Vincent Brooks is a 32-year-old computer programmer who's been dating Katherine for so long he can't even remember when they started. She's ready for more—as in, more commitment. As in a ring. He's ready for … well, he's not sure what he's ready for. Actually, leaving things just the way they are sounds fine to him.
That's when the nightmares begin. And things get really, really weird for Vincent.
Romance, Horror and … Climbing?
Catherine is a mind-bending new game from the makers of Persona that's a frenetic puzzle contest wrapped up in a romance shadowed by a horror role-playing game. And all that gets fused into a strangely compelling (and strangely spiritual) morality tale about the tension between a man's desire for Freedom and his obsession with Order.
When Katherine starts nagging Vincent about whether he's ready to take the next step in their relationship, he begins having horrible nightmares in which he must scale a tower of stacked blocks (in his boxers). He must push, pull and clamber up the tower quickly, as the blocks begin to fall away if he doesn't make fast enough progress.
After the first night, Vincent thought it was just a bad dream. It wasn't. He soon learns that something has chosen him—as well as other young men who can't commit to relationships—to undergo a horrific test of sorts. Except that he doesn't initially know what it's all about.
In his waking hours, Vincent tries to make sense of it all with his buddies down at the local watering hole, the Stray Sheep. Soon, however, even as he vacillates regarding his relationship with Katherine, another woman named Catherine sidles up next to him at the bar one night. She's bewitchingly beautiful, apparently bedeviled by him and not at all interested in talk about commitment. One drink leads to another which leads to much, much more. Soon Vincent is trying to manage two lovers with the same name, both of whom want to be with him and are constantly texting him.
Vincent has some decisions to make about what kind of man he's going to be.
But if all that sounds like a pretty strange mash-up, it's nothing compared to where the complex storyline ends up. It turns out that Catherine is not just some beautiful troublemaker. She's actually a succubus, a demonic agent of sexual temptation who's working with two other demonic entities named Dumuzid and Astaroth, the latter of which speaks to Vincent in a Catholic church-like confessional at safe points between towers in Vincent's nightmares.
Astaroth asks questions of Vincent regarding his values and motivations in each of eight successive nights of nightmares. They're questions like, "Is marriage the point at which life begins or ends?" "Is there more to a relationship than physical attraction?" "If you were reincarnated, would you like to be human again?" Vincent's answers to these queries determine whether he moves toward Freedom or Order in eight possible endings to the story.
And Vincent's not the only one going through this ordeal. Almost daily he sees television reports about single young men who've been found dead in their beds. Eventually he realizes that if he dies in his dreams, he dies in real life too.
An Immoral Morality Tale
Catherine's convoluted spirituality is but one item on a long list of content concerns in this M-rated game. Dialogue between Vincent and his friends is frequently peppered with f-words, s-words and misuses of God's name. Vincent smokes constantly and knocks back drinks every night with his buddies. In fact, players eventually learn that the more alcohol they choose to have Vincent drink, the faster he'll scale the towers in his nightmares.
And in that realm, the violence ratchets up pretty fast. At first, Vincent merely has to climb. With each successive nightmare, though, things get more intense. On the second night, for instance, a giant version of Katherine chases him with a knife—stabbing him to a bloody pulp if he doesn't move fast enough. Spike-trap blocks result in dismemberment. And other men trapped in the nightmare with Vincent (always pictured as talking sheep) get nastier as well—eventually carrying axes and using them to gory effect.
Then there's the game's significant amount of sexual content. Cutscenes and waking segments boast a Japanese anime style—which is to say animation that's highly stylized yet realistic feeling. And the game's animators spent a lot of time drawing sexualized images of women. One cutscene pictures Catherine, naked, on top of Vincent in bed, with full nudity obscured only by strategic "camera" angles. Even when she's dressed, Catherine's outfits more resemble lingerie than clothing. Multiple times she texts provocative pictures of herself to Vincent. And in two of the eight possible endings, a demonic entity is shown lying next to Vincent and Catherine's bed in order to watch them having sex. Another ending pictures Catherine dominating Vincent by whipping him while he's tied up.
Katherine, for her part, thinks she might be pregnant at one point, and subsequent nightmares involve a nasty, malevolent baby. A young man brags of losing his virginity to a waitress who, it turns out, used to be a man. Mixed in with all of that is quite a bit of trash talking about marriage from one of Vincent's divorced friends.
Grappling With Big Questions … Or Not
Interestingly, the gamemakers also seem fascinated by provocation of another kind: challenging players to think about the kinds of questions I suspect that very few other video games ever ask. You can't play through Vincent's story—regardless of what choices you make—without wrestling with big questions about what makes life genuinely worth living. Is it being free to indulge your every sensual whim? Or does meaning come from facing your fear of commitment and trying to make the most of a relationship despite its significant shortcomings?
That said, it's certainly not necessary to play through a game that's got as many problems as this one does to grapple with those sorts of questions. Or let me put it this way: It might be worthwhile to reflect on how we're susceptible to the seven deadly sins. But you don't need to watch David Fincher's horrific film Seven to know that they're indeed deadly. Ditto for Catherine.