Soon, news spreads of mysterious "weakening deaths" that have afflicted men in Vincent's age bracket, and rumors say that each victim had awful nightmares just before they died. Late one night, Vincent meets blonde-haired, blue-eyed Catherine at his local dive bar, Stray Sheep. The next morning, Vincent wakes up to find a nude Catherine in his bed, with no recollection of the night before.
The majority of Vincent's in-game time is either spent at the bar with his friends, or asleep, desperately trying to escape the horrors that chase him by climbing to the top of a booby-trapped tower of gravity-defying cubes. As he climbs, lower rows of cubes drop into oblivion, and you can guess what happens if he doesn't climb fast enough.
When the nightmare ends, Vincent can send (or not send) text messages from the bar, which influences his feelings about C/Katherine, which in turn changes his decisions and reactions during the title's gorgeously animated cutscenes. The game's Nightmare segments act as both puzzle and parable, providing the majority of Catherine's content while simultaneously serving as an allegory for the surreal melodrama that unfolds during the day.
When Catherine stops being a soap opera, it turns out to be an excellent game as well, despite an initially steep learning curve. The base mechanic of cube movement takes some trial and error to wrap your head around; expect to run out of continues several times during the second night. Eventually, the cubes' behavior begins to make sense, and the puzzle's internal logic reveals itself.
Initially, this was frustrating. The greatest pleasure in a puzzle game comes from truly mastering its mechanics, and Catherine never gives you the opportunity. As the credits rolled, however, I had an epiphany. Looking back on the game as a whole, I understood how much sense that design choice made when considered in context with the game's conclusion, and how deeply orchestrated every aspect of the experience had been.
Catherine, then, isn't a one night stand. Though it may seem standoffish and esoteric at first, patience and perseverance will reveal the charming eccentricities and personality quirks that make it so special. Like any relationship worth having, Catherine takes effort, but the end result is worth it.
This review is based on a retail copy of Catherine for Xbox 360 provided by Atlus.