synch doesn't quite fit - to be expected I suppose, since the game was dubbed from Japanese.
There is a lot to explore, and it is worth going back and talking again to characters you have already spoken to to gain more back story and helpful tips. The Rapunzel arcade game in the bar uses the same premise as the nightmare section so it is handy for getting used to the controls and practising techniques. I like that the story is something a bit different, and that there are multiple endings which adds replayability value to the game. Completing the game also unlocks a new two player mode which again adds replay value.
So what isn't so good? Well, nothing in particular, but you'll either love it or hate it - Catherine is definitely a very quirky game and not for everyone. You may find the characters a little irritating, Vincent is kind of spineless, Katherine is a bit of a nag and Catherine might be a bit of a dumb blonde, but there is more to her than meets the eye! Gameplay wise, the puzzles are addictive but they are rock solid hard. I have never been so frustrated with a game in my life and sometimes I need a day away from it just to keep myself sane, but then when I come back to it I will often kick myself as it is like the solution was staring me in the face the whole time.
Only being able to save the game in between levels is a pain too. You can reach a checkpoint half way through a puzzle, but if you want to stop and replay another day, your save will restart you from before you began the puzzle. This can be frustrating, especially on harder levels. However, I really enjoyed the challenge of this game and so far I've only played on the easiest setting! I am not sure if I will ever attempt the harder modes - it is clearly not for the faint hearted - although getting through a level, especially a boss level, is so rewarding it makes all the frustration worthwhile.
Don't buy this game if you aren't prepared to try something different. Don't buy this game if you're the type of gamer who gets frustrated and throws the controller down when things get tricky. Don't buy this game if you are looking for an easy platinum, as you will be disappointed. However, if you are after a departure from the norm and a wicked challenge to boot, then give this a try. I'm glad I did.