A game like Catherine presents a difficult problem for experienced critics. No matter how sophisticated their tastes, regardless of how neatly they can turn a sentence or construct a telling metaphor, a significant portion of a game critics' professional life is spent grappling with identikit shooters, button-mashing beat-em ups and Tolkien-derived RPGs. As a result, games like Braid, Flower, and anything that deviates from purely visceral territory are ravenously seized as opportunities to flex the intellect.
The danger is that, blinded by the appeal of digging into an experience that touches upon higher ideas than the most efficient way to propel a bullet/arrow into a human/orcish face, the critic can often neglect their duty to actually appraise the game. Conversely, it is all too simple to undersell the importance of a game's more cerebral ideas if its interactive elements aren't as polished and refined as products for which gameplay is the sole focus.
At the time of writing, Catherine boasts a Metacritic average of around 80 per cent, but that number is derived from individual reviews that run the gamut from a lowly 40 all the way to a perfect 100.
Nesting close to the top of that tree is Eurogamer's John Teti, whose 9 out of 10 review is descriptive, thoughtful and shot through with characteristic humour. However, while he does an expert and thoroughly entertaining job of detailing Catherine's schizophrenic combination of romantic psychodrama - in which the protagonist, Vincent, agonises over settling down with his over-bearing girlfriend Katherine, or indulging his lust for Catherine, the uninhibited denizen of his local drinking den - and punishing block puzzles - in which a dreaming Vincent frantically climbs an endless tower of crumbling blocks - hard-line opinion is more difficult to spot.
"Catherine is menacing in its difficulty. It taunts players with ludicrous setups, giving you only a second to remark, 'That's impossible' before reminding you, with a distant boom, that the ground underneath Vincent is always crumbling away. At these moments, the impossible becomes plausible by virtue of being the only option."
"It's a hallucinatory aesthetic that may sound disjointed when described piece by piece - as any dream does - but coheres in a striking vision of gorgeous dementia. And it's not pure pastiche, either. The nightmare has a logic to it, even if it is an avant-garde logic that makes a game critic sound awfully dumb when he tries to put it into words."
These nocturnal block puzzles are where Catherine's win/lose mechanic kicks in. As Vincent drinks away his sorrows among friends caught in similar romantic dilemmas, he hears rumours of young men dying mysteriously in their sleep. Each night, Vincent returns to the blocks, the nature of the challenges he faces shifting as the events in his waking life unfold. If you fail to reach the top, Vincent never wakes up.
"The game will draw attention for its wonderful weirdness, as it should, yet that's only half of the story," Teti says. "Catherine plays its eccentricities against its more down-to-earth side, which makes for a richer comic world than you might get from bizarro fare alone. The upshot is an experience that's both fun and provocative - a nightmare worth staying awake for."
Catherine plays its eccentricities against its more down-to-earth side, which makes for a richer comic world than you might get from bizarro fare alone
John Teti, Eurogamer
But is it worth that coveted 9 out of 10? Giantbomb's Jeff Gerstmann certainly doesn't think so, awarding Catherine a relatively meagre 2 stars out of 5, and highlighting significant flaws in both its narrative and puzzle elements. The characters are shallow, Vincent's interactions with them are limited, and all too soon it's time to return to those "monotonous" block puzzles.
"Once you get the logic behind how the blocks move and start to see solutions in the puzzles instead of just a mountain of blocks, it isn't impossibly difficult," Gerstmann writes. "Unfortunately, that moment didn't happen for me until I was most of the way through the game."
"But the difficulty of the individual puzzles isn't what brings Catherine down. It's their repetitive nature. It feels like there are tons of levels in the game, and they're all roughly the same. The special blocks change things up a bit, and you'll have to climb towers while running away from a large boss-style monster during the last puzzle of every night, but the act of pulling and pushing blocks around to form staircases and create paths doesn't hold up for the entire game, and by night three or four...I found myself not wanting to play anymore."
"As it stands, the coolest thing about Catherine is that there really isn't anything else out there like it. If that's enough for you, you'll probably have a better time with the game than I did."
For Gerstmann, Catherine's narrative elements are not strong enough to save the game from the problems with its core gameplay, despite giving you enough options to sway the story's outcome toward one of eight possible endings. No matter which way the game's moral alignment meter sways, he argues, Vincent's behaviour never seems to match your choices.
Other disagree, specifically the venerable Edge magazine, with a 7 out of 10 review that reserves most of its praise for the player's ability to alter Vincent's path and place themselves in his situation.
"Catherine's story offers so many dialogue choices that its presiding arc is subjective: some players will see in Vincent a lazy oaf who wants to get away from his devoted long-term girlfriend; others a henpecked slacker who's revived by someone young and fun; and others will play a weak, indecisive guy who wants to do the right thing but hasn't got the bravery."
"In one of the game's most fascinating touches, an unseen tormentor in the nightmare regularly asks Vincent yes-or-no, this-or-that questions, like whether it's OK to lie if no one finds out. Give your answer, and you'll be shown a pie chart breaking down the responses of all other players thus far."
"In a game that invites you to wonder whether long-term monogamy is a realistic aim, seeing how many people would lie if they thought they could get away with it is starkly revealing. The questions posed are subtle enough to invite you not only to wonder how Vincent will answer, but how you would too."
The questions posed are subtle enough to invite you not only to wonder how Vincent will answer, but how you would too
Square in the middle is The Guardian's Simon Parkin, whose 6 out of 10 review points to the moments when the game's disparate parts unite as its true highlights - like the confession-booth moral conundrums described by Edge, or an ingenious text message mini-game that recognises the power impersonal communication methods now have over the development of real personal relationships, or the chilling boss encounters that reflect Vincent's most primal fears.
However, reaching these intriguing moments is often a matter of perseverance rather than actual fun. "The game at the core of the wider Catherine game is too punitive to be truly enjoyable," he says, "reflecting the stressful sense of pressure to make snap-decisions that infuses the rest of the experience." "Interesting and gently innovative, nevertheless when judged purely on the quality of its interactions, Catherine is a mediocre game. But the strength of its narrative drapery elevates the experience to something that's both compelling and enduring."
"It's rarely an enjoyable experience, but within that, Catherine perhaps poses its greatest puzzle of all: does a video game always need to be enjoyable to be worthwhile?"