Let me tell you about this girl I met at the bar the other night. Just stunning, totally gorgeous, you know? And unique. She does things I’ve never seen another girl do. She’s deep, too. She makes me think about relationships and commitment and all these topics I don’t normally tackle in my line of work. Sounds like a girl worth falling in love with, right? But despite all of these assets, Catherine is a killer. She’ll wreck you if you let her.
Catherine (the game) has more in common with main character Vincent than its namesake. It’s divided from within, torn between two loves. On one hand, Catherine immerses players in drawn-out anime cutscenes that reveal a middle-aged man stuck in a dramatic love triangle. Heady subject matter and tough questions abound, shaping players’ experience around a scale that measures their personality between law (living what society considers a regular life) and chaos (living based on personal whims and desires).
These lengthy narrative sequences are broken up by "Nightmare" levels where Vincent has to push blocks around in order to climb up an endless tower. As you first learn the strange rules of this fast-paced, arcade gameplay, these portions seem inoffensive, though not particularly engaging. But with each new night that passes, Vincent is forced to confront more difficult and lengthier puzzles.
Frustration and frequent deaths await as you desperately claw your way toward the next group of cutscenes and non-dream gameplay. Finally figuring out how to survive a horrific boss encounter after 20-some deaths never grants you a sense of accomplishment, only relief at the temporary reprieve. The dialogue and character development are less fun when tinged with the dreadful knowledge that more block puzzles are in your future.
My fleeting happy memories of Catherine will always be poisoned by soul-crushing thoughts of what could have been. In its first in-house-developed HD release, Atlus has crafted something rare and wonderful, a video game that is about so much more than killing people. But the potential impact of this experience is weakened considerably by the block puzzles, segments so shamelessly gamey and out-of-place in the narrative that they include a score tally and reward medals based on your performance.
Sadly, even the story of Catherine doesn’t pay off entirely. While I was fully wrapped up in the trials of Vincent and his handful of friends, the game’s "morality scale" is mostly affected via simple two-choice questions that are asked at the end of every puzzle area – thoughtful queries such as, "Does life begin or end at marriage?" These inquiries provide plenty of food for thought, but it’s strange that the plot (which features eight different endings) is determined by these questions rather than by in-game decisions Vincent makes.
The result of answering Catherine’s queries truthfully – my reward for conquering every one of the game’s devious puzzles – was one of the worst possible endings. Maybe Vincent’s choices corresponded accurately to my personality, but it was a bummer receiving a bad ending and knowing that I’d have to replay the 12-15 hour game to see something better. Like a relationship that’s going nowhere, Catherine has a few bright spots that will make you want to hold on, but it never quite gives back as much as you put into it.