In Baz Luhrmann's pop-culture pastiche Moulin Rouge!, Ewan McGregor's bohemian writer loves to declare to anyone who'll listen that love is a many splendored thing -- in addition to being all you need. To Vincent, the slacker hero of developer Atlus' absolutely bizarre Catherine, love is something significantly scarier: A never-ending nightmare tower of blocks that's crumbling from the bottom up.
With sheep. Lots and lots of sheep.
Billed as "romantic horror," Catherine forges a genre all its own, mixing up gameplay and artistic elements into something we've never seen before. At 32, scruffy computer programmer Vincent is more than happy to hang onto his safe and comfortable status quo. Trouble is, his sensible longtime girlfriend, Katherine -- with a K -- is dropping hints the size of anvils that it's time to think about raising their long-term relationship to the next level.
One night, while hanging out at a drinking hole called the Stray Sheep, a bouncy bombshell named Catherine -- with a C -- plops into his booth. When Vincent wakes up the next morning with Catherine in his bed, the game is definitely on, whether he wants to play or not.
Actually, Catherine is two games in one. Vincent's daylight hours are spent in a series of anime cutscenes, conversations and text messages where his choices steer you toward one of the game's several different outcomes. Just like in Atlus' Shin Megami Tensei games, the nighttime hours are when things start go all Outer Limits on us.
As fascinating and original as Catherine's storyline seems, the nighttime gameplay is likely to send less-experienced gamers panicking and screaming, much like the bleating sheep Vincent encounters in the game's nightmare worlds. These are filled with complicated puzzle-towers that can only be successfully scaled by shifting, pushing and pulling the blocks -- not all of which can be moved -- to create steps, staircases and passages.
You're under pressure to make decisions quickly, since the bottom rows of the tower are falling away every 10 or so seconds. A particular type of strategic spatial thinking is required to survive. Even on the easiest difficulty level, you'll probably never scale an entire tower on your first try. But that's what makes finally managing it so very satisfying.
Just as the sheep are supposed to stand in for the stereotypical commitment-phobic male, moving the blocks becomes a clever metaphor for the guesswork that tends to govern and sidetrack serious romantic relationships. Push a block the right way, and you advance forward; make a mistake and pull one the wrong way, and you might end up falling to your death or being squished to a bloody pulp.
Vincent will experience plenty of both before reaching romantic resolution -- and male gamers may never sleep soundly again.