If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from my gaming life, it’s that difficulty settings are absolute nonsense – or if you’re feeling especially charitable, “highly subjective.” Sometimes hard mode is the most leisurely of walks in the park; sometimes medium difficulty results in a tour de force of clinical masochism. Then, there is Catherine, one of the few games in recent memory that bolsters my long-standing argument that there should be a difficulty setting above “very hard,” simply called, “Japan.” Indeed, Catherine hates you: It hates your smugness, mocks your persistence, and does everything in its power to compel you to leave a fist-shaped dent in your television.
In the interest of full disclosure, yours truly has the spatial intelligence of a comatose four year-old. Nonetheless, after many Red Bulls, many meetings of controller and wall, and enough profanity to warrant a maternal scolding, the dread specter of Catherine found herself thoroughly and utterly vanquished – and all things considered, it was a worthwhile affair.
For those living under several piles of rocks beneath several feet of sand, Catherine is a schizophrenic sort of game. Part dating sim, part puzzler, the game puts you in the shoes of Vincent: a callow, confused man coming to terms with his belated ascent into adulthood. Complicating matters is his relationship with his girlfriend, Katherine. Vincent is, while slightly adorable, a rather contemptible creature. He’s miserable, pathologically avoidant, and on the whole, a slave to his own doubts and neuroses: fearing this domineering she-beast from beyond the vale of space and time – masquerading as a mature, goal-oriented woman – seeking to imprison him in a prison of matrimony from which there is no escape. Complicating matters is the appearance of “Catherine,” the sexy psychotic to his dependable ladyfriend. Said psychotic quickly becomes the third point in Vincent’s love triangle, as his many alcohol-induced dissociative fugues find him in a steamy affair, thus compounding his confusion, adding layers of guilt, and putting him in danger of becoming the latest casualty of a string of deaths in the city – one that has been killing unfaithful men. Soon enough, fair Vincent finds himself waging dream battles against babies, disembodied hands, and all other manner of subconscious demons. All the while, he shares his plight with fellow men (who appear to be sheep in the mind’s eye), each seeking to escape the collective nightmare – in other words, an average Thursday night.
Yet at its heart, Catherine is a puzzler, and for the most part, it takes to the task quite well. The mechanics are simple enough: the player is faced with a wall of blocks, and rearranges them to create a path to the top of the level. It’s simple, intuitive, and immediately accessible. New techniques can be learned from the sheep, and most (if not all) end up being rather useful. You can skip these if you like, but each new technique tends to have applications for the corresponding level – and if you go blindly into the fray, you often find yourself presented with a seemingly-insurmountable challenge. In this way, Catherine does what all good puzzlers do: starting from a very simple mechanic – dragging and placing blocks – and gradually growing in complexity as the hours wear on, while remaining grounded enough that gameplay never becomes obtuse.
Much of the hair-pulling involved in Catherine comes not because the game is unfair – save for a cheap kill every now and again – but from the fact that it requires you recall the array of facts under duress: battling the clock as you try to visualize the path that will eventually unfold, provided your peon brain can piece together the various techniques needed to bring it about. Chances are, your failures stem less from some fundamental unfairness, and more because you weren’t quick, clever, or perceptive enough – and while repeated deaths bring with it the spiral of frustration and self-loathing that come with the realization that you might in fact be an invalid, the eventual victory brings with it a sense of accomplishment typically reserved for games of old.
If you haven’t played Catherine, it’s definitely worth the asking price. On Amazon, copies of both the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions can be found for less than $30. For those that prefer retail, Gamestop used Xbox 360 and PS3 copies will run you $24.99 and $29.99, respectively.