When Catherine was first announced, I was beyond intrigued. It was a game with a very anime vibe. And it mashed up a sort of visual novel kind of adventure game with some old school box-pushing Sokoban. And it was maybe kinda sorta a spin-off of Shin Megami Tensei. And it was getting some rather impressive advertising. Oh, and it wore its sexiness on its sleeve. Yet, it never felt sleazy. Instead, it was sort of marketed as a game that wasn't ABOUT sex, but rather one where sex and relationships and monogamy and fear of commitment were all central to its themes.
The resulting game, Catherine was a box about pushing boxes in a nightmare where if you die in a dream, you die in real life. The daytime segments played out as anime adventure gaming where you had to navigate the day-to-die with your longtime girlfriend (Katherine) whose biological clock was ticking, meanwhile trying to hide the succubus (Catherine) that you met in a bar while mulling over your own commitment phobia. Although it was chock full of metaphors and disturbing nightmare imagery, it was just about as subtle as Eraserhead. And I say that as a compliment.
I actually pre-ordered this game back then, and it blew me away. I was the perfect age to play this one. I was in my early 30's. And while I had been happily married for five years and had no issues with commitment, the truth is I had all kinds of deep down fears about next steps. Y'know all the big stuff that comes next? The buying of a home, the fathering a child? That stuff. It was all stuff I WANTED to do. But it was scary. Change is scary. Especially when you're a kid that grew up divided between two homes.
Well here I am over a decade later replaying Catherine. I'm now in my early 40's. I'm still happily married. I live in a nice house that I'm quite proud of. And I have a beautiful daughter. So you can certainly say that my experiences have changed, and I probably can't identify quite as much with young and confused Vincent. But that doesn't make the game any less impressive or successful. It's a brilliantly ballsy game. One that mashes up disparate concepts - none of which were exactly cool or mainstream in 2011. And it does so with confidence and style.
The experience of actually replaying Catherine as an older dude has been interesting. And I've actually tried to replay it a couple of times over the past decade, and I always seem to come to the same conclusion. While I can still see everything that I loved about the game in 2011, it just doesn't hit me the same way anymore. It doesn't suck me in. Which is weird.
The real meat of the game is the nightmare sections. You've got to climb huge crumbling towers to try to wake up and escape to the next day. These 3D puzzles resemble a sort of modern day Q*Bert or something. But there's also a lot of box pushing. The levels are well crafted brain teasers that have you rely on both logic and dexterity. It's good stuff. And at the end of each section, you'll be stalked by a boss. Each one furthers that Eraserhead analogy I mentioned. There's sickly genital monsters, deformed babies, and evil brides. Again, nothing is subtle here. But frankly the demons here do really make Catherine feel like a sort of cousin to the Shin Megami Tensei games. As such, the puzzles remain my favorite part of the game.
The other half of the game is devoted to the story, and it's kind of like a visual novel. I say kind of because I don't feel like there's enough decision making. Sure, there's stuff you can say, but a lot of it feels like it doesn't matter all that much. Yeah, it'll change the ending ultimately. But the choices feel so binary. In the grand scheme, you can either make Vincent a good guy who's being terrorized by a succubus, or a creep who's being seduced by a succubus. You can also do things like check your phone messages and I guess this adds a little flavor to the story, but to me it just kind of feels like wasting time between the nightmares.
You can also play a retro-style arcade game called Rapunzel in the local bar. It's basically a 16-bit version of the nightmare levels, and it's fun and can offer up some perks for the actual nightmare levels. But... again, its novelty wears off after a few rounds, and makes me feel like it's just another diversion keeping me from the actual game.
I will say that the visual novel sections offer up some great animation. And the voice acting is pretty great. Laura Bailey is always great, and her take on Catherine is excellent. Troy Baker voices Vincent, and he does a good job switching between low-key in waking hours, and horrified in the nightmares.
All that said, the truth is that even though I'm aware that multiple endings exist, I don't ever seem to care enough to see them. I don't really want to play through the game as an a-hole. And in a lot of ways, the story just feels to me like a one-and-done, rather than something I want to see over and over again. So while I can still see the quality of this game, and understand why it appealed to me so much at a time, I have trouble seeing it through to the end again. The nightmare puzzles are still a blast, sure. And I'd still totally recommend Catherine to anyone who hasn't played it yet. But, I don't know, maybe I'd like to see a sequel to this one than to actually watch the full story multiple times.