Never has my wife watched the television with such a fixed look of concentration. There am I, Vincent, sitting in a confessional booth with nothing but a pair of ram’s horns, a white pillow and my boxers to cover my modesty, and in front of me floats a question. She’s awaiting my response.
“Does life begin or end at marriage?”
The answer is never in doubt, but the attention that is being paid to me – silent, unobtrusive, and yet with a force comparable only with that of a Tyrannosaur’s bite – you can’t but help feel judged. Internally the game is making a note, nodding its head in appreciation of your response but giving you no indication as to whether you gave the “right” answer. My wife knows what the correct answer is and is pleased I have chosen it; Catherine, however… well… Catherine’s different.
Catherine touches upon issues usually only reserved for more established forms of media. Whereas most Western Top 10 releases explore love and relationships with no more subtlety than a cheeky a fumble to a slap bass soundtrack or the promise of a plumber receiving some cake, Atlus’s Persona Team have turned their attention away from teen-angst and RPGs and produced an experience composed of very disparate parts that marry together as an exploration into a young man’s mind. It is quite frankly unique.
Our tale begins with Vincent, said man and in his early 30s. He lives alone and is involved in a long term relationship with the lovely Katherine. With a K. Between the responsibilities of his new job and hints of marriage, he’s under pressure. With no wild ambitions in either professional or personal life, it’s getting in the way of his drinking time with his buddies and the only way he knows how to solve it is to ignore it and carry on doing what he does.
On our first night with Vincent he drinks a little too much and ends up in bed with an attractive young lady name Catherine. With a C. He can’t believe it, horrified at what he’s done and unsure how it came about. From that moment we witness the daily panic of him trying to straighten things out between him and Katherine, and guide him through his guilt-induced nightmares.
These nightmares present themselves as block puzzles and form the main bulk of the action. Each sees Vincent start at the bottom of a vast column of movable cubes which he must scale and reach the peak of if he wishes to wake up again. As long as he has enough space to manoeuvre, blocks can be pulled and pushed about freely allowing him to form a variety of staircases and platforms for him to exploit. With certain rules, such as the limitation of only being able to scale a single block at a time or his talent of hanging from edges as though a semi-naked Ezio, the levels can at first seem daunting though early nightmares are as much about learning the ropes as setting the scene.
Still, as the subconscious feels more addled by guilt, difficulty increases. Standing before a sheer rock face can lead to you feeling that you’ve struck upon a devilishly difficult puzzler. Yet with a little guidance, developing a few “techniques” that can produce stairways from nothing; during the night, between stages, you’ll run into other men ready to offer advice on how to become a better climber. Though they resemble farm animals, their tips are sound and should be heeded if you are ever to see daylight again. Impenetrable walls suddenly become a climbing frame that can be deciphered by instinct alone and veritably scamper up.
With such torturous dreams Vincent returns night after night to the bar, conveniently named The Stray Sheep, to seek solace in beer. A home from home it offers a fine opportunity for you to mix and chat with your friends and the other regulars, some of whom even share a passing resemble to the sheep you meet each night. Away from the rigours of climbing blocks, this is where Vincent can try and make sense of what is going on.
Your time spent there is more than just a respite from the brain teasers however. Talking to those about you begins to reveal possible clues as to why too they are troubled by the dreams and after a while you start to feel attached to those sharing your fate. It’s a welcome sight to see a fellow climber and pulling up a seat next to them at the bar – though they may not recognise you from the dreams in return – allows you to find out more about them and offer a chance to reassure them for the night ahead.
Both Katerine and Catherine know you hang out there however, and so expect the odd visit or phone call to see how you are. The pair combined don’t make life easy and how you handle the situation, reassuring one whilst pushing the other away, will be judged. Each message sent has connotations; every white lie is noted, sending something resembling a karma-meter swinging back and forth with your responses.
All this feeds into the final aspect of Catherine. Everything is brought together wonderfully by a series of professionally produced manga shorts and slick in-engine cutscenes telling the tale. Close shaves as the two love rivals almost meet, awkward morning conversations, and even simple reflective walks in the rain all flesh out the story to be so much more than a compelling puzzle game wrapped in a thin veneer. The story is everything. It even delicately changes depending on your choices, painting Vincent in the light you have subliminally selected.
Soon you realise that the nightly torment that Vincent suffers under, scaling the blocks, is more than it seems. It’s a metaphor for his struggle, whilst his attitude in tackling it doubles as how hard he fights to save his relationship with Katherine. How subtle you find that is subjective but as one part of a greater whole it’s clever.
As the nightmares continue so does the fiendish nature of the puzzles. Blocks made of ice, packed with explosives and those that crumble under foot are all introduced to at layers of complexity that at times created pad-throwing frustration. Yet all the time a series of simple rules reduce the trickiest layout into a level that is easily conquered by those with a cool head and ability to focus on the task in hand. However, the incentive to continue the tale is reason alone to refuse to quit.
The word “mature” may be thrown about to describe many a grisly or bloody 18-rated game, but so rarely does such a game deserve it. Catherine is a rare treat, showing that there are more to videogames than space marines and fast cars. Through an interesting premise and a balance use of humour, it explores themes of infidelity, a young man’s concern of losing the supposed freedom of youth, and facing the responsibilities of being in a serious relationship. Some of the trapping by which it does so may seem strange but even ignoring all of that there is a very fine puzzler tucked away within.
You might destroy the odd pad on the way up, but it’s worth it.