Having made its Japanese debut back in February 2011, the much discussed Catherine has been a long time coming. Following more than six months after it’s North American release, many gamers in PAL territories could well be wondering what the hold-up is; with such a unique and interesting title, why wasn’t Catherine released sooner? In reality, the answer is in the question: in a market where sports, guns and fast cars rule the charts more often than is the case in any other entertainment industry, ‘unique and interesting’ doesn’t always equal success. So much is Catherine going against the grain of accepted marketing practices in Europe that we’re lucky it made it to these shores at all.
The core gameplay element of Catherine is a puzzle scenario, a facet that suggests underwhelming retail performance more than any other. The player is cast as an unlikely hero that goes by the name of Vincent, and in his nightmares he is transported to a land where survival is dependant on how quickly you can think in a logical manner. Vincent is faced with stacks of blocks which he must climb in order to reach an exit; however he may only climb the height of one block at a time. The player must rearrange the blocks to create a traversable landscape one block at a time. What’s more, there are other trapped in this nightmare, and each block can only hold one occupant at a time. What you should be getting from all this is that Catherine is a videogame about blocks, and how each one is an important stepping stone towards completion.
Navigating these levels requires a lot of forethought and the ability to recognise mistakes as they form rather than after the fact. Throughout the block based challenges the player is under a strict time limit, and some levels are much stricter than others. There is a wide variety of block types, with rules being added all the time, and a small selection of items that can be used to aide your progress. However, only one item may be carried at any one time, so it acts as an emergency life saver as opposed to a handy new tactical option.
The majority of nightmare levels are divided into stages and between each stage is a sanctuary: a lobby in which the player can save their progress, talk to the other occupants of the nightmare realm, learn new techniques and buy items. This brief pause in the logical analysis and pressure based gameplay comes as a well designed respite, with the activities available limited in number so as to not cause too much distraction, but enough to break the monotony. And this sanctuary element has a reflection in the other part of Catherine’s tapestry, the plot development gameplay.
Catherine or Katherine? Surrounding those nightmare sequences is the lavish cartoon aesthetic and tormented tale of a woefully average man that has drawn so much attention. Catherine features a mature plot with its fair share of absurdity and odd localisation, just like any Manga film you may have seen, and it’s never less than engrossing. Sex sells, of course, lukewarm justification for the heavy sexualisation of the female cast, but its story is one of moral standards and an intelligently delivered, interesting one at that.
This element of Catherine, though largely pre-constructed, can still be referred to as gameplay. Catherine doesn’t feature QTE’s during its cut-scenes nor does it offer moments of dexterity challenges, but it does offer the player the opportunity to leave their mark on the plot. At certain intervals the player will be given tasks which typically involve relaying information from a simple selection system or answering questions, from which the result will affect the way in which the story continues. Throughout the videogame the player has a swinging meter representing their choice between Katherine their girlfriend, and Catherine the girl they hooked up with at their local bar. The meter will swing one way or another depending on the player’s choices, and its position at certain plot twists will alter the progression from that point on. What’s more, certain information will only be relayed if specific conditions are met, such as answering a question in the ‘correct’ way or replying to a text message in an extreme manner, meaning that the player may go into a future situation with only a limited knowledge, potentially altering their decision at the next interval. Catherine’s plot development is rich with possibility, and is undoubtedly a huge driving factor in the title’s success thus far.
That being said, the potential for altered plotlines is limited. Though Electronic Theatre was unable to view every sequence during our time with Catherine, it does seem as though each potential turning point has only two possible branches: ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The meter mentioned above is a clear demonstration of which moral standpoint the developers think is good and which is bad simply by virtue of its design.
Catherine’s visual design is fantastic: from the brilliant character design to the freaky nightmare levels, the videogame is arguably the closet the industry has yet come to that seemingly important interactive movie. In fact, it’s progressed beyond that to the point where the interactive movie is imitating the videogame. It’s an experience in which challenge and curiosity collide in a way so very few interactive entertainment products have managed before, perhaps closest to a spiritual progression of the ultimate goal of early motion-picture based videogames of the ‘90s such as Night Trap, Time Gal, Road Avenger, and even the infamous Dragon’s Lair.
The weakest part of Catherine is undoubtedly it’s audio production. While the sound quality is as would be expected given the format, the voice acting weakens the localisation further simply in the delivery of certain characters. The soundtrack doesn’t perform much better, resorting to elevator music a little too often. It’s not a huge disappointment, but is obvious in it’s inferiority due to the high production values of every other aspect of the videogame.
The current-generation of videogame consoles has played host to some imaginative videogame experiences, but as the cost of development rises and the market saturates, those willing take risks on more niche products begin to find their options reduced. Catherine is a videogame designed to buck the trend: a notably eastern production that was always intended to reach an international audience, and the struggle it’s had in doing so only proves its worth even more. Frankly put, any gamers who consider themselves a connoisseur of the interactive entertainment industry is performing an injustice to their own palette by not experiencing Catherine firsthand. Electronic Theatre stated at the start of this review that Catherine was a ‘unique and interesting’ experience, and that’s perhaps the statement which sums up the experience better than any other.