Look up “adventure game icons” and you’re likely to spot a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces from yesteryear looking back at you. The short list of legendary characters from our favorite graphic adventures includes such personalities as King Graham of Daventry, lovable loser Larry Laffer, a maniacal tentacle bent on world domination, and the unlikely pirate captain Guybrush Threepwood. Many long-time adventure gamers could tell a tale or ten about these and other genre-defining characters, and their influence can still be seen and heard in today’s games. Now, in 2016, the time has come to add a new name to the list of memorable protagonists – and a female one no less! Prepare to meet Kathy Rain.
Kathy Rain, the debut from Swedish studio Clifftop Games, is a game torn straight from a 1990s graphic adventure design manual, arriving a few decades after the fact. Rather than attempt to hide it, the game wears its influences proudly on its sleeve; everything from its look and feel right down to some specific story beats is culled straight from some of the giants of the time, most notably Jane Jensen’s beloved Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. Yet it still succeeds in providing a deeply engaging, immensely entertaining supernatural mystery that’s all its own, without feeling like a rehash, and it does so despite being an indie game on a limited budget.
The story of Kathy Rain is perhaps the title’s greatest success. It all begins – where else? – in the nineties: Kathy, a journalism student living in the college dorms with her roommate Eileen, learns that her estranged grandfather has passed away. Reluctantly she heads back to the small rural town where she grew up to face a past she thought she’d left behind. There, an innocent post-funeral chat with her grandmother reveals some strange circumstances surrounding her grandfather’s final years, including a fateful night more than a decade earlier that transformed him from the strong and healthy man Kathy once knew to a wheelchair-bound wreck of his former self. Kathy’s investigation into these matters soon uncovers a dark and threatening tale of supernatural proportions. It’s part X-Files, part Twin Peaks.
This tale is a deeply personal one. As Kathy digs deeper and deeper into her grandfather’s life, troubling sides of her family history are revealed. Starting the game without any information on Kathy’s background makes the first few minutes a challenge to put into context, but this design decision pays off as more of Kathy’s own past is slowly unveiled. It’s easy to deduce that there’s some bad history between Kathy and her parents, for example, from the way the subject is always carefully side-stepped when conversations get too close. But being kept in the dark makes the payoff more emotionally charged when Kathy finally feels ready to confront the truth about it. The game doesn’t shy away from treading sensitive ground, either. It’s not just about Kathy’s grandfather and his secrets; even Kathy herself has a few skeletons in her closet that must eventually come to light. Before all is said and done, we’ve shared in Kathy’s grief, celebrated her triumphs, and felt a connection to a character that is as human and fallible as any of us.
Kathy is a loner with a sharp tongue she uses to keep people at a distance. Her grandfather, one of the few people she ever really trusted, abandoned her at a young age to an unstable mother and an absent father. Having now turned her back on her family, Kathy’s investigation isn’t born out of some noble or selfless goal; she simply goes through her grandpa’s attic workspace after a funeral she’d just as soon have not attended in the first place. But as foul play surrounding her grandfather’s sudden affliction that left him little more than a vegetable becomes apparent, Kathy realizes that he may not have simply abandoned her after all. Her motivation is to clear up the cause of her family’s (and her own) misfortune, and get some peace of mind at last.
The story is dark and constantly keeps the player guessing where it all may be pointing. How is what happened to Kathy’s grandfather connected to the old messages left years ago by war buddies of his, begging for his help? What parts do the questionable suicide of a young local girl and a string of serial disappearances play in all of it? It’s enough to make your mind jump from UFO abductions to government conspiracies, to a dozen other possible scenarios as the story develops. Adding a supernatural twist are the television sets that display eerie images, ghostly messages popping up on Kathy’s computer monitor, and the enigmatic bald man dressed in red that appears in her dreams. The game consistently walks this tightrope between paranormal thriller and a mystery grounded in reality. As successfully as the plot drew me in, however, I’ll admit that it does lose a little momentum in its final chapter, becoming just too quirky and metaphorical to leave me with a fully satisfying conclusion at the end of its six-hour duration.
Beyond just the central plot points, I quickly became a fan of the game’s script. Character interactions and even Kathy’s interior dialog feel one hundred percent natural, often filled with clever jibes or witty observations. There is a smooth confidence to the writing, even when examining mundane environmental items. Each character has a distinct personality that is perfectly put forth in their respective dialogs. In particular, Kathy has a great no-bull attitude, which fits her to a tee and leads to some memorable moments. For example, upon her first visit to the local police station, Kathy becomes the target of the amorous rookie cop manning the front desk, who remembers her from childhood. After he stammers his way through an awkward pickup attempt, Kathy, knowing he may still prove to be useful but also having no idea who he actually is, has to let him down softly while not crushing his hopes completely. Conversations with other supporting characters, from the town wino to members of the local biker gang Kathy’s dad was once a part of, flow with an intuitive ease. No less important are the full voice-over performances, each of which is astoundingly apt.
Although perhaps intended as an homage to the classics, one narrative aspect that felt a little uncomfortable to me is that a few story beats seem literally lifted from Sierra’s Gabriel Knight games: a dialog-splicing puzzle using a recorded conversation, the kidnapping of Kathy’s geeky assistant, and the protagonist navigating a forest maze (instead of a swamp) near the game’s end. Other, less notable comparisons can also be made, such as the motorcycle Kathy rides as her sole mode of transportation, and the family crypt in the cemetery that plays a role in the story, but these are less pervasive.
Dialog is integrated well into the investigative flow, so there’s never a moment of blindly searching around, unsure of where to go next. During the first few chapters, only a handful of areas are available, as indicated by icons at the top of the screen while Kathy rides her motorcycle through the rural countryside. In the last chapter or two, however, this number does increase. Investigating each scene is simple, as names of hotspots pop up when scrolled over. While there isn’t exactly an abundance of interactive items, most of the visually dominant objects can be examined. Once an object is clicked on, any possible interactions (take, open, use, etc.) will show up via further icons, or Kathy will simply comment on the object if there is nothing else to be done.
Apart from the lion’s share of inventory-based logic puzzles, there are a number of inventive, well-integrated challenges to push past in Kathy Rain. They are all fair, and can be solved with careful examination and thought – and, when a solution is slow in coming, the occasional helpful hint from Kathy in lieu of a hint system. Early on in the game, for example, a suitcase must be unlocked, requiring its combination to be pieced together by following a riddle found in a separate location. A later instance requires unraveling the hidden meaning behind a string of poetic riddles relating to family members buried side-by-side in a crypt. Kathy even has to make use of some basic computer hacking skills in a unique gameplay sequence. Such puzzles are a great change of pace, sprinkled throughout the game, but work well within the momentum of the story.
Kathy Rain isn’t just modeled after nineties games, it’s made to look and sound like them too. The developers have made the pixel art style of that era work well here, adding lots of familiar details into the scenery. A quick scan of Kathy’s dorm room as the game opens reveals several movie posters of the time hanging on the walls around her bed, easily recognizable despite their slightly blocky resolution. Indoor set pieces often include silhouetted furniture and items in the foreground to keep the fourth wall intact. Though Kathy Rain rocks a bleak and dreary tone, many of its locations, like Grandmother’s house, the police station and Kathy’s dorm are brightly lit and colorful places. Outdoor areas like the cemetery and the lake-side cabin, while less cheerful, feature gorgeous hues and textures in the overcast skies and choppy waters. The larger character portraits shown during conversations are, again, nicely detailed and offer ranges of emotion to sell the story even more.
The one element that doesn’t uphold the same standard of quality as the rest is the soundtrack. Staying true with the theme, the music sounds like something that came out of a PC’s MIDI sound system two decades ago – basically a step or two above chiptunes. Even aside from the technical restrictions, however, Kathy Rain’s score just isn’t very memorable or pleasant to listen to. With the exception of the travel screen music, none of it ever so much as repeated in my mind, and now even that fleeting song snippet has been completely forgotten.
In the end, Kathy Rain is a great adventure that introduces a new character who fits in perfectly with the existing lineup of 1990s graphic adventure stalwarts. Kathy is a nuanced, complicated young woman who marches to the tune of her own fiddle, and damn the consequences. I would absolutely love to see more of her in the future. Though slightly let down by a forgettable score and straying a little too far into left field during its conclusion, the game is nonetheless an outstanding new entry in an enduring niche genre that proves there is still some life left in the old girl yet. One can only hope that Kathy Rain will be a sign of more good things to come from Clifftop Games.