Catherine – Final Review

Catherine’s central narrative is wonderfully captivating, dwelling upon such mature themes as love, marriage, the obligations one owes their lover. At the heart of this maturity is the protagonist and player character, Vincent Brooks, an endearing individual who frequently displays profound depth, in a perpetual state of conflict, dedicated to his long-time girlfriend Katherine McBride, though still possessing ample hesitancy about their relationship – she desires marriage, and he regards that potential union with intense weariness. Still, empathy abounds within him, as he feels an overflow of guilt whenever he harms Katherine, and such harming becomes commonplace with the introduction of the second central female character – the similarly named Catherine, who drives a massive wedge between the pair with her seductive presence. Before her emergence is the mentioned conflict, and Vincent is wholly aware of societal expectations: marriage is regarded as an inevitability, while the production of offspring is similarly expected. These expectations do not instantly bind him to Katherine, even as she confides in him about her supposed pregnancy, which she wields as a weapon though later discovering that she was actually without child. Similar expectations – complications – arise when considering Vincent’s relatively advanced age, he possessing thirty-two years. Such as society expects marriage, society expects marriage before that age. These mentioned expectations are not universal, though, and even if they were once universal, they have eroded within recent years, recent decades. Now, in this modern world, marriage is regarded as an unnecessary formality; if lovers are indeed in love, if they both derive bliss from each other’s presence, then marriage is not some necessity. Indeed, it brings about it complications which are nonexistent within a mere romantic relationship – divorce, for instance. Naturally Vincent approaches the matter cautiously; formal marriage is far from trivial, but can instead be frightful. While Vincent is existing in this conflicted state, Catherine makes her bold introduction, and she is the literal embodiment of Vincent’s sexual desires, who with her presence only intensifies his skepticism, dissuading him from marriage, pointing towards the freedom which is, so the theory goes, discarded upon marriage. And so she asserts and exploits her heavily sexualized attributes, greatly influencing Vincent with her abundant sexuality. Still, this narrative, for all its strengths, is far from subtle; binaries abound. Katherine, obviously, reflects the positive binary, she representative of brightness, purity. Seductive Catherine, who is later revealed to be a little succubus from some exotic realm, is representative of darkness, immorality. The game thus nudges the player to court Katherine, to preserve at all costs the union between she and Vincent. The player can role-play, certainly, choosing to fall under Catherine’s sway, though submitting to her and her vile ways seems an impossibility if the player acts sincerely. While somewhat of an oversimplification, then, the narrative is founded on conflict: choose Catherine and the sexual freedom she embodies, or exercise logic and maturity, settling down with Katherine.

The game’s presentation is executed perfectly, being frequently of a stylized sort, this stylization most evident in the pre-rendered cinematics, which adopt a conventional anime aesthetic, though these cutscenes are brimming with a certain charm, perhaps attributable to the excellent character design, Vincent’s being especially remarkable, as his hair is unkempt, while a bit of stubble has its place on his chin, suggestive of a sort of aesthetic laziness, and accordingly a lack of any commanding vanity – he is endearing and complex even in his visual construction. Just as Vincent’s design is nearly flawless, something similar could be said of Catherine and Katherine, the former figure, expectantly, wearing garments which accentuate and enhance her inherent, empowering sexuality, as her white dress is likened to lingerie, a beautiful red ribbon encircling her waist, suggestive of life and passion. Ironically, white points towards purity, a purity completely absent from Catherine’s breast. Still, she is quite beautiful, lustiness or no, with her striking blonde hair which is arranged in a peculiar yet charming fashion, ending in prominent curls; her visual presentation is characterized by exaggeration. But Katherine’s aesthetic completely clashes with that former figure, in that she is dressed conservatively and smartly, with prominent glasses, her brown hair sometimes appearing almost pinkish, suggestive of a certain playfulness, which is ultimately disrupted as she displays her considerable assertiveness, she being the dominant figure in her relationship with Vincent. Other secondary characters, while sometimes ancillary to the narrative proper, boast similarly compelling visual designs, again resulting in player endearment; there is the plaid hat-wearing Orlando, always comical and playful in speech, while there is the chain-smoking, ever-serious Jonny, his own hair long and unkempt. Then, rounding out the trio of central supporting characters is Toby, a fair few years younger than Vincent and his companions, and accordingly displaying an innocence brought about by ignorance, lack of exposure to difficult, mature matters; as with Orlando, he is mostly comical, owing to his naivety, but this only increases his likability. Similar aesthetic strengths are observable within the Stray Sheep, a bar where Vincent and his companions spend every night drinking and conversing, reveling in their camaraderie. It is a highly atmospheric, charming location, and is depicted as being highly dynamic. While in this moody environment, Vincent can move about, and as he moves or engages in certain actions, patrons will leave, patrons will arrive. It communicates the location as being ever bustling, ever changing, and it morphs into a character in its own right; the Stray Sheep is a masterful achievement, much of that mastery stemming from the characters which inhabit it. The scenes which occur within the Stray Sheep, though, are all in-engine, and while some stylization persists here – Vincent is as charming as ever – somewhat of a rift in quality is readily observable: the scripted cutscenes are far more compelling and visually interesting than the in-engine cutscenes.  

A sharp, deliberate vacillation is in place, the game focusing exclusively on narrative one moment, gameplay the next. This statement could be applied to nearly any video game with a formalized story, though here the rift between these two design pillars is particularly dramatic; narrative and gameplay each have their own unique, wildly clashing identities. A fair bit of time is spent in the Stray Sheep, as has been mentioned. Beyond Vincent’s trio of companions, many different NPC’s frequent the bar, and they show their own profound depth, in that each of them is gripped with a terrible burden, oppressed and feeling guilty about some offense committed. Depending upon choices made, these characters can continue to live, or can die outright. The opportunities for dialogue with these secondary characters are not particularly abundant or diverse – they are not as well developed as Orlando, Jonny, or Toby – yet if these characters do meet with that darker fate, a very mournful, painful air emerges, especially alongside the realization that it was the player, the choices made, which directly resulted in those deaths; in this manner, the game is unique. In most games, NPC’s are overabundant, nameless and devoid of any personality. Catherine adopts a more scaled-back approach, which means that each individual character is well-developed: here is no lazy, petty namelessness. There is the journalist who feels sorrow at the death of a young, promising ballerina, a death he considers himself as directly causing; his empathy is charming. Then there is a police officer with the murdered wife, who views himself as that murderer, even as he never pulled the trigger; he killed her with his emotional aloofness, romantic distance. Many are these profound characters, and they greatly flesh out the world, inject it with life. And the game is brimming with life – consider again the Stray Sheep, which is also characterized by great intractability. Not only can Vincent engage with these patrons and speak with his more intimate companions, but he can also drink, selecting from four different beverages, while he can interact with a jukebox, or even play an arcade game, contributing to the bar’s ambiance. These inclusions are rather minor, but the attention to detail that they represent is remarkable; the sense of place here is palpable, engrossing, the patrons and ornamentations resulting in an abundance of charm, fortunate when considering that such a large portion of the narrative is situated within this environment.

More involved gameplay occurs outside of the Stray Sheep, in a series of nightmare sequences which see Vincent climbing higher, ever higher, freedom supposedly located at the top of these seemingly infinite stairways. This ascension occurs principally by manipulating blocks, as the game is a puzzle-game at heart. While environments change somewhat – each floor of the tower has a unique aesthetical identity and personality – it is always the moving of blocks which grounds the gameplay. Seemingly, this would result in boredom, repetition, though both of these things are boldly rejected, with new obstacles – in the way of new blocks – introduced with great regularity. The difficulty curve can be immense, and the game is oftentimes brutally challenging, even as the developers sought to ease the player into these complexities – the early game is far simpler than the late game, as should always be the case. The escalation in difficulty, then, is mostly flawless and fair, even as later stages can be impossibly difficult – they are sometimes frustrating, but that frustration is tempered by the immense enjoyability attached to block manipulation; the sense of triumph arising from stage completion is particularly intense; perseverance and the adoption of new tactics is both required and rewarding. Initially, Vincent is moving blocks with no special properties, though as the game progresses he must manipulate ice blocks, for instance, which cause him to slide about erratically, must manipulate blocks which detonate shortly after they are stepped upon; there are heavy blocks which require much more time to manipulate – on and on go these variants, and they truly enhance the gameplay. Interesting is the potential variances of player response to each individual stage. One player might find one floor particularly easy, in that they have an excellent grasp upon the required tactics, while they may struggle immensely on another floor, if they have a flawed grasp of the tactics. Player cognition is always different, meaning the experience will always be different from player to player. An award system is in place, the player’s performance awarded with either a bronze, silver, or gold trophy, and while these trophies serve slight practical purpose – they unlock stages in an alternate mode – their inclusion is rather compelling, appreciated, even as the basic player will likely earn bronze medals with great regularity; dedicated, gifted players, then, have much to strive for, though such players likely constitute an impossibly small minority; most will likely play simply for the narrative, though still deriving immense catharsis and satisfaction at the completion of a particularly difficult stage; the gameplay demands patience and dedication, and is thus richly rewarding.

The player is provided with a great deal of choices – many times throughout the narrative, the player is able to select from two diverging dialogue options; sometimes both choices are ambiguous, morally grey, though more often than not they still cling to binaries, just as Katherine and Catherine exist on warring ethical poles. Many questions occur within the nightmare sequences, specifically between each individual stage. A landing is in place, where Vincent can interact with his fellow climbers, and is queried whenever entering into a confessional, which serves the role of transportation, shooting Vincent upwards. Certain of these questions are challenging, profound; others seem incredibly trivial, incidental. Still, the frequency of these questions – the player will be presented with upwards of ten or fifteen as the narrative progresses – is quite compelling, the game constantly inviting the player to engage in reflection, introspection. Again, the game permits role-playing, in that the player can go out of their way to embrace darkness, villainy, though sincerity is more rewarding. A litany of possible endings are present, certain of them awarded only if clinging to darkness, so this would seemingly incentivize darker decision making, though it is far easier to simply few the various endings online, quite a satisfying, fulfilling endeavor, owing to the clashing nature of these endings, some characterized by ample optimism, others founded on darkness. Somewhat frustratingly, the player is not provided with total control in all scenarios; many of the more dramatic decision are attached to a morality meter of sorts, a meter which is altered with almost all actions undertaken; respond positively to Catherine’s advances, and the meter sways to darkness. Rebuff her advances and Vincent’s positive morality increases. Vincent’s responses are dependent upon his positioning on the meter. Still, the frustration this restrictiveness suggests is only a minimal failing, compensates for my mostly spectacular writing, whose strengths are enhanced further still by compelling voice acting. All throughout this narrative is mentioned the word freedom, and as the narrative progresses the player is encouraged to ruminate upon that word, freedom perhaps meaning romantic independence, a life of solitude. What exactly is freedom? No easy answer to this question is ever provided, and it is up to the player to define that word. A life of aloofness, so the developers potentially say, is not such a terrible existence after all – life in solitude and life in marriage each bring about joy and sorrow in equal measure. How one adapts to the sorrow is what defines them as individual; and sorrow is indeed abundant for all individuals; it is an inevitability. Strangely, in my unlocked ending, Vincent repairs his relationship with Katherine, and the narrative ends in an idealized fashion – it ends in marriage. The immense positivity characterizing the cutscene which plays at the conclusion can seem rather odd, in that its immense idealization tonally clashes with the bleakness which arises elsewhere – it is too sentimental, though this is not to say it wasn’t satisfying – Vincent has overcome his trial and resolution has been achieved.        

Catherine is a very special experience, brimming with charm and sincerity, showing a preoccupation with difficult matters, difficult questions, questions which the developers approached with great maturity, respect, the darkness those questions suggest tempered by frequent displays of humor and levity. Characters, even the most minor, display consistent profundities, possessive of unique identities, unique fears and motivations, which all contribute to player engagement with the world, their believability being remarkable – all display stark humanity in their actions and troubles, and the Stray Sheep is the perfect environment to assist them in those struggles, overflowing with atmosphere as it is. The game is surprisingly lengthy, too, lasting upwards of twelve hours, though this playtime is somewhat subject to variation, depending upon how long the player struggles with the various puzzle-sequences, many of them painfully brutal – yet immensely satisfying. Reflecting great developer awareness, though, they included an easy mode, which likely cuts down on the challenge level dramatically, permitting the player to dedicate themselves almost exclusively to the narrative. True, they might miss out on gameplay robustness, though the appeal of the easy mode is undeniable, and the game even permits the player to alter the difficulty level whenever in the Stray Sheep. Still, reacting to some seemingly impossible situation, adapting to difficult challenges spontaneously, marks a major source of enjoyment; the gameplay requires cerebral engagement; mindlessness is rejected, the gameplay often a more plodding sort, though this is not to say the game possesses a poor pacing – far from it. Narrative and gameplay each receive emphasis in turn, and the balance achieved is perfect; cutscenes and bar exploration end just as player exhaustion towards exposition sets in. And then, the nightmare sequences end just as frustration begins to set in; neither gameplay nor narrative ever outstay their welcome. This pacing and variation is masterful, resulting in perpetual excitement; nonexistent are the dull moments in Catherine, a game with a massive, mature heart; it is a wonderful achievement, the player constantly being acted upon, forced to grapple with sometimes difficult, though always necessary, questions and expectations – especially matters of love, that complex emotion.  

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