Counting Sheepmen

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I’ve been interested in Catherine for a while now, though I’ve intentionally kept myself at a distance and off the bandwagon. I always had the feeling that it is a great game, but when the majority of the previews are dedicated to breaking down the game’s multiple metaphors and commentary on society, dedicating only a sentence or two to actual gameplay, I get nervous.

After seeing the game at E3, I can see why so many previews spent their time discussing the story. While most games focus on giant, world-spanning quests to stop the next major evil threat, Catherine offers a slightly more relatable and grounded story.

Vincent is a 32-year old programmer who prefers to keep things simple. He’s dating a girl named Katherine who, despite his feelings towards their relationship, wants to cement their relationship. She’s insistent that they discuss their feelings, spend as much time together as possible and has even mentioned the “M” word once or twice.

Vincent’s life gets a little more complicated when he meets Catherine, another free spirit who, unlike the buttoned-up Katherine, prefers to dress in provocative clothing and is not shy about making the first move. After a night in a bar, the two end up in bed. Though Vincent is a little confused about the situation, and Catherine’s quick departure after their hook-up, he’s also facing down an urban legend involving the mysterious deaths of guys who cheated on their significant others.

See, completely relatable. Though the urban legend part is a bit outlandish, Katherine reminds me of an ex, so I can see Vincent’s plight perfectly.

Catherine’s story plays out across a few genres, most prominently action and puzzle mechanics. The E3 demo began in a bar, where Vincent can interact with people, offering a better idea of what is going on in the story as well as offering some insight into the game’s background. During conversations, you’re offered a choice of responses to questions. You answers affect the story’s progression, leading up to a number of different endings.

Some character interactions are simple multiple-choice answers, though I was more interested in the option to hold text conversations with certain characters. At times in the story, Vincent will get texts from either Katherine or Catherine. Based on the text, you can compose a response using a selection of pre-set lines. You can take the diplomatic route with the ladies or, if you’re feeling a bit frisky, use your best (read: cheesiest) pick-up lines.

While in the bar you can play an arcade game, “Rapunzel,” which serves as a primer for the puzzle gameplay. Most of Vincent’s issues are worked out and confronted in his dreams. Or, should I say, nightmares.

Catherine’s puzzle elements play out in a Jenga-like block-and-tower setup. Vincent begins at the bottom of the tower composed of blocks. The core mechanic involves pushing and pulling blocks to make steps, which Vincent can then jump on to reach higher layers of the tower. The goal is to get to the top without falling off. There’s a particular method for ascending the tower, which involves thinking a few block moves ahead so you won’t trap yourself. There’s also the issue of a time limit. Since each tower is representative of Vincent’s current personal issues, he’s sometimes chased by some manifestation of this problems.

During my demo, Vincent was being chased by a giant fork-wielding version of Katherine, who would swipe the bottom row of blocks and destroy them. I was told another level features a creepy-looking baby head. Each night is capped off by a boss fight, which introduces other complications to the puzzle. One, I was told, can cause the controls to reverse, so pressing left on the D-pad will send Vincent walking to the right. Catherine is already a challenge, so reversing the controls just makes things even worse (but in a good way – I had a blast even after humiliating myself in front of Atlus reps).

The aforementioned “Rapunzel” arcade cabinet is a great way to brush up on the game’s challenging gameplay. It offers puzzles based around the same mechanics, though without the pressing time limits or other hazards. Help is also available between towers. You can catch your breath or snag items to help you get through the next puzzle.

After checking out the single-player side of the game, I was able to try the co-op multiplayer mode. I say co-op, though there is a sense of competition running through the mode. Even though both players are trying to work together to reach the top, it’s natural to want to be the lead dog. I had an absolute blast working my way up the tower and even got a chance to see some of the other block types available in the game. One area featured blocks of ice that send players – who play as bi-pedal sheepmen – sliding either to the nearest non-ice block or, as was usually the case, their deaths.

Once again,Catherine is a challenge, but it is made easier when you have someone to at least laugh with along the way. If not, the schadenfreude that comes with watching a friend plummet off the tower (and yes, you can help that process along by pushing) is a great consolation prize.

After spending time with Catherine, I can comfortably say, “I get it.” Also, is it too late to get a seat on the bandwagon?

Catherine ships for both the PS3 and Xbox 360 this July and is available in both “Standard” and “Deluxe” Editions.