In a marketplace over-saturated with sport games, endless sequels and first person shooters Catherine stands out as one of the most unique console titles I have played in years. Forget about saving the world, leading your favourite team to cup glory or managing a successful farm – what we have here is a more mundane adventure were we aid Vincent Brooks in the unenviable task of juggling the affections of two women who share a similar name. As a bachelor who couldn’t score a date if my life depended on it, I can only look in envy as the thirty year old protagonist of this game gets to choose between two stunning beauties. The predicament Vince finds himself in isn’t as glamorous as you would first imagine though given that it has got him mixed up in a strange sheep themed curse.
The two women in Vincent’s life are Katherine and Catherine (I guess it makes recording lines much easier when the two female leads have a name that is pronounced the same.) Katherine is his current girlfriend who, after many years of courtship, is now nagging her man to take the plunge and get married. As is the case with most guys, Vincent isn’t too keen on the idea of life long commitment and settling down. He rather likes the status quo of going to work, seeing the love of his life and spending the evenings getting plastered at the local bar with his pals. Ironically enough it is his fondness for late night boozing that threatens to ruin his comfortable routine after he gets smashed on alcohol resulting in a one night stand with the seductive Catherine.
So what is Vince to do? Initially he wants to keep the affair a secret, break up with Catherine and save his long term relationship with Katherine. Things are however never that simple. He gets stuck in an endless cycle of alcoholism and inadvertent hanky panky with the free spirited Catherine. Perhaps he should reconsider staying with Katherine the sourpuss? To keep things interesting Katherine reveals to Vincent that she is pregnant, Catherine threatens to murder Vincent if he ever ditches her and a stalker, who claims to be seeing one of the girls, starts to harass our hero. Being a Japanese game you can expect a strange twist near the end as Vincent deliberates which of the two women he should ultimately stick with. He doesn’t have much time to ponder the decision though as there are rumours on the news that men who cheat on their partners are mysteriously dying in their sleep.
A PUZZLE GAME IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING
Having read my description of the story I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you assumed that Catherine plays out like an adventure game, or perhaps one of those naughty Japanese dating sims (especially when you spot the anime drawn box art showing Catherine in a state of undress.) The title’s core gameplay is however that of a puzzler masquerading as something else, alluring would be players with an intriguing plot so they try out a genre they would normally shy away from. Although there are mature themes, and disturbing imaginary in parts, there is nothing pornographic about the game (unless you consider a girl dressing up in a few kinky outfits and showing off cleavage to be overly saucy.)
Although I don’t dislike puzzle games (I am a recovering Tetris addict after all) I must confess to picking up the game after eyeing the gorgeous cartoon graphics and reading up a synopsis of the story. The narrative is told via anime clips and sections at the Stray Sheep bar where players have direct control of Vincent. Whilst at the bar he can chat with his buddies and other patrons to pick up clues on what is going on with regards to the curse that is killing off unfaithful males. During the bar sequences Vincent will also receive text messages from his female suitors which he can respond to using his mobile phone. How Vincent interacts with the cast of characters doesn’t seem to alter the linear storyline in the slightest, but be aware that it will have an influence on which of the different endings you get. The finale of the adventure is ultimately determined by how you answer certain key questions and your morality meter’s level, which swings depending on how you treat each girl.
DON’T BE A SQUARE GIVE CUBE PUSHING A GO
Once you exit the bar Vincent dozes off and we enter the meat of the game which takes place in his nightmares, were he is transformed into a boxers wearing sheep. In order to survive the dream sequences, to avoid joining the ever expanding list of cheaters who have met their demise whilst napping, he has to clear various levels by climbing to the top of towers made up of blocks. It’s a race against time as Vincent struggles to reach the summit of the collapsing structures by manipulating the position of the cubes. To succeed you need to work out the optimal way of pushing/pulling blocks in such a way that they form steps you can use to advance up the levels. It starts off easy enough, but as you would expect the nightmarish stages become more and more devious as you progress through the game.
After a while you will be introduced to different types of blocks. Some of the cubes are helpful (such as the trampolines that propel you up several floors) but most of them will hamper your progress. Some blocks for example are too heavy to move. There are also trap blocks that can impale Vincent with spears if he stands on them for too long. Another threat comes in the form of explosive blocks that will detonate and crumble surrounding cubes, potentially wrecking a path you were hoping to take. Other types of blocks include ice cubes that can cause you to slip to your doom or monster blocks that move on their own. Learning how to deal with these obstacles will determine Vincent’s fate, so it is just as well that he ends up learning advanced techniques to bypass them (such as clinging onto ledges and making pillars collapse by pushing out a column’s bottom block.) It’s also possible to collect/purchase power ups along your travels to get you past sticky situations.
Aside from the diverse array of blocks another threat to Vincent’s well being come in the form of enemies. As you ascend the levels you’ll come across fellow humans, who have been transformed into hostile rams, who will try to throw you to your doom. There are also several stages were a giant boss will chase after you. These guardians come in all shapes and sizes including deformed infants and demonic versions of your girlfriends, which give the game a horror feel to it. If you take too long working out how to best the puzzles the bosses will catch up to you and inflict an instant kill. The bosses also have special attacks to hinder you that do anything from altering blocks from one form to another, reversing your controls or firing beams that will decimate pillars (and Vincent) should they happen to be in the firing line.
I’m going to give Catherine full marks as I thoroughly enjoyed it. Besides I think it deserves kudos for trying to do something different, rather than emulate other successful games by copying a formula that is proven to sell (I’m looking at you shooting games.) The stylish visuals are complimented by good sonics, which include a soundtrack featuring a jazzy piano score and some well known classical pieces. The voice acting was handled by established actors, who have made their name staring in anime shows and video games, so I had no complaints with their performances (although at times the lip synch of some scenes seemed to be marginally off.)
Although I’m giving the game full marks, as I personally loved it, I have to admit it is a niche title so it isn’t going to be for everyone. If you despise puzzle games keep away because the story alone won’t be enough to sustain your interest. The difficulty is also quite high (even on the easiest setting) so I can imagine a lot of players may get frustrated and abandon it halfway through. I would however encourage them to stick with it as you’ll get a tremendous sense of satisfaction in working out how to conquer sections that initially have you stumped. The game is generous with extra lives (earned by collecting pillows) and has checkpoints during levels so you don’t have to repeat much when you die. On the easier difficulties it’s also possible to reverse time, by hitting select, which comes in handy to undo mistakes.
In terms of game length it will take around ten to twelve hours to finish the story, which isn’t bad for a puzzle game (especially when you consider the replay value it has.) If you are up for a challenge you can go through the game again on a higher difficulty setting, or you can just revisit the adventure to view the different endings. Due to the inventive level design stages can be cleared using different strategies, so replaying the story doesn’t have to be an exercise in memorising the one and only solution to clearing a chapter. Outside of the story mode there is an arcade machine offering tons of optional challenge levels, which more than makes up for the disc’s asking price. All in all I was pleasantly surprised by how much fun a puzzle game with sheep could be… it wasn’t half bah bah bahd.