A certain Irish Stout advert states “Good things come to those who wait” In the case of Catherine this claim holds just as true. European gamers, unlike our American cousins, had to wait an extra 7 months for an English language version of the Japanese Survival horror/Dating Sim/Puzzler, but the wait was definitely worthwhile.
Those of you that follow this blog as well as the Killer Keyboard site will have seen the unboxing video for Catherine: Stray Sheep Edition that i made back in February. I’ve been a little slow to get into it, but when i finally did make the time to sit down and work my way through the latest Atlus release i discovered an extremely deep puzzle game wrapped in a delightfully vibrant yet disturbing anime style ribbon.
Vincent Brooks is the main character in Catherine, a man who avoids commitment and growing up at all costs. His girlfriend of 5 years, Katherine, is restless with the current state of their relationship and is starting to exert pressure on our man to commit to her long term (yep, the M word people) However, his increasingly complex life takes yet another turn when the morning after a heavy night’s drinking he wakes up next to his dream girl, who strangely enough is also named Catherine, but as you can see it’s with a C not a K.
The game is, at this point, split into 2 main parts. During Vincent’s waking hours you see him eating with friends, and can take control of him when he goes to the Stray Sheep bar to drink and talk to his friends. In the bar you can talk to the patrons, check your phone for messages, drink until you drop (the drunker you are the faster you move in your dreams) use the jukebox to play music that is unlocked as you progress through the game, and play a strange game called Rapunzel which bears a striking resemblance to the Nightmares that you will have to play through in the other half of the game. Texting is an important part of your waking life, the messages you send can alter how the story plays out so think carefully about how to end your texts in-case they give the wrong impression.
This Nightmare half of Catherine is where the puzzle elements come to the fore. Every night when Vincent goes to sleep he finds himself in a weird nightmare world where everyone else looks like sheep, and he must climb giant block mountains if he is to survive the night. Because as the theory goes, if you die in your dreams you die in real life too. The puzzle portion of the game is surprisingly deep and extremely addictive, the emphasis during the nightmare is to ascend the tower as quickly as you can while the blocks below you fall away. on top of this there are some stages where you will be pursued by your worst fears, be that a demonic chainsaw wielding baby or a shadowy reflection of yourself.
At regular points during your nightmare you’ll reach a base camp of sorts which more closely resemble a church than anything else. During these levels you can save progress, talk to other sheep to figure out what’s going on and even exchange techniques that could better help you climb the towers still to come. If you look closely you may even recognise a few of the sheep you talk to at this base camp…
As you progress, the towers will get more and more difficult to ascend, and more varieties of blocks will be brought into play. Immovable blocks, heavy blocks, black holes, exploding blocks and spike traps are just a few of the varieties you’ll have to learn to use to your advantage because, and i forgot to mention this before, you might not be the only one climbing the tower, and the other sheep won;t think twice about throwing you off the block and down to your death.
When Catherine was originally released in Japan a lot was said about how difficult the game was, and that it was prohibitively difficult for Western audiences let alone the Japanese. Luckily Atlus patched the Japanese release to lower the difficulty, and included that coding in the EU and US releases of the game. There’s also a “Very Easy” mode available if you’re really having a hard time of it, but for the most part i have to say that Easy is rather forgiving while still frustrating you every now and then. Rapunzel, the arcade game in the Stray Sheep Bar also offers some fantastic alternative gameplay as it focusses more on solving the puzzle rather than getting it done as quickly as possible. It really is the hidden gem inside the larger hidden gem that is Catherine.
Music, as most of you will appreciate, is a very important part of any game and in Catherine this is just as evident. The Music is excellent, there’s a good mixture of songs available on the Stray Sheep’s Jukebox so everybody should be able to find something listenable there, while the classical music used in the nightmare stages is unsettling and atmospheric. As a fan of Samurai Champloo it was nice to see some J-Hip-Hop used in the Game intro as well, you really get the feeling that Atlus appreciate how music can improve the game play experience.
Graphically the game looks superb, Atlus themselves have said that it serves as “an experiment for Persona 5″ and there’s no doubt it was a success as the engine runs superbly. The animations are smooth and natural while the cell shade style gives it a unique look that few games can match. Studio 4 degrees C have done a stand-up job with the story animations as well, they mesh perfectly with the rest of the game thanks to the cell shade colouring of the in-game engine.
Fans of Japanese games will lap this up while most gamers who enjoy a puzzle game should find plenty to enjoy about the game too. The multiple endings give Catherine decent replay value as do the nightmare levels themselves as they all have multiple solutions. Rapunzel offers something different while the additional Babel and Colosseum game modes offer something different for anyone who wants to slide some blocks around outside of the main story.
Anyone looking for an off the wall puzzle game with charm and personality could do a lot worse than giving Catherine a try, This is a great example of a game being different and better for it.