Survival horror games wish they could be as scary as the puzzle game Catherine. Its power is disturbing, but it comes from its focus on real-life anxieties rather than the supernatural. Players control Vincent, a 32-year-old man whose long-term girlfriend, Katherine, is starting to talk about marriage while encouraging him to give up his vices and work harder. After his typical nightly ritual of drinking rum-and-colas with his friends at the local bar, he goes home with a perky, seductive blonde named Catherine, who says he can live his life however he wants, so long as he doesn’t cheat on her. The romantic plot takes place during the day through anime-style cutscenes and active play where Vincent chats with his friends and exchanges text messages with his two women. The game makes excellent use of the mundane fare, with well-written and well-delivered dialogue that makes his suffering feel earnest.
Once Vincent goes to bed, though, he experiences a recurring nightmare where he must navigate towers of blocks or fall to his death. The puzzle-game aspect of Catherine is brutally hard, forcing you to think many steps ahead to plan a path to the top, while being aware of time as the floor drops out from under you. Levels get dramatically more difficult as new elements are added in, like blocks that impale you with spikes if you stand on them for more than a second. The last level of each night phase is especially terrifying, as Vincent is forced to flee from a monstrous embodiment of his lady troubles. Katherine’s hand, armed with a bloody fork, threatens to impale him while she cackles “I won’t let you get away,” or a fleshy, suggestively moaning creature with a hungry tongue tries to devour him.
Vincent isn’t the only man trapped in this nightmare. You interact with other men (who all look like giant sheep) between levels as they share their fears. Some offer tips for climbing, but figuring out how to use their technique requires quick thinking. These sheep are also trying to make their way to the top, often obstructing you by standing where you want to be or rearranging your blocks. Sometimes you’ll see them accidentally dying along the way; sometimes you’ll need to push them to their deaths in order to survive, making the game even more disturbing.
Catherine’s puzzles are harsh but feel fair, except when viewing problems add to the difficulty. You have little control over your camera angle, which can make it impossible to see what Vincent is doing when he shimmies behind a block. When a boss gets close, the angle shifts so that it takes up too much of the screen, making narrow escapes even more unlikely. When you do complete a level, Vincent experiences a moment of exaltation. But it’s a brief reprieve, as the game continues to lay on the tension. Vincent may survive the night, but he still has to face his fears and indecision in the morning.