Version tested: Xbox 360
Editor's note: Catherine is released in Europe this week. Here we present our review of the North American release of the game, first published in July last year. To the best of our knowledge it's still accurate with respect to the European version.
The main character of Catherine, Vincent Brooks, is the type of guy who you might describe as "aimless." Except in Catherine, as in life, there's no such thing as aimless. If you choose to go nowhere, life will aim you on its own, straight into the choppy waters of the future. Life's kind of a jerk that way.
Yet still Vincent attempts to coast. He's a 32-year-old software designer who has been with his girlfriend, Katherine (with a "K"), for a few years. She's been hinting about marriage lately, asking Vincent when he's going to meet her family. It's around then that he starts having these dreams.
When Vincent goes to sleep at night, he enters a bizarre realm of building blocks. The blocks are stacked into towers that seem to extend into infinity, and they're governed by two primary rules. First, you must keep climbing the block towers. Second, if you fail to climb, the ground collapses beneath you, and you die - both in the dream and in the waking world. (In Vincent's waking world, that is. The game does not possess the capacity for actual murder, as far as I know.)
The puzzle of each level in this nightmare realm is how to ascend. You have to push and pull the blocks to form a staircase into the sky; yank a few blocks out of the wall, hop on top of them, yank a few more blocks, and so on.
By the end of the first couple levels, you'll have the hang of it. And then the next level will seem impossible, forcing you to improvise new techniques. That's the cycle in Catherine. You will experience a number of triumphs where you feel like you're a stairway-building genius. They're the moments right before the game turns you into an idiot again.
The science of pushing and pulling blocks is more complicated than it sounds. The blocks adhere to a skewed sort of gravity. They'll fall to the ground if they're unsupported, but they qualify as "supported" - i.e., held in place - even if they're only touching another block on a single thin edge. (Note: That's touching on merely an edge, not even a full side.)
This alternate take on the laws of physics presents a slew of implications for you, the poor sap who's just trying to climb out of harm's way. The blocks fall into counterintuitive patterns, but their behaviour also allows for some great eureka moments as you realise how to use their eccentricities to your advantage.
There are also the bomb blocks, and the ice blocks, and the crumbling blocks, and other cubical gremlins that force you to reinvent your approach.
Catherine is menacing in its difficulty. It taunts players with ludicrous setups, giving you only a second to remark "That's impossible" before reminding you, with a distant boom, that the ground underneath Vincent is always crumbling away. At these moments, the impossible becomes plausible by virtue of being the only option.
Yet Vincent is a quick, agile character (at least in the dream world), and when you do get in a block-pulling groove, the frustration melts away. A winning run gives you the sensation of a spider prancing along a web, putting each leg in just the right place with every step.
So the controls are solid, with one exception. Vincent has the ability to hang from blocks and scramble along their edges before hoisting himself up again. If Vincent is facing away from the camera (i.e., with his back to you), this is a simple move: you push left on the analog stick to move him left, and right to move him right.
When he's facing sideways or, heaven forfend, toward the camera, it's tough to determine which way he's going to go. The control scheme sometimes changes from block to block, so pushing him left will send him in one direction, and then pushing right will send him further in that same direction. What the hell?
It's aggravating, but hey, this is a dream. Have you ever had that dream where you forget how to run? Where "left foot, right foot" is suddenly an incomprehensible notion? That's what this is like. Points for accuracy, I guess.
The nightmare logic is bizarre in other, less exasperating ways. During each night of climbing, Vincent gets to rest at midway points, where he can chat with other climbers who have been relegated to this same recurring nightmare. I can try to describe these rest stops, but it's going to be strange, like someone telling you about a dream. Because that's what I'm doing.
See, all the other climbers are sheep. Vincent isn't a sheep, except yeah, he basically is a sheep. They're all sheep but also people, OK? A church bell tolls incessantly. There's not really a church, but there is a kid in a confession booth who asks you personal questions. The booth may or may not have rockets.