Most of Catherine’s story progression happens through cutscenes and light adventure elements that take place over a period of eight nights in Stray Sheep – the bar where Vincent and his friends hang out after work drowning their sorrows in whiskey as they talk dispassionately about the lack of any passion in their lives. Bars tend to be places of gloom and Stray Sheep isn’t any different with Shoji Meguro’s somber jazz tunes providing the perfect mood for it. You can interact with the patrons of the bar, help them out with their own issues or leave them alone with their empty glass of alcohol. You can also respond to text messages that you will occasionally receive from either Katherine or Catherine in any manner you wish to which will have subsequent effect on your relationship with them. You can also get drunk and earn trivia related to various alcoholic drinks.
What’s also interesting about this part of Catherine is that every major action takes time and NPCs will enter and leave the bar as that time progresses. Instead of putting players in a closed room where they can talk to every NPC at their own comfort before moving on, the Stray Sheep section subconsciously forces players to talk to those NPCs they care about more – as it soon turns out that the reality and dream may not be so different after all. The “cause and effect” element between the two halves plays out interestingly. Drinking results in passage of time meaning it is one less chance to interact with a NPC but it makes you faster in the “nightmare section”.
The other part of Catherine is the afore-mentioned “Nightmare” section that takes place whenever Vincent goes to sleep at night. All the familiar tropes of surreal horror are used to great effect here — incredibly tall towers made up of blocks? Check. Climbing the said tower for survival as they slowly crumble from the bottom? Check. Any slip-up can lead to Vincent’s death, literally. Something that’s as simple as this might sound underwhelming or even boring, but trust me it isn’t. Because the manner in which Atlus uses it can make anyone eat their words.
Catherine’s gameplay is no pushover – it doesn’t arrive on the scene with the intention to serve as a second-fiddle to its unique and absorbing story. Its gameplay is every bit as fantastic and important as its story. It’s as vital to the jigsaw the game delicately constructs as its cutscenes are. That’s partly because Atlus uses every possible trick in the book in designing fiendish block puzzles and then adding further ideas to them – blocks with multiple properties, towers designed so smartly that both precision and observation are required to overcome.
This is even before you reach the boss battles.
Besides the crumbling tower, you now have a giant-sized boss – often modeled after Vincent’s own insecurities in his life – be it an enormous vagina trying to confuse him or a creepy-looking infant with a chainsaw – Catherine’s boss battles are both over-the-top and intense. They take the very best parts of the normal levels – which being observation and precision in arranging blocks to the top and add it with the challenge of dodging the insane attacks of the boss that alter specific blocks’ properties or even reversing your controls. Shoji Meguro’s remixes of classical symphonies from the likes of Beethoven, Bach and Chopin provides the perfect atmosphere for the intensity that such tower-climbing can result in.
It isn’t without its own issues though. Limited camera control detracts from some of the fun especially during the more intense levels. That flaw is perhaps the only element of Catherine’s gameplay that can lead to frustration. You also have the ability to “Undo” a specific number of moves provides which provides some relief from the daunting challenge you’re tasked with night after night.
Each “Nightmare” section comprises of about three to four levels that take place in one night’s sleep, each level interspersed with a platform where you interact with all your fellow climbers – men you may or may not know from your waking life dressed in the attire of sheep behaving in their primal manner – drowned in sorrow, fighting for survival or burnt by blind rage. Just like how dreams often bring out our true selves, these characters – Vincent included are forced to contend with their deepest insecurities and as you make your way from one night to another, you will find out that not all of your sheep-attired mates are going to make it – in nightmare or in real life. Take it as a metaphor for holding back your true potential or interpret it in some other manner, but therein lies the beauty of it — Catherine’s story is engrossing and will keep you hooked right till the end but it also works on so many different levels that parts of it are bound to be interpreted differently when you’re finally done with it.