Kinky Tetris: block puzzles and adultery

Catherine loves you. It’s true, she does. She comes over every night just to satisfy your carnal desires, and to top it off, she’s just your type. However, there’s a big problem with your Catherine situation. You have a girlfriend of five years, and her name is Katherine too, only spelled with a “K.” As if that wasn’t troubling enough, when you sleep with her, (Catherine with a “C”), you have horrifying nightmares, waking up in a cold sweat, or worse, in your own urine.

That’s basically the kind of experience you should expect when playing “Catherine”; a bizarre yet engrossing mixture of gaming genres that is held together by one of the best human-interest stories to ever be featured in a video game. From the start, players take control of Vincent, a software programmer with no ambition, glad to just drink with his friends at the Stray Sheep pizza bar and spend time with his long time girlfriend, Katherine.

Katherine is pressuring Vincent into marriage, and Vincent is probably going to acquiesce, except that he has a major problem with making decisions. The player is able to actually influence his choices via crafting text message replies to Katherine, being as aloof or committed as the player decides to be. While mulling over his life and the looming decisions closing in on him, he looks up and sees Catherine, the blonde carefree beauty that just happens to seduce him.

The story takes place during the day, and there are dating-simulator elements of the gameplay then, but the bulk of the gameplay occurs come nightfall. When Vince falls asleep, he has nightmares of climbing Babel’s Tower of falling blocks while wearing nothing but his underwear, as well as the new hair and sheep horns growing mysteriously from his head. In order to climb the towering structure, he has to rearrange the blocks in a certain way, forming stairs and platforms to progress upwards. This creates an addictive puzzle system, and the controls are water tight, but it is so challenging that there are definitely times when the player will be screaming at the screen after a highly macabre demise at the hands of the giant murderous sheep who kills you if you climb too slowly.  The tower has to be scaled one block at a time but, simultaneously, the giant sheep eliminates blocks below a certain line. The game forces players to stop and think with every approach.  Of course, if players think too long, they will reach their untimely demise – a balancing act that becomes more than a little stressful.

“Catherine” has some of the most agonizingly challenging puzzle gameplay to date. It’s definitely no mere “Tetris” kind of puzzle game. The rather steep learning curve also doesn’t help matters, and some players may be turned off by the difficulty at first. Still, the story is so lavishly told from a visual standpoint, as well as a literary one, that the difficulty of the puzzle portion becomes insignificant. From every twitch of Vincent’s eye in his insanely expressive face in the in-game graphics engine, to fully animated cut-scene sequences (produced by Studio 4?c, a large animation house in Japan most famous for the 2006 movie “Tekkon Kinkreet,” which saw theater time even in the U.S.) the graphics and look of the game never disappoint.

Every encounter between Vincent and Catherine/Katherine is to see how much he can handle until he breaks, and where his priorities lie when he does so. Until the conclusion, the player is able to influence these priorities by deciding what Vincent says in texts, phone calls, and personal encounters. There are even portions where Vincent goes into a confessional and answers different questions, which also influence the direction in which the story goes. One of the best questions asked in confession is, “Are you a pervert?” Listening to Vincent’s execution of your decisions is hilarious, and quickly becomes one of the most entertaining parts of “Catherine.”

“Catherine” is one of the more fantastically bizarre games to come out this year. It blends the dating sim and puzzle genres seamlessly and, though the difficulty can be problematic at times, the player will likely want to stick with it just to continue unravelling the compelling story. Produced by ATLAS, a company infamous for their bizarre Japanese titles, “Catherine” is sure to be a fast favorite among anime fans, puzzle game fans and generally anyone who enjoys an impressively well-told, interactive story.