Editor's note: Catherine contains a character that some critics have found transphobic, though others have defended her characterization. Regardless, we regret our failure to address this in an earlier draft of this piece.
The first month of any year is typically slow for new game releases. This January, the PlayStation 4 has a few interesting (Western) releases lined up: Gravity Rush 2, Yakuza 0, and that Kingdom Hearts remaster with the nonsensical name. But those with only an Xbox One under their TVs really have just the one multi-format title to look forward to, Resident Evil VII, coming out on the 24th. Doesn't leave those folks with much to play, right now.
What the Xbox One does have in its favor, though, is backwards compatibility—meaning that when new-gen games are in short supply, as they are right now, there's an abundance of 360 discs and XBLA downloads to take advantage of. Just the other day (January 10th), a handful more titles were added to its list of last-gen games playable on the present-day platform, including a couple of Battlefields, the 2009 Ghostbusters, and Dragon Age: Origins. Just slip in the discs, if you have them, and presto: there's your still-holds-up-well-enough old game running on your cutting-edge (for a few months more) console.
At the very end of last year, at the same time as Rockstar's Bully, Catherine, a curious, cultish game slipped onto the backwards compatibility list.
Atlus' Catherine is a peculiar hybrid of block-shoving climb-the-mountain puzzle-platforming and love-versus-lust relationship simulator. You are cast as Vincent Brooks, a 32-year-old computer programmer who likes a drink, now slumped glumly at a crossroads in his life. I first played it on its early 2012 release, when it arrived unsolicited in the post. I left it a few weeks, but when I finally got around to it, it proved to be one of the greatest surprises I've had in covering video games.
Vincent has been with his girlfriend, Katherine, for so long he can't put his finger on the number of years that have passed, and she's keen to tie the knot; but here's the head-turning Catherine, who cuddles up to him in The Stray Sheep bar and assumes the role of the Other Woman in his life. She's not quite all that she appears to be. Nor is the boozer itself, its boss-man pouring the drinks, the other patrons or the mirror in the bathroom, for that matter.
"That doesn't make any sense," blurts Vincent, when told that a block can hang onto another by its very edge alone; "I mean, what about gravity?"
But the story of the game, as engrossing as it so quickly proves—I played a couple of hours this morning and boy, can I feel those hooks right now—isn't the only captivating side to a surprisingly deep and detailed package. The "nightmare" stage puzzles, set within Vincent's feverish dreams, are fiendish examples of what might happen if Jenga and Pullblox/Pushmo had a horrifying child as the result of a drunken one-night stand, all bloodshot eyes and dagger-like teeth. They forever persuade you to take one more turn when you fail, since the objective is always simple in theory: ascend from the bottom to the top, pushing and pulling blocks to create stairs, outrunning either the clock or, at the end of each nightmare, a hellish creature of Vincent's making that pursues him up the tower.
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Of course, with time ticking and traps spread across each tower, getting from A, where you appear within the dream, to B, where you pull a bell or stumble through an exit door, is never simple. Thankfully, the rules of these puzzle stages are clearly outlined across the first few nights, with progressively complex techniques for block manipulation revealed to Vincent by other "players"—I'm not spoiling anything there—who are also making the nightly climb. "That doesn't make any sense," blurts Vincent, when told that a block can hang onto another by its very edge alone; "I mean, what about gravity?" But of course, none of this is real: it's all in his head, where rules like that don't apply. Except, should Vincent fail—like fatally fail—in his dreams, he'll never wake up in the real world.
"So, have you guys heard of the Woman's Wrath?" asks the Stray Sheep waitress, Erica, of Vincent and his three regular drinking buddies. There are stories of unexplained deaths on the news. Young men found in their beds having passed in the night, their faces screwed up as if they died in agony, like something came for them in their dreams. "Men who cheat are cursed," she firmly tells Vincent, after his first hazy sleepover with Catherine; "so if that's real, what are you going to do?" He shrugs her off: it's not real, nothing's going to happen. He's too stressed about Katherine's marriage talk, about not having any money in the bank, about being completely terrified of what direction to point his life in, to be concerned about night terrors.
But, obviously, he should be. Just as he should be firmer with his decision-making in real life, and respectful of how his actions affect those around him. During the course of the game, he will have to make several binary choices regarding matters of character, romance and commitment. Is marriage the beginning of life, or the end of it? Is it better to stand out from a crowd, or to be content as part of it? Every selected option goes towards one of a number of different endings—on my first playthrough, I got the "true" Katherine ending, but there are many varied fates awaiting Vincent, depending on his emotional and psychological path through the game.
Assuming he makes it through at all, that is. Catherine is hard. I'm not ashamed to say that on my first run I got to the second-to-last nightmare and had to activate the game's hidden "very easy" mode, so as to avoid both pulling my hair out and sending my blood pressure skyrocketing. "Those who panic, die first," offers another prisoner of the nightmares, of the Woman's Wrath, at one of the take-a-breather landing zones that break up each night's horrors; but it's impossible not to freak out when just a few rows below your feet a terrifying mutant child with a chainsaw for an arm is trying to turn Vincent into a pulpy mess.
It's too easy to press left one block too many and end up hanging over an edge, a second too far from safety; or to push an essential block from the pile because you've not read its layout correctly, and subsequently find yourself at a dead end. Quite literally. There's a fiddliness to Catherine's puzzle controls, especially when Vincent is side-on the stack, or behind it, that takes a few sessions to get used to; but then, even when you think you've got it all second nature, it only takes one misstep for the entire climb to turn to shit.
But the rewards are spectacular. The story really is superb, and you'll kick yourself for not seeing it through to any one of its endings, which range from heart-swellingly sweet to the did-not-see-that-coming bizarre. Vincent's group of pals aren't quite in the "best boy" league of last year's Final Fantasy XV, but there's great patter between them, and Troy Baker injects a lot of personality into the leading man's lines. It was impossible, as a man of Vincent's age when I first played the game, to not see some parallels with my own life, in regard to when it's "right" to get married; and I am positive that many players had similar experiences.
There's so much more that I haven't got into: the text messaging system, the addictive arcade game in the bar, the special items you can pick up on the climbs, the vibrant anime cutscenes, the excellent music from Persona composer Shoji Meguro (the game's loosely tied to the Persona series—look around the Stray Sheep and you might find a familiar, furry friend). I could be here a long while longer, expounding upon its qualities. But, basically, Catherine came out of nowhere: I had zero expectations going into it, and when I came out the other side it was one of my very favorite games on the 360.
So if you're at a loose end, game wise, right now, and you fancy a puzzle-dating-simulator quite without precedent, check it out. Just try not to look down, if you value your own good night's sleep.