Catherine is a game that suggests its themes are "love" and "loyalty" and that sort of stuff, but I think it's more about division. The story is about a guy divided by his troubles with two different women, as well as being divided between too-real nightmares and the real world. And the game itself is divided between story sequences and a distinct action-puzzle game. Heck, even I was a bit divided by it: I kept playing and noticing things that made me wonder if maybe this game doesn't know what it wants to be. In the end, I don't think it's that. Rather than being unfocused, Catherine is probably too focused, with its binary split between light adventure gameplay and challenging puzzles. But it clicks.
For scraggly-haired 30-something Vincent, life has ground to a halt. But then his girlfriend Katherine is hinting she wants to get married, because she's, gulp, pregnant. Vincent shambles to his usual restaurant hangout, shoots the breeze with his friends as always, but generally feels depressed about his life's sudden acceleration. As if on cue, he's suddenly in the psychological grasp of a tarty young thing who approaches him at the restaurant and has him take her home. Vincent's now tormented by nightmares in which he's part sheep, and forced to climb towers of blocks to keep from dying. The nightmares continue for days, and Vincent keeps waking up alongside the "new girl," Catherine (with a C), constantly freaking out that his Katherine's going to discover he's cheating on her.
The nightmares are a series of action-puzzle stage where you're tasked with pushing and pulling big blocks to get Vincent up to the next tier (he can only climb up one block at a time) in a giant, transmogrifying tower. And it's imperative to keep that vertical momentum, because the rows beneath you crumble away every so often -- the exact speed depends on the stage, but it averages less than a minute -- and that's where the stress comes in. You know you're on the fast track to being screwed when a stage gets to a particularly nasty section, like a wall of blocks with many holes in between them, and mild panic sets in as you frantically try and figure it out before you're killed.
Yes, Catherine's difficulty was well-publicized when the Japanese version came out (this review is based on the US version - a European release is impending), and yes, even on Normal difficulty, it's probably going to hurt. Compared to the typical idea of a puzzle game, Catherine is not the "easy to grasp, hard to master" type. If anything, it's the other way around: You're shoved into the nightmare worlds with tips and techniques drip-fed to you in between them. Pay attention, though, and by the end of the game you'll probably have a clear enough idea of how to get past the later stages faster than you did the early ones.
It's backwards, but it's not like the controls are bad or you only ever have one chance (extra retries are generally easy to get and collect) -- it's always worth pushing through. When all is said and done, you can find even more puzzles to tackle. Beyond the story stages, you have the extra Babel and Colosseum (two-player) modes, and the retro-style "Rapunzel" arcade game in the bar, which puts the tally well into the triple digits. But after finishing the story, I hardly wanted to go back to the block-moving, considering the ordeal I went through to get past all of it the first time.
The story is easily the more interesting part of Catherine. It's nice that it keeps moving, as each new "day" in the tale takes a decent step forward, and by the end of my time with it, it was extra nice when what should have been the grand finale led up to some awesome tying-up of loose ends. And the extra moments in the restaurant scenes, like checking/replying to texts and hearing the problems of the other guys, keeps the game entertaining throughout. The dialogue is packed with the "F word" and its cousins, but that actually helps make it one of the more realistic English dubs of any game or anime in recent memory. Well, young people do swear a lot.
Catherine is a game that's about, and made for, mature gamers. Not necessarily because of the story, but more because it's a short, tight design with challenging puzzles that seem to want you to call it a night after finishing just one. It's the kind of thing for adults who aren't as into games as they used to be. They'd have to crank it down to Easy, but that's okay. Anybody else can like it just fine.