We finally know what Catherine is all about, and it’s not what we expected.
Given that it’s from the team responsible for Persona, and its marketing featured more cleavage than the local strip club, you could be forgiven for expecting Catherine to be an RPG filled with plenty of sex. It’s not. Oh, there’s plenty of nookie, but Catherine is actually a puzzle game.
The protagonist in the game is Vincent, whose disinterest in commitment is beginning to frustrate his girlfriend of five years, Katherine. He meets a super-sexy girl in a bar one night, and after waking up next to her thinks that he might be in a lot of trouble. Plenty of corpses have been showing up all over town, and they all have one thing in common: They were all men who cheated on their girlfriends.
Every night, Vincent has a nightmare in which he is climbing a tower of stacked blocks. He must maneuver up the tower, moving blocks, shifting position, and reorganizing them into stairs, so that he can make it to the top before time runs out. Pulling a block out the stack, Jenga-style, allows the one above it to drop, and you can hang from the edges to shimmy around a block you just pulled into the spot where you were standing. As Vincent climbs, the lower rows of blocks fall away into nothingness, so maintaining upward mobility is vital. It’s not as easy as simply shifting blocks around, though; some explode, others shoot out spikes, and every so often you’ll run into something really special, like ice.
Boss levels are a little bit different. Vincent still has to race to the top of the tower, but this time he’s being pursued by a gigantic monster that represents one of his innermost fears. The boss I got to see was, appropriately, Catherine herself, who chases after Vincent with a fork. Each boss has special abilities that make solving the puzzle even harder. In the case of Catherine, she can turn blocks into nonmoving blocks.
The game takes place in three different areas: Vincent’s favorite bar, the “landings,” and the nightmares that he has every night. The landings are where Vincent meets the sheepmen who are other men having nightmares, and talk to them about how to tackle the puzzles in his nightmares. They might teach him new moves or techniques that will give him a clue as to how to solve the puzzle in his next nightmare. There’s a rumor going around town that if you die in your dreams, you die in real life, so gathering intel is in your best interests.
Pay attention to the other patrons of the bar and you’ll recognize some of them as the sheep from your dreams. By talking to them, you may be able to rescue them from their nightmares, thus saving their lives. Not only will this earn you achievements, but it will also make you a nicer guy, tipping the game’s morality meter into the blue.
The decisions you make aren’t judged as good or evil, merely chaotic or restrained. Jerks will send the meter into the red zone, while nicer guys will have that needle leaning into the blue. The choices you make – like how to answer an angry text from Katherine when she realizes you’re out at the bar again – don’t change how the game progresses, but where your morality meter winds up will determine which of Catherine‘s many endings you receive.
The Tower of Babel mode are completely separate missions you unlock by playing through the story mode, which should last about 8-12 hours, depending on how well you tune into Catherine‘s particular brand of puzzle solving. For even more block-moving puzzletry, you can play the Rapunzel arcade game at the bar. Its puzzles have the added incentive of not being timed, and when you reach the top, you get to shag Rapunzel herself. Or at least do something that makes her braid shake.
Catherine isn’t at all what I expected, but it’s still something very special and weird. The puzzles, sheepmen, confessionals, chaos meter, and anime cutscenes are a bizarre combination, but it all really seems to work. The multiple endings are great bait for replays, especially once you’ve mastered the block-shifting mechanics that will help you soar through the nightmare levels.
We’ll see if it gets any weirder when Catherine comes out on Xbox 360 and PS3 in late July. If that’s even possible.