Vincent Brooks leads a carefree life. A shaggy-haired programmer who lives alone, enjoys a stable relationship with his long-time girlfriend Katherine, and hangs out most nights with his buddies at the Stray Sheep bar, he’s comfortably coasting along. At 32, he’s never had to make a tough, life-changing decision. Then Katherine sits him down for “the talk.” All her friends are getting married and having babies, she tells him. It’s about time they settled down. Get married? The thought of it makes Vincent’s heart pound; he breaks out in a cold sweat. Make a commitment? He heads to the bar to drown his sorrows. He’s still there, drinking alone, when a cute blonde (coincidentally named Catherine) asks if she can sit with him. They talk, they drink, one thing leads to another… and Vincent’s life suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.
This is the story of Catherine, billed an “unconventional romance-horror” by Japanese developer Atlus. In spite of its cartoon artwork and being named after the game’s scantily-dressed namesake, it is not pornographic and it isn't manga. It has some risqué moments, but as far as sex goes, the story’s events are tamer than a lot of R-rated movies. Instead, this is a surprisingly realistic exploration of relationships, morality, and human emotions that has one of the most relatable and intriguing storylines of any recent game, adventure or otherwise.
Okay, but what kind of game is it? Catherine has been called a puzzle game, but that doesn’t mean what most adventure fans expect it to mean. The gameplay alternates between relaxed story scenes where the sole objective is to interact with other characters and tease out the overarching plot, and fast-paced puzzle stages during which Vincent must frantically climb a massive tower of blocks before the bottom falls out beneath him. The game spans eight days, during which cinematics show snippets of Vincent’s daily experiences and interactive story scenes take place each evening at the Stray Sheep. Meanwhile the nine puzzle stages, set during his recurring nightmare, grow more complex as he becomes more deeply entangled in his betrayal—keeping secrets from Katherine, guiltily continuing to see (and sleep with) Catherine, and desperately trying to figure out who he truly is and what he wants out of life.
Vincent’s moral dilemma is at the heart of Catherine’s storyline, but it turns out he’s just one of many men experiencing terrifying nightmares night after night. As he agonizes over the mess he’s in, he starts hearing rumors from his friends and fellow bar patrons about how men who cheat on their girlfriends or wives are being cursed by the one they betrayed. And according to news reports, a string of local men have mysteriously died in their sleep…
During the interactive story scenes, which are exclusively set at the Stray Sheep, Vincent is able to walk around the bar, talk to various characters, and engage in typical activities like choosing music on the jukebox, playing an arcade game, and drinking. There are no puzzles or overriding objectives during these scenes; you can do as much or as little as you want before returning home for the night. However, by talking to other characters, you’ll pick up details about the apparent curse that plagues cheating men and the so-called “weakening deaths” that seem to be linked to Vincent’s own recurring nightmares. Others arrive at and leave the bar on their own timetable, so your decisions about who to speak to and when will influence how much of the backstory you learn. These interactions can also have subtle impacts on how the story unfolds—nothing as drastic as in, say, Heavy Rain, but the fates of NPCs can change and minor scenes will differ depending on how you spend your free time.
While at the bar, Vincent receives text messages and the occasional phone call from the two women in his life. How you choose to respond (if you respond at all) also influences the story in subtle ways. When Catherine sends a suggestive photo of herself, you can egg her on or tell her to stop. When Katherine texts that she’s frustrated about Vincent’s reluctance to commit, you can reassure her or blow her off. Such choices often affect Vincent’s “morality meter,” an on-screen scale that tips in the direction of a blue angel (representing order) or a red devil (representing chaos) based on certain responses. While the game doesn’t have large dialogue trees, during some conversations you get to choose between two different reactions; these can affect the morality meter as well.
Though it never leads to significant story branches, the morality meter’s status changes Vincent’s interior monologue in stressful situations. For example, when he awakens after a night of drinking to find Catherine beside him in bed, he may have guilty thoughts if the meter is closer to order, or react with excitement if the meter is closer to chaos. They’re nuanced, but even these slight changes in reaction led me to perceive the game’s events in different ways: Vincent could come across as a bumbling innocent who stumbled into this mess and can’t find his way out, or like a henpecked boyfriend who had a good reason to cheat on his domineering girlfriend, or like a jerk who just doesn’t respect women that much. The meter also directly influences which of the game’s eight endings you see, so ultimately these choices do impact the story’s outcome, if not the path you’ll take to get there.
Each night after returning home from the bar, Vincent has a horrible dream in which he has to climb a seemingly never-ending tower of blocks, rushing to reach the top before the bottom falls out from under him. On the tower Vincent is dressed in boxers, with ram’s horns on his head, clutching his pillow. He’s surrounded by other sheep who are also climbing on the tower—“lost lambs” who, like Vincent, have been sent here by someone in the real world who wants revenge.
The basic objective during these stages is to reach the top of the tower without falling off or getting stuck in an impossible situation. The blocks at the bottom are gradually falling away, so there is an element of timing involved. You can pull and push blocks to form a stairway, hang off the edge of blocks to “spider walk” around the tower, and slide blocks across a gap to create a bridge. Traveling on the tower is fairly simple; you use the left stick for movement and the X button for pushing/pulling. You can also use the right stick to manipulate the camera, but you can’t move it a full 360-degrees to see the back of the tower, which makes things particularly tricky when Vincent is hanging off the back of a block, out of view.
In the absence of any obstacles or time limits, this “puzzle” gameplay would appeal to many adventure gamers who enjoy logic challenges. But this is a nightmare, not a brain-training exercise, and like the men who have already died in their sleep, Vincent is in very real danger throughout these sequences. Falling off the tower, getting squashed by a falling block, or being knocked off by another sheep who's climbing nearby are some possible ways to die. Special blocks have properties that create obstacles, such as traps that shoot spikes out the top, slippery ice blocks that make you slide off the edge, or bomb blocks that explode a few seconds after they’re stepped on. Other special blocks can be used to your advantage, however, such as the trampoline blocks that send you flying higher up the tower. There are also items that give temporary skills, like the ability to climb two blocks at a time or create a new block when you need one. These are scattered around the tower and can also be purchased between climbing levels with in-game currency.
After completing a climbing level, you reach a landing where you can save the game and chat with other sheep to glean information about how they’ve ended up here. These are not critical conversations, but they’ll fill in some blanks regarding the curse and can change the story slightly depending on which sheep you choose to talk to. Vincent and the other sheep can also share valuable climbing techniques, which are demonstrated with handy on-screen videos.
When you’re ready to climb again, you send Vincent into the “confessional,” an elevator to the next level where he must first answer a personal question posed by an unseen man on the other side of the wall. These range from silly (“Is popping bubble wrap fun?”) to insightful (“Does life begin or end with marriage?”) to risqué (“Cosplay in the bedroom: aye or nay?”). There are several possible questions per level, so you could replay quite a bit before you see them all. Your answers tip the morality meter in one direction or the other, and in the final climbing stage the answers help determine which ending you get. After you give your answer, a pie chart displays to show how other people answered the question. I thought that was an interesting feature, especially if you’re playing in offline mode because the answers are broken down for men and women. (If you’re playing in online mode, you’ll instead see a chart representing answers from other players, which are not split out by gender.)Continued on the next page...