Commitment-phobic Vincent has got himself into a pickle. While juggling the demands of his career, boozy sessions with his mates and his doting girlfriend Katherine his wandering eye has lead him into a spot of bother. When he wakes up one morning in the arms of sex on legs blonde bombshell Catherine all hell breaks loose. Plagued by inner conflict Vincent battles both himself and the nightmarish visions of the pee your pants variety that visit him every night as he attempts to resolve this sticky situation.
Catherine is not your run of the mill type of game. Itís got decidedly perverse, absolutely Japanese sensibilities. It completely embraces its otaku stylings with an outlandish mix of humour, cuteness, none-too-subtle sexual innuendo, serious overtones and perfectly proportioned hotties all wrapped with up with a Westernised slant. This is 100% targeted at fans of the oh-so wacky Japanese culture and completely embraces it.
Catherine also tackles some rather big issues head on, such as the nature of relationships, commitment and infidelity. Itís got a striking artistic style and brings a solid dose of horror to what is basically a puzzle platformer crossed with a light dating sim. Visually it brings the goods with a perfectly balanced mix of anime and CG cut scenes with some smooth as silk jazz backing tracks to help set the tone. Itís slick all day and more than a little hard to put down.
The basic concept has Vincent visited by nightmares as he slumbers each night, a by-product of his cheating ways. In simplest terms he needs to traverse stacked rows of movable blocks to reach the summit and live to cheat another day. Thereís a palpable sense of urgency on two levels. Failure to reach the top results in a dream state death leading to Vincentís actual death (somewhat of an epidemic for cheating males in the game world) and the rows that Vincent climbs drop down into the abyss rather regularly so speed is of the essence is you want to survive.
There are all manner of different blocks. Some crumble, others explode, a few contain vortexes to whisk you away, there are even ice blocks that turn the whole ledge into a Slip ín Slide. My favourite would have to be the trap boxes with spikes at the ready to fricassee your sorry arse in you stay on them longer than a split second. Your job is to immediately assess the situation as youíre frantically trying to make your way to the top intact.
If that wasnít enough, there are other unfortunate fidelity challenged souls - mostly in the form of sheep (donít ask) - youíll come up and climb up against who will look for any opportunity to dislodge you, plus you often become your own worst enemy working yourself into an inescapable corner. Luckily you can undo your last move with the press of a button, which becomes an essential tactic for getting yourself out of a tight spot.
Itís a constant tightrope walk with agony or ecstasy always milliseconds away. Iíve played my way through many addictive games but the compulsion to keep playing Catherine is on a whole other level. Itís almost impossible to not get enough retries with many ďpillowĒ collectibles situated right after a checkpoint (each one of these adds to your retry counter), so every time Vincent fell to his doom, was shish-kebabed by spikes, crushed by a block or sucked into another dimension as I howled in frustration before I knew it I was unconsciously mashing down retry as my subconscious went into overdrive formulating a new strategy. Itís like Tetris on crack and thereís really nothing else quite like it out there.
Where it reaches insane levels of intensity is when you make it to the end of each nightmare, usually signified by a boss battle. These bad boys are relentless and leave you scrambling for dear life with each of these monstrosities a terrifying manifestation of Vincentís most recent emotional turmoil hounding his every move, chasing him at breakneck pace.
If that wasnít enough, most have special abilities to really keep you on your toes such as the Immoral Beast that can reverse your movements, or Doomís Bride who releases avalanches that sweep you up and bring you crashing down, that is when sheís not trying to slice you up like a piece of wedding cake. One of the final stages mixes it up with you escorting Katherine through one of your trials with a solid nod to Ico as you direct her to wait or follow as you negotiate your way to the top.
Some bosses will drive you nuts and are nut-bustingly tough if you donít utilise some of the power-ups at your disposal, the energy drink is particularly useful as it lets you leap two blocks at once for a limited time. The sense of accomplishment is reinforced by a rousing rendition of Handelís Messiah singing your praises after defeating any boss. You almost welcome the chilled out sessions at the Stray Sheep bar as an opportunity to unwind and let your heart rate drop down to a more regular pace with it providing the perfect counterbalance to the frantically paced gameplay.
The Stray Sheep is Vincentís local watering hole and operates as a hub for his interactions with his mates and its patrons, a save point, a spot where he can send texts to the ladies and more importantly where he knocks back frosty brews and discusses his romantic dilemmas with his buddies. His bros are mostly unsympathetic to his plight with each playing their part whether itís the jaded married guy, the hopeless romantic or the shy innocent. They all poke fun at Vincent and donít really offer any sage advice to his plight. The bar also serves another equally important purpose. It fuels Vincent with booze. The more pissed he gets the more sprightly he moves in his dream state, so be sure to knock back a couple of coldies to ensure a leg up in the next round.
With his relationship with Katherine and affair with Catherine on a collision course, Vincent begins to question his sanity and moves on the verge of a nervous breakdown. As the player controlling this fragile creature you too will question your sanity with the sheer exuberance from completing a stage a mixture of relief and accomplishment peppered with maniacal laughter. You will both love it and hate it as one moment youíre nearly snapping the controller in frustration and the next giggling like a madman at some crazy manoeuvre you canít believe you pulled off.
After each stage you meet in a warped church of sorts with other sheep/cheaters caught in this nightmare to offer support, hit a shop to buy power-ups and more importantly to swap techniques, which can be extremely helpful in upcoming stages. Before commencing the next round you enter a Confessional where a shadowy entity cackles like a hyena taking great mirth in your plight and poses a question to you. Some are quite whimsical like ďHave you ever got so excited you got a bloody nose?Ē poking fun at the anime convention while others are much more serious in tone. Your choices help formulate which of the gameís numerous endings play out so take a moment before you answer, they do count.
Iíve never been an advocate of games that openly try to do more than purely entertain. For the most part itís because they fail so utterly (cough Heavy Rain cough cough) or enter the realm of wankerism where people bandy about terms such as ďartĒ or ďcraftĒ and other such twaddle. With the mature subject matter of relationships, infidelity, guilt, remorse, pregnancy and the reality of growing up and owning your responsibilities, I surprisingly found myself pondering many of these issues long after Iíd turned off my console. Catherineís approach may be more outlandish, tongue in cheek and less than subtle, but it did made me stop and think about it and there arenít many games I can say that about.
Catherine will certainly not be everyoneís cup of tea and is definitely an acquired taste. However, if youíre a fan of the eccentricity of Japanese culture, like a mental challenge and reckon you have fingers dextrous enough to take the job on it will test your mettle and push your sanity to breaking point. Itís equal parts frustration and exhilaration, completely intoxicating, almost impossible to walk away from and stays with you. If youíre after something a little outside the box Catherineís the game for you.