Pushing Blocks and Outrunning Nightmares in Catherine
Often, doubts and fears that follow us throughout our day can manifest in our subconscious and become terrifying threats in our sleep, but what if those dreams could kill? What if you had to climb an endless tower, pushing blocks and fighting other dreamers to escape those doubts and worries you hide deep down in your soul? That’s essentially the case of poor Vincent Brooks in Catherine: one of the oddest and most interesting puzzle platformers out there. It was today that this bizarre adventure hit North American shelves and entered our dreams and nightmares with its punishing difficulty and unique take on fast-paced puzzle solving.
The initial start of development on Catherine is fuzzy, but it has a window. In an article on Gematsu, when talking about what could be expected of the game, Producer Katsura Hashino mentioned that the Persona 4 development team worked on the initial stages of development for Catherine while simultaneously giving Persona 4 its final polish. Persona 4 would initially release in July 2008, which means the team probably started work on Catherine early that year. This also had a part in why Catherine was designed to be a shorter game compared to what the studio had worked on previously in the Shin Megami Tensei series.
There is some debate on whether or not Catherine is actually tied into the Shin Megami Tensei universe or not. The reason for this is the main character, Vincent, actually appears in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 Portable. Known simply as “Man Drinking Alone” in the game, Vincent shares hints about his problems and alludes to the plot that ends up taking place in Catherine. Beyond this, there is little to nothing in Catherine or any other games that connect them to the rest of the Shin Megami Tensei outside of the theme of supernatural beings and events that occur in the world of humans.
As mentioned before, the story of Catherine revolves around regular man Vincent Brooks. Strange deaths have been occurring in the area in which Vincent lives in which young men are found dead in their beds. At the time, Vincent is contemplating marriage to his fiancé, Katherine, when a young, sultry woman coincidentally named Catherine comes into Vincent’s life and tempts him into a one-night fling. Almost immediately, Vincent begins to have recurring nightmares in which he and a bunch of anthropomorphized sheep must climb mountainous walls of blocks and outrun strange and terrifying horrors or risk falling to their deaths and dying in reality.
Catherine is split between two different types of game. The first is obviously the climbing segments in each nightmare where the player must carefully guide Vincent up the wall to escape through a door at the top. There are numerous unique rules that both help and hinder the player, alongside increasingly aggressive sheep that climb alongside Vincent, often times attempting to hinder his progress. Failing to progress ends in falling out with the bottom layer of blocks on the stage or being murdered by a physically manifested nightmare chasing Vincent in a handful of boss stages.
After certain puzzles and during the waking hours of the day, Vincent has a moment of respite in which he may speak with other characters. While awake, Vincent often ends the night at the Stray Sheep Bar where he can interact and engage in dialogue choices with other characters, as well as interact on his phone with Catherine and Katherine. He can also engage in some drinking or play an amusing arcade game that’s a little close to what happens in his nightmares. In his dreams, Vincent often runs into strangely familiar sheep and upon talking with them, it quickly becomes clear that the choices the player makes with other characters have serious implications in the nightmare space.
Catherine had its share of risqué business going on in it, but it’s almost negligible compared to the over-the-top and bizarre events that occur in and out of reality. The exploration of fears, doubts and infidelity all framed in the confines of strange puzzles comes out to be one of the most unique and intriguing challenges ever presented in a video game. It was brutally hard at times, often a point of contention with its detractors, as the AI on the extra sheep characters in puzzles could make it a little unfair at times. Nonetheless, when you reach the top of the tower and the nightmare ends, few reliefs feel sweeter.