They say that, when you fall in a dream, you die in real life. Whether that is true or not is unknown, however, so believe what you will. Though, the strange, provocative and unsettling storyline in Catherine certainly supports this idea. It utilizes the mantra, "Climb or die", as it has gamers pushing, climbing and tumbling blocks in order to make it to the top of a square block pyramid as its construction materials slowly break away from the ground floor upward. You're literally climbing for your digitized anime life, as you try to piece together just what is happening in the game world.
Catherine follows Vincent, a thirty-two year-old man who is unsure of what his next step in life should be. In many ways, he's at a crossroads, with a long-time girlfriend (Katerine with a 'K'), who is stressing her interest in marriage and parenthood. Things have been great between them but it's reached a point where something needs to evolve, so that the two involved will know how serious their relationship really is. Not only that, but there is outside pressure coming from her parents, who would like to see them settle down in the near future.
As if this decision wasn't hard enough on Vincent and his racing mind, a new girl by the name of Catherine (with a 'C' this time) enters the fold after asking for someone to talk to while she has a drink at the bar. She's a beautiful blonde temptress, who is more interested in sex than she is in settling down and getting married with children - almost the exact opposite of the other lady in Vincent's life. In fact, she's so interested in sexual encounters that she is always finding her way into bed with our confused main character, who quite often awakens to find that he's not alone in bed after a long night of drinking.
During this time, a string of unexplained and unnatural deaths have befallen young men in the local area - all of which were thought to be very healthy. Some have been heard complaining about having a hard time sleeping, suffering from strange dreams. These night terrors have become the talk of the town and also happen to be a local legend. Other males with vital signs, living in the town, are also complaining about these strange sleepy hallucinations, but they're unable to remember details.
After meeting Catherine, Vincent finds himself swept away into the same darkened dream world that he had previously only heard about through heresay and brief snippets of conversations during his nights spent at a local watering hole. In these dreams, he's tasked with climbing for his life, told that falling means he'll never wake up again. Sometimes the nightmares include crumbling block pyramids, while others feature large monsterized represenations of people and things from his life, which chase him up the square ladder. Falling behind means a painful dreamworld death as a result of being squished, eviscerated or worse.
Throughout his time spent in the dream tower, things from his real-life start to bleed through a bit during meetings with other climbers - who happen to all be represented as sheep, with their own individual characteristics added in for easy identification. These are people who happen to frequent the bar and have their own relationship issues, which players can aid them with. In the dream world, they will share their fears and tactics, though their problems need to be helped through discussion and dialogue choices you make inside the bar, which acts as the game's hub in many ways.
Once players have tackled a night's perilous challenges (whether it's a normal block pyramid, boss or challenge filled with themed ice, bomb or bouncing blocks,) they find their way back to the trusty bar. Vincent is usually there with friends, though he's free to walk around and talk to the other patrons - including Catherine, who sometimes makes her presence known. Patrons will come and go, so it's important to talk to them before it's too late. Other distrations are there such as drink trivia and an arcade game, so you must manage your time accordingly in order to help everyone.
Every response given during conversation (or to text messages that the girls send to your phone) affects the story, Vincent's mental state and the ending you'll receive. This is shown via a metre at the bottom of the screen, which essentially depicts the proverbial angel and demon, which are situated on his shoulder throughout the entire experience. The metre also comes into play during personal relationship-based questions, which are asked during intervals between puzzles in the nightmare land. Once answered, Catherine uses the internet to show players what others answered during their first try.
The puzzle mechanics found within are pretty straight-forward, allowing you to push, pull and climb different types of blocks. Some have certain specialties and characteristics, while others are normal. They all attach via their four edges, allowing for players to create pathways upwards by stacking, locking or dropping these different squares. It sounds easy enough but it really isn't. Criticized for being too difficult in Japan, this is one of the harder games released in a long time. Even on its easy difficulty, there's quite a challenge.
Those who don't fear a good, tough video game, will be happy to know that their efforts to achieve gold on all puzzles in the campaign, will be rewarded. However, that will only occur if it's done on normal or hard. Gold medals on those difficulties unlock solo and co-operative challenges in a secondary mode, which takes the form of a climbing game show. Steps allowed are limited and the puzzles don't allow you to press the select button to step back a few moves like the ones in the single player campaign mode do. That absence in itself is an added challenge, considering it's easy to become accustomed to using that option to give yourself some extra time/options throughout its nine story stages.
In breaking this game down into genre categories, one would have to say that it's just as much of a role-playing relationship simulator as it is a puzzle game. Neither one being like anything you've ever played before. Catherine oozes character with its unique qualities and love of the surreal aspects of things, delivering an incredibly unique and interesting experience that always leaves you wanting to progress. The draw being just how crazy things get and the invested interest in finding out what is going to happen, although that is pretty much left up to your decision, based on the way you play the game. Its different endings allow for varied conclusions, whether you end up becoming a family man or someone on the prowl, who happens to have no interest in settling down.
One of Catherine's strongest suits is certainly its presentation. It's told as a late night story on one of those old movie channels people used to watch in the early morning hours. The host is a strange lady, who happens to have a red afro and the matching sideburns. Why? Who knows. That's just part of the charm. Regardless of the purpose or how weird that may be, it certainly fits in with the game's surreal setting and overall mood. Story moments are shown via hand-drawn anime video scenes, and the gameplay visuals retain that styling.
Both the audio and visuals are close to top-notch, combining to deliver an engaging experience that will both captivate and entertain those who press the start button. The world feels alive and it's easy to become drawn into Vincent's world, at times forgetting that it's a fictional experience. There's a ton of detail to accompany some really well-done voice work, which (surprisingly) is very believable. It certainly helps that the writing is extremely well-done, making Vincent's plight believeable amidst its surreal backdrop and strange occurrences.
Overall, Catherine is a strange beauty of a game that deserves to be given a spin in your console. Whether you decide to only go out on one date or end up becoming engaged, that's up to you, but please give this one a chance. Despite its challenging (and occasionally frustrating) difficulty, and repetitive puzzle design, there's a lot to love about this game. Especially considering it's so different compared to everything else on the market, succeeding in stepping outside of the box, unlike some other previous digital attempts. Just be warned that it may make you end up fearing the wrath of women just a little bit.