A mildly deranged symphony of absolutely brilliant ideas, Catherine isn’t anywhere near as impenetrable as it first appears to be. There’s no question that it’s weird, but it’s no more or less so than the average David Lynch flick, and Catherine’s weirdness only really exists on the surface anyway; this is a very coherent experience underneath. You play as a self-absorbed deadbeat named Vincent who spends almost all of his leisure time dodging his homely girlfriend so that he can partake in late night boozing sessions with a trio of friends. He’s a tiresome Will Freeman-style commitment phobe, and an unexpected encounter with a girl named Catherine during the game’s opening swiftly kicks the plot into gear. From then on, Vincent’s dilemma is dealt with both literally – during the day – and via allegorical stress dreams during the night, in which he’s forced to solve a series of increasingly complex block puzzles in a world populated solely by other men. Men whose parents all appear to have mated with sheep.
During these sequences you’re pursued from below by a giant shapeshifting demon, and these visions are either deeply sinister or fantastic inventions of grotesque (sexualised) body horror. On one occasion you’re chased by a giant anus that attacks you with its serpentine tongue, and on another you’re trying to evade the grasp of your own unborn child. These apparitions both destroy the lower parts of each construction – acting as a time limit – and occasionally use weapons against you; the aforementioned backside intermittently sprinkles you with (avoidable) pink fairy dust that briefly flips your control scheme upside down. When you make it through a night’s sleep without dying you’re thrown back into the main story, which is told through surprisingly gripping cutscenes and some laid-back third person “action” sequences. What’s remarkable about these two facets of the gameplay is that they appear to be almost wholly un-interactive, and yet because you’re asked to engage with Vincent on such a personal level, and because the writing is so good and the localisation job so adept, its narrative is nothing less than spellbinding.
The squiffy morality system that forms the backbone of this part of the game may be less about actual morals and more about playing up to Hollywood’s hackneyed idea of what constitutes a “good guy” in this day and age, but within the uncertain boundaries of this plot it works beautifully. Being aloof or dismissive in an email will presumably lead to a more combustible Katherine (that’s your girlfriend) and being standoffish or curt will instantly upset her; despite the fact that many people would argue that the “right” thing to do in Vincent’s scenario would be to behave in exactly that fashion. After you fall asleep each night – though before you descend into your nightmare – you’re asked a pertinent personal question about your own attitudes toward love and relationships, and your answers assist in further shaping Vincent to an undisclosed degree. If your console is online you’ll also see how your fellow players have voted via an unobtrusive pie chart; pointless, but definitely neat.
At this stage, the greatest things about Catherine (the game) probably haven’t even revealed themselves yet, as there is clearly a lot of joy to be had in signing up for subsequent playthroughs. But as effortlessly engaging as the core narrative is, this is primarily a puzzle game – and it’s a very bloody good one indeed. It gets genuinely challenging after a mere two hours, but this is one of those deeply rewarding brainteasers that somehow manages to be both flexible and rigidly taxing at the same time; there’s never only one solution, and yet you’ll rarely succeed by accident. Neither the camera nor the controls are perfect during the nightmare sections and there probably should have been a difficulty setting that bridged the gap between the manageable Easy mode, and the utterly misjudged Normal one. But as far as categorical faults go, that’s your lot. Catherine is a true, true original, and easily the best game of 2012 so far.
Catherine is currently due for release on the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on Friday, February 10th 2012.
Watch the trailer for Catherine below: