Writing in games has been the subject of discussion recently in gaming circles – particularly with abysmally sexist trailers for the new Hitman at E3 in mind – and is an unfortunate issue for the industry in general. So often clunky, the narrative of a game seems a bizarre afterthought for a game’s director, after a pitch meeting where various “that would be cool” set pieces are listed on a whiteboard, and someone at the back pipes up with the frankly inconsequential suggestion “I think the guy should be called Max” as a backstory for the whole shambolic debacle. For me, a good game has a content and form that mirror each other, the gameplay driving the story as much as the story informs the gameplay, the two delicately intertwined so that they become inseparable, engrossing and undeniably one. With Catherine, although not managing to gel the two entirely together, there’s a great relationship between these two elements and it’s clear that a lot of thought has been given to telling a story, and exploring idea. But then again, the plot of Catherine doesn’t lend itself to being described as “balanced”.
If you’re not big on import games you’d be forgiven for missing this one, but Catherine is exactly what you might imagine from the land of the rising sun (and soiled knicker dispensing machines), and is one of the few mad Japanese games to get an official western release following quite a buzz in the alternative games press; part manga film, part puzzle-horror-adventure/dating-sim (no, seriously) Catherine is incredibly addictive. Stuck in a personal dilemma, the game follows Vincent as he struggles with a relationship that is reluctantly moving onto that next plain of existence – marriage. You help Vincent deal with this as any reasonable adult would – by drinking heavily – and soon, he starts to suffer from a mysterious recurring nightmare, within which he is chased by various niggling doubts made manifest in grotesque demons resembling his beloved and other elements of his waking trauma. Faced with a staircase of cubes to survive, these spectres form the backbone of the playable game, where Vincent must push and pull blocks to make paths, while avoiding sheep, ants and assorted traps. Think Qbert, but if Qbert had been a haunted 60s vinyl you can play backwards to hear Satan speak, and if you decipher those words, you go insane. Then add buxom women. You’re not even close.
The reason why this game is great, is due the brilliant puzzle sequences – once I’d managed to get my head around the idea, which admittedly was a couple of levels, I easily sunk hours into the game, which kept layering more and more elements to keep gameplay fresh just as you were getting comfortable – but the horrendous difficulty soon starts to ratchet up. I consider myself an above-average player (especially when it comes to these sorts of puzzle games), but I didn’t enjoy being forced to replay the same levels over and over again. You could forgive the occasional random elements with little discernible pattern of which to speak and adapt, but what can’t be forgiven are the many instances when playing was hampered by both impossible camera angles, and controls unintentionally jumping direction mid-game which ruin your flow.
Between levels the story jogs along through some splendid animated sequences that do much to bring home just how great Catherine looks, but the visuals alone are not enough, and despite some genuine wit, the plot and dialogue (though I imagine lost somewhat in translation) fail to engage in the way appearances would suggest. This is exacerbated by the bar sequences which take place between levels, where you talk to characters, write and receive texts, and generally just chill out – which struggle to find their place in the overall dynamic. Worse still, the game has an odd karma system that asks you questions on your own relationships, and evaluates your character based on your responses, and judges you against other players, which have an gentle impact on the plot – which, although not out of place, see intentional, but never properly implemented. Considering both these elements, it’s difficult to know if the story and their accompanying gameplay elements are an interesting distraction, an intentional pacing device or the game’s own real-world nightmare.
But this goes far beyond what one should justifiably critique a game – it’s telling that Catherine stands out as one of very few games that has made a genuine effort with the story that it becomes worth addressing the flawed narrative value of the piece – something that is unthinkable in other games reviews – over and above critique of the main game. The game is miles ahead of the rest of the field, and aside from the inherent mysogony – which are knowingly played but still struggle to be anything other than perverse or at least problematic – by my own criteria Catherine is a good example of content clearly built alongside a unique puzzle form, which is addictive, likeable but unforgiving – in short for all the charm Catherine can provide, it just isn’t enough to fall in love.