Vincent’s life is weird. Not like ‘I don’t know which career path to take’ weird, or even ‘I’m 32 years old and still play video games all day and like to attend conventions’ weird. No, I mean ‘I’m a character in a fictional TV show fronted by an afro-haired woman, dreaming of everyone I know being sheep and having to scale a puzzle wall and answer psychological questions about relationships in my sleep’. Now THAT’S weird.
If that previous paragraph read like I had fallen asleep at my keyboard, you had better get used to it, as Catherine is one of the strangest games out of Japan in a long time. Developed and published by Atlus, the game is due for release on the 26th July in the US only (for now) and we were cordially invited to a live stream demo of the first hour of the game. Believe me when I say you have never played anything like this before!
Wikipedia describes Catherine as being an ‘erotic-horror puzzle-platformer adventure game’, a genre in which it is strangely the only example. The plot of the game is both simplistic and bat-s**t crazy at the same time. Vincent Brooks is an average guy in his early 30’s. He has been seeing the same girl, Katherine, for a few years now and believes he loves her, but when the subject of marriage comes up he gets the jitters. Don’t pretend you haven’t been there guys. Where you may not have been is in what happens next, when a sexy blond girl ten years his junior, Catherine, (see what they did there?) suddenly comes on to him in a bar and the next thing he knows he’s waking up in bed with her. So far, so soap opera right? But then the sheep appear.
That’s right, sheep. Although the game features quite a lot of adventure/RPG elements as Vincent explores the bar he spends a lot of his time in (again, thanks Atlus for aiming this title at me so fully), responds to text messages and plays mini-games, the bulk of the title is an unusual puzzle type game. Compared by some to Q-Bert, in truth there isn’t a lot of similarities aside from the game’s star needing to reach the top of a block tower. Oh, you’re in your boxer shorts, carrying a pillow and you also have ram horns on your head, forgot to mention that. You achieve your tower scaling feats by use of a push/pull system on the blocks themselves, earning special items and learning new tricks along the way, as you knock other sheep off on your timed climb away from the bottom of the screen and certain, inevitable death.
Those sheep again. I’m not obsessed honestly, but the game certainly seems to be. If the nightmarish tower climbing levels seem to represent your guilt or inability to commit then the sheep that populate your dreams appear to be a manifestation of people you see in your normal life, reduced to just one of the flock. This game is deep.
It’s also very attractive, and I’m not just talking about Catherine (or Katherine either come to that). The cut scenes are all produced by anime Studio 4°C, well-known for work on Spriggan and Halo Legends. The adventure sections and the puzzle levels alike all have a really distinctive art style and feature full voice acting throughout which really adds to the production value. If you had not already guessed this title is rated M (for mature), the frequent F-bombs muttered by sheep in ties testament to this.
Another neat trick employed by the game is its morality system, which seems to be a balance of selfish vs altruistic rather than a boring good/evil scale and affects the ending of the game. This is tipped one way or another by your actions including the text messages you send and the choices you make during psychological tests taking place between levels. Interestingly you can also view how other people voted in a well implemented PSN/XBOX live feature.
Which brings us to the multiplayer. No online here I’m afraid folks but there are several competitive and co-operative modes for playing on the same console. A few of these are available at the start of the game, whereas others are unlocked on completion, something you will be tempted to do multiple times in order to see the alternate endings (though some of our folks disagree with this method) and improve your scores on the puzzle sections. At least you should find it ever so slightly easier to do this than our Japanese cousins; one complaint they had about the game was how hard it was, this has been made just a bit easier for North American release in line with a Japanese patch. Rest assured though this will still be a difficult game, particularly if the end of level boss we saw at the end of the demo was anything to judge by – a giant pair of hands holding a fork representing a waitress at the bar in the ‘real’ world.
All of which begs the question, ‘what the hell is going on’ and ‘can I try this weird game out for myself’. OK that’s two questions, but give me a break, I’m trying to explain Catherine here. First answer: No idea. Second Answer: Atlus will be releasing a demo for the two versions of the game shortly before launch to give you a taste of what an ‘erotic-horror puzzle-platformer adventure game’ plays like. Hopefully we should also be getting a copy in to review for you so we can give you our own verdict. God I hope I don’t dream about sheep tonight.