Everyone has games that just click for them… games that you can constantly go back to simply because, no matter how many times you play them, they are always satisfying. Always fun. For some people, this is a classic game from their childhood. For me, there are a few… but the one that stands out the most is Catherine. I love Catherine, and I’ve always struggled with why.
Catherine is an obscure 2011 Atlus game that is incredibly hard to explain – or rationalize. It isn’t a game that fits into any of my favourite genres – it isn’t Metroidvania, it’s not an RTS/MoBA, it’s not a JRPG, it’s not even a Platformer. It isn’t a long game (I streamed the hard difficulty from start to finish in a ~12 hour marathon just last weekend). It isn’t perfect, by any means… so why is it that this game is the one I constantly go fall back on when I’m looking for something to watch, to play, or to stream?
WARNING: Some Spoilers Are Contained Within
What Is It?
Before we get too far into my reasons, I’d like to try to define Catherine. You might think this is a strange way to put it, but it doesn’t really fit into any genre completely. You see, Catherine is divided, it has several distinct elements that – at first – will seem completely disparate. It’s story mode alone contains several different components. Forgive me if this gets long, as this is not an easy game to encapsulate in a few words.
The Night Time scenes comprise the core gameplay – which is that of a puzzle game. Vincent Brooks, our protagonist, is trapped in a strange nightmare. He has to climb a strange tower made of various sorts of blocks that he has to push to form a path to reach the top – a rope that will stop the tower from collapsing from beneath him when pulled – allowing him to progress to the landing before the next stage.
On the landings, he’ll have the opportunity to speak to an odd group of sheep, many of whom have interesting characteristics that you’ll come to recognize over the course of the story, and encourage them to ensure they are all able to tackle their next challenge. When Vincent moves onward, he is confronted with a strange child’s voice who speaks to him within a confessional and asks a question to ‘gauge his life’s worth’ before taking him to the next stage. Of course, Vincent remembers nothing that happened there, only a vague recollection that his life was in danger.
A Flock Astray
You then progress to the daytime segments. During the afternoon, you’ll get a series of anime-style story segments that provide you with information and build the game’s characters. Once evening comes, you’ll be given control of Vincent again as he frequents his favourite bar: The Stray Sheep.
At the Sheep, Vincent will interact with a variety of characters who are also complaining of nightmares they can’t quite remember. While interacting with these characters Vincent will discuss their lives, their history, and the strange string of unexplained deaths that are occurring within this city.
Additionally, he’ll receive text messages from various people he knows – mostly his long-time girlfriend Katherine and the mysterious and alluring Catherine – which offer their opinion on the events happening in their lives. Replying to these allows him to build relationships and helps to flesh out the story as it progresses. Pick your replies right and you might even be rewarded with a picture…
Climb and Fall
The game also features three arguably smaller alternative game modes: Babel, Competitive, and Rapunzel… each of these are relevant to the core game experience, but are separate.
Babel is a challenge mode which offers a semi-random, extremely difficult puzzle to solve. Each of Babel’s four stages has a distinct style that makes them feel like a unique challenge that gets gradually harder. You can attempt the Babel stages either solo or with a friend – once you’re sufficiently good at the core game to unlock its stages. Completing the final stage of Babel unlocks the game’s ‘true’ ending, which is a hilarious and incredible reward for overcoming such a trial.
After finishing the game once you unlock the competitive mode. Competitive is a fascinating game mode where two players attempt to outclimb one another. Victory is achieved either when one of the two players falls or when one reaches the finish. I’ve only briefly looked into this myself, since I don’t have many people around locally who appreciate Catherine like I do, but I’ve watched a few videos and streams of people playing this and it looks like an absolute blast.
Rapunzel is an arcade game in the Stray Sheep. You can access it during any of the evening segments while playing story mode. It uses the same mechanics as the Nightmare Stages and Babel, but instead of being timed, you have a limited number of moves to reach the top. It offers a completely different strategic style to the more fast paced and exciting puzzles within the core game.
So What Is So Special?
I’ve struggled with this for a long time. What is it about this strange mix of puzzles and story that makes it have literally endless value to me, both as a game to play and to watch? Why is it that this is the only game I have favourited on twitch, one of the only I’ve played multiple times on stream, and one of the few games of last generation that I continually come back to?
And there’s no simple answer… it’s as complicated to describe why I love this game so much as it is to describe the game itself. And here are where the real spoilers begin…
A Tale of Two Catherines
Catherine’s story is interesting in that it is a fairly pure story, told from start to finish(with multiple endings of course), giving you the same basic events regardless of how you proceed. I’ll be honest here, I love linear stories. But what I think really makes Catherine’s story stand out is that the protagonist’s inner thoughts – as well as the text messages you receive – do vary based off of how you choose to have him interact with people. He’ll still perform the same actions, but his reasoning will vary and his inner thoughts will change. And I loved that.
The basic premise of the story is that Vincent is reluctant to get married to his girlfriend Katherine because he is happy how things are and doesn’t want change. He starts having nightmares that he can’t ever remember, and while trying to get drunk enough to forget his nightmares at the bar, this blond bombshell walks in. He doesn’t remember anything else… but after waking up from his next nightmare he sees her lying next to him. As events unfold, he finds out that her name is Catherine. The story spirals out from there, becoming weirder and weirder, but it all starts with that one little night.
The Final Nightmare scene (even though it isn’t truly the end) is one of my favourite moments in the game. A lot of people find this scene kind of hard to understand or difficult to relate to, but once you realize its purpose, a lot of factors make sense. You see, as events culminate, Vincent is beginning to make a decision about his future but life is trying to force him into deciding towards Katherine – regardless of his feelings on everything happening.
The creators of the nightmare present this scene as a method to force matters forward. Katherine hasn’t figured out what is happening yet – she suspects, of course – so it’s not as simple as it might seem. They are trying to force Vincent into a position where he confesses without realizing he’s done so, so they give him this dream where, despite having broken up with Catherine, she’s there and Katherine kills her. The trauma of such a horrible dream puts Vincent in the position where he, out of relief and shock, reveals too much.
The whole scene is expertly crafted to force matters to proceed to a point where Vincent has to make his final decision. What does he really want? And if that scene were altered based off of Vincent’s true feelings, it wouldn’t have the same psychological impact on him and it wouldn’t force him into that position. The depth of such a simple scene is masterful, and I love it for that. I also love it for the controversy – people seem to misunderstand its purpose, and thus get upset over it. This just makes it all the more potent, in my eyes.
I also felt the game’s specific character choices help it to be memorable as well. Most of the side characters (and even many of the major characters) are not what you would call likeable, but as their stories unfold and you get to know them, you begin to understand how they became who they are. Some of these characters are awful people… and you get to help them overcome the circumstances – usually traumatic – that led them to where they are today. It’s an interesting progression, and it’s a nice change of pace to have people just be unlikable. It is also really fascinating to see the links between the characters unfold as their histories are intertwined in a fascinating way.
A Puzzling Nightmare
The game’s puzzles are absolutely brilliant. I’m not going to mince words with this, I have never seen a puzzle game so perfectly onboard people in my life. The puzzles are difficult – punishingly so in fact – but the game does a great job of teaching you what you need to do.
Even though I died probably hundreds of times on my first playthrough on Normal difficulty, it never felt impossible and I never felt overwhelmed. I just kept throwing myself at it, getting one step closer to figuring out each puzzle, to finding a faster way to do it. But it wasn’t until later playthroughs that I realized just how well designed it was.
The game features three difficulty levels: Normal, Hard, and Easy. Normal difficulty seems to be designed for a person with good problem solving skills who has never played the game before. Easy is for people who really just want the story, and hard is for people returning for second or third time through. Just as a blunt piece of advice here, do not try hard unless you have already finished the game. I’ve seen one person complete hard on their first run, and they were practically pulling their hair out through it.
Each difficulty is perfectly crafted for what it is meant to be. On easy, you learn about almost every technique before you need it – the game tells you about them if you talk to the people on the landing. This way the puzzles will seem more approachable and you can gradually work your way towards success without the stress of the harder puzzle solving. Don’t get me wrong, that doesn’t mean the game itself will be easy, but it won’t be nearly as stressful. And, if matters go wrong, you can always undo your last 9 moves to try again.
On normal difficulty; however, the game expects you to figure out many of the techniques on your own. You’ll learn about them gradually over time, but typically not until after you’d need them for the optimal solution. The stages even feature a few ‘tutorial sections’ – not literally, but stages that are, in retrospect, clearly designed to teach you a specific technique. The stage is presented in such a way that if you look carefully you’ll see a technique portrayed within, and if you learn it, the stages to follow are much easier. But if you’re struggling, you can still complete the stage through other methods, and the game will usually teach you the technique or strategy you were supposed to learn on your own on the landings afterwards. Not always immediately afterwards, but eventually.
Hard difficulty is another beast altogether. The game still teaches you techniques on the landings, but it expects you to know pretty much every technique from the first level. And if you don’t, expect to struggle a lot. Hard difficulty also features the only puzzles in the entire game with only one solution, and it’s a brutal test of your abilities. Oh, and they remove the ability to undo your previous moves on hard difficulty. No making mistakes here!
And the puzzles are why this game is so special to watch as well. This is, in fact, the only game I follow on twitch. I will never get tired of watching people play this… whether it be Ghoul02’s Babel speedruns (which are the most amazing things I’ve ever seen) or just some random person playing for the first time (this has actually been how I’ve first come to know several of my favourite streamers). Why? Because the game offers so much variety, so many options for how to solve puzzles… that every viewing is different. It is fascinating to watch the ways different people solve each puzzle. It gives such insights into the way people approach problems. Oh, and it’s reassuring to watch other people struggle just as much as I did the first time I played.
The Little Things
Catherine has a very distinct soundtrack, combining the composer’s unique style with a variety of classical pieces. This soundtrack builds the atmosphere in an amazing way, making every moment feel both tense and exciting. The fact that they gave you a jukebox to listen to the game’s soundtrack, as well as select pieces from previous Atlus titles, is just icing on the cake.
It is more than just the game’s puzzles or the story – more than just a great art style or an amazing soundtrack – that make this game so fantastic, and so endlessly replayable… it really all comes down to cohesion. The way everything ties together truly creates an experience that is, in my eyes, superior to almost anything else I’ve played.
While the main story is good, there are also numerous undertones and hidden threads that you’ll only discover by exploring and talking to people. While the puzzles are good, if you don’t explore every difficulty and play Rapunzel, you may have trouble appreciating how well structured they are. Listening to the soundtrack in a vacuum will give you a good audio experience… but listening to it while solving the game’s puzzles makes it so much more.
And I think that really is what this is all about. The game is rife with controversy, surprise, unique mechanics and elements, and some of the best puzzles ever made… but what really makes it special is how well everything works together… how well it all goes hand in hand to create one of the most memorable and replayable games ever made.
What about you? What is that one comfort game for you… the one you just always return to, time and time again?