So, you’ve taken an interest in playing competitive Catherine, Atlus’ 2011 horror-puzzle game of survival-by-climbing-cube-towers. You want to get good, but you’re not sure how. Before delving in here, you should check out our beginner’s primer — a great place to learn how Catherine’s single-player design translates into sheep-vs-sheep (yes, it’s weird) clashes, which usually end by one opponent knocking the other into the abyss.
Still with me? Good. To find out more about top-shelf tactics, I spoke with David “Dacidbro” Broweleit from Catherine’s competitive scene. (Aside from being arguably the top Catherine competitor in the world, Broweleit also was an instrumental figure in uncovering the surprising depth of its systemic vocabulary.)
To start, one of its more interesting attributes is something that sets it apart from a lot of other big tournament game: It revolves almost entirely, and solely, around landing kills.
“Nothing matters until your opponent is dead, basically,” says Broweleit, stressing the ever-shifting nature of a high-level match. “It’s circumstantial advantages that disappear very quickly, so it’s really important to have a deep bag of gimmicks.”
For those unfamiliar, “gimmick” in this context is common fighting game terminology. Essentially, it’s a move or strategy crazy or unexpected enough to psychologically throw a rival off-balance; using gimmicks is vital to gaining the tactical upper-hand, at least as long as you can plan for any effects that crop up as a result.
Broweleit compares gimmicks to an unusual play in chess, like opening a game by moving one of your side pawns forward instead of going for the middle. (Of course, this only works if you have a good play to follow it up with.)
Before you start working out your own gimmicks, you have to understand openings: Sound strategies you employ at the start of a match against opponents of any skill level. These are what Broweleit calls ‘“staple” openings.
For instance, on “Clock Tower”, one of Catherine’s six stages allowed for competitive play, there are proximity bomb blocks strategically rigged to blow the bottom few floors of the level if you run over them. Though each level’s makeup is somewhat randomized, the beginning is always the same, with different possible staple openings for each; Clock Tower’s layout has the middle cut out of the first few floors.
If each player can clamber up to the third or fourth layered floor, they can face each other on an even playing field (though the gap is often bridged for a more aggressive start). A common gimmick here is to get rid of the bombs on your side, either by detonating or pushing them off the stage when possible, giving players time to choose their next move.
An opponent that’s studied the rules of the game – all of which have been painstakingly uncovered by Broweleit and other players in Catherine’s scene through endless hours of experimentation, tests, and analysis – will have their own openings, whether staples or gimmicks.
Another thing players will often do is simply make a beeline for higher ground, though the game has an ingenious counterbalance for this as well. As the game proper will tell you, the intended win state in versus mode is reaching the top of a tower first, yet you’re given the ability to fight, perform offensive combos, or defensive reversals.
Why not just climb out of harm’s way as fast as you can, then? Because doing so will cause the other player to get significantly more stat-boosting or otherwise helpful items.
“When you’re ahead of your opponent there are essentially Mario Kart physics on the items,” Broweleit says. That means you can get things like the energy drink, which lets you climb two floors at a time instead of one.
Broweleit notes its pretty hard to deal with someone who has an energy drink.
“It makes the game state much more aggressive,” he says. “It becomes much more about actually attacking your opponent, because then items won’t spawn. When you fall behind you pretty much always get the energy drink, and it will always be a huge problem for your opponent.”
The other reason its not smart to just charge ahead is because the other player can quickly turn the tables on you by pulling or pushing out the entire foundation of the tower from the floor where they’re standing, instantly bringing everything above crashing down. Even if you manage to climb back down fast enough, the trick is excellent psychological warfare.
“If you’re coming back in a panicked state or rushed state, you’re going to end up in very poor circumstances, which may also immediately kill you,” Broweleit says.
Watch any competitive play, from side tournaments at Evo to sessions streaming on Twitch, and you’ll quickly get the sense that a match between skilled players has a seemingly overwhelming amount of strategies and lightning fast reversals of fortune in every round. What separates an average player from a good one is a matter of awareness.
When you get to an average level, you see some pretty confused scenarios.
“People understand that they have to fight but they don’t really know how to attack their opponent,” Broweleit says. “You end up with a lot of non-meaningful hits and advantages that are kind of blown.”
In tournament level games, opponents won’t hit each other unless they know there’s a strategic advantage to doing so, and often use outlandish board states to try to flummox the competition.
“Nobody is giving free advantages to their opponent. The game becomes very aggressive and very subtle,” he says.
While it’s necessary just to pay attention to advance your skill level, and while there is a level of gut reaction involved, keeping track of a match’s often breakneck pacing becomes easier the more you’ve studied Catherine’s playbook.
“This is another parallel to chess — you know how pieces are supposed to be defended, and even if they’re somewhat different in the exact state you’re facing, you know what staples you’re using,” Broweleit says. “You know how they interact. When it comes down to the moment where you have a chance to capitalize on a situation, you can make it hurt.”
Beyond finding strong openings — which Broweleit says can be done by watching competitive players and adapting their strategies to suit you best — he shares a few other key tips for players looking to improve: Choose combos over hits, use climb cancelling, and block pulls.
Combos aren’t just important because they can lead to victory. They’re also more powerful than normal pillow hit attacks, which Broweleit says players often make the mistake of using.
“With pillow hits, it might seem like you’re attacking your opponent and that’s good,” he says. “But unless you’re really capitalizing on the circumstance that comes afterwards, they’re not going to get anyone very far.” (A pillow hit causes an opponent to cling to the edge of a block rather than being completely knocked off.)
Combos by dive kicking onto the other player from a block above will always knock them down, unless they decide to push the block you’re standing on, usually causing an instant death. You can get around this with what’s called an option select, another fighting game term, which is when you input multiple commands, giving the game an option over what move to prioritize depending on what your opponent chooses to do, as well as what’s happening in-game.
To use an option select to get out of a round-losing combo breaker, you would input up down and then either right or left (as applicable to the situation) on the D-pad, which stack commands to dive kick again and move away; if your opponent attempts to break your combo with a block push, it will invalidate your attack. If not, you’ll perform another dive kick to the block below.
Climb cancelling, on the other hand, can be effective as a feint.
“You can cancel your climb halfway into it by pressing X again,” Broweleit says. “You’ll get this weird animation where your character will move half way up the block and then come back. And that can force people to make bad pulls or pushes.” Do that and you can catch them off-balance and remove the block in question, which can lead to a kill.
Finally, if you find yourself having been knocked down a few levels, you can use block pulls to gain an advantage, depending on the floor’s stability. Pulling blocks out towards the screen makes you drop down to the floor’s ledge, which Broweleit says makes the game read your position as being on the floor below.
Since items spawn faster the further away you are from your opponent, this trick can be used to dramatically increase your chances of picking up something useful — particularly the coveted energy drink. (Even more effective, you can also better your odds by pulling out a number of blocks on the same floor, thereby multiplying your chances.)
These are just a few high-level strategies for competitive play, which Broweleit and other members of the community are still picking apart, five years after the first Catherine tournament was held. He says it’s amazing the game has withstood the scrutiny.
“We have not discovered anything that ruins the game yet,” Broweleit says. “We keep expecting to. It’s just so much more typical that something game-breaking shows up and everything falls apart.” But, with any luck, Catherine will continue to hold.
Photos via Atlus