Video games aren't too great at dealing with relationships; especially sexual ones. Often, when sex comes up in a game, it's as a 'reward'; and if the game is particularly immature, as a mini-game. In that light, Catherine, a game about relationship problems is refreshing. It's been a long time coming - Catherine saw a release in the US last summer (and in Japan earlier still), but has only just made it to UK shores.
I'm not just talking about some pastel-soft high-school love triangle, here. Catherineis about cheating, choosing between passion and responsibility, and dealing with the resulting nightmare one's life can become. Both figuratively and literally.
You play as Vincent Brooks - 32, with a dull day job and a small, slightly trashy apartment. He's been dating his girlfriend Katherine for years - but now she's starting to talk marriage, and Vincent isn't quite ready for that step. Drowning his sorrows at the Stray Sheep bar, he encounters Catherine, who has everything he wants in a woman, his dream girl. After a one night stand he doesn't remember; he is thrown into moral turmoil - how could he possibly tell Katherine about his infidelity? What's worse, nightmares about climbing collapsing towers while chased by twisted versions of his fears start haunting him every night...
The gameplay is starkly split between the dialogue-heavy trappings of a visual novel and a fast-paced action-puzzler. While on paper the two genres don't blend readily, in practice the two modes play off each other to keep things fresh.
Story segments at the Stray Sheep are compelling in seeing how the characters handle the idea that there's a curse that kills those who cheat, among other romantic ills and gender politics; but the nightmare stages break the calm by being tense and fast-paced - not to mention challenging on any difficulty other than Easy (and even then, Easy stops pulling punches halfway through). Then after a boss has bean defeated, you get to wind down the tension with the continuation of plot.
However, what I find most interesting is how the topic of sex and relationships is discussed as something entirely other than an ideal. While both Catherine and Katherine are physically attractive; they're both flawed people and put a lot of pressure on poor Vincent. Once both characters show their true colours, you feel just as worried as Vincent when the emotional and possibly physical stakes of having sex get much much higher.
The game wants you to seriously consider such dilemmas - to the point where after every Nightmare stage, Vincent has to sit in a confessional and be asked an either/or question on relationships before being whisked away to the next area. If you're connected to the internet, you answer is compared to the first-time answers of other players.
These choices along with others made in the story go towards a Law/Chaos meter (A variation on the good/evil choices in a lot of other games, but the semantic choice of using law and chaos is relevant); though sometimes it just feels as though it's a visual indicator of your allegiance with the two Catherines. Your alignment does affect certain lines of the story; but the actual ending (of which there are multiple) is decided largely independantly of this mechanic - a shame.
Aesthetically, Catherine is mostly in the positives - if you've played an Atlus RPG before (Most notablyPersona 4) you'll recognise the style of character design and the wonderful music by Shoji Meguro. What lets the side down is that the animation can be a bit stiff at times - all the attention to detail has been put into the facial expressions.
It's always refreshing for a high-budget game to be unabashedly unique; in an industry full of sequels; and as such, I'm ready to recommend it to most who are interested in games that do something different - but prepare yourself for nightmares of your own once the puzzle stages pull out the stops.