Written by: Jo

Date posted: November 14, 2020

Kathy and Eileen have different ideas about a typical night at college

If you’ve been reading our semi-regular, yet-to-be-named discussion series, you’ll know that I’ve recently made a tentative return to gaming. If you haven’t, then you should know that I’ve recently made a tentative return to gaming after a two decade-long hiatus prompted by what seemed to be (but wasn’t, as it turned out) the death of adventure games.

Much to my surprise, I recently discovered that dedicated fans, who didn’t throw in the towel following the release of Simon the Sorcerer 3D (we can talk about that some other time), kept the genre alive. Had I not been in a twenty-year sulk, then I would have known about the likes of Wadjet Eye Games’ Blackwell series long before now and that somewhere, beneath the surface of mainstream gaming, adventure was making a comeback.

Having initially got stuck into more modern takes on the genre, such as Gone Home and Firewatch, I’ve been poking around on Steam and GOG to see what I can turn my creaky point and click finger to next, and to my delight, I stumbled upon Clifftop Games’ debut release Kathy Rain.

Like the Wadjet Eye games, KR was also created using the Adventure Game Studio (AGS) engine, and being a detective story, the two share some similarities in both gameplay and visual style. While it’s a more recent release than the final Blackwell game, the pixelated graphics and point and click interface make it an appealing choice to retro gamers and adventure fans alike.

Set in 1995, an inebriated Kathy Rain stumbles back to her college dorm room where sensible, beige-clad roommate Eileen breaks the news of Kathy’s estranged Grandfather’s recent passing. Before long, Kathy is heading to her former home of Conwell Springs, where she learns that the circumstances surrounding her Grandfather’s death are more than a little suspicious. With her Grandmother seeking closure, Kathy seizes the opportunity to exercise her undergrad journalist skills (and general knack for chiselling information out of people) and vows to find the answers her family deserve.

This is an adventure well worth returning to the genre for – even for someone like me who’s been out of the loop for way too long. Admittedly, I had a little weight on the back foot about whether KR was going to scratch my 2D point and click itch. As a hardened fan of many of the 90s classics, I wondered if a modern adventure could live up to expectations.

Clyde the IT guy pays you a visit.

So, let’s just get it out of the way and say that I didn’t have anything to worry about, because KR packs in everything I love about the genre: an engaging story, a wide range of puzzles, and great characters. I even made lots of notes – which, for me, is a hallmark of a good adventure game. I know this bonus activity might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but there’s something about making notes that makes me feel more involved in a game and somehow adds to the satisfaction of solving a puzzle.

I’m not going to delve into the story too much more – my feeling is that the less you know, the better. It really is an original story that kept me guessing and a big part of what I enjoyed about the game was that I never knew where it would go next.

I will say that there are some dark themes covered here but these are handled reasonably well. Overall, it’s well balanced – and there’s a gentle humour to counter some of the darker elements. I’d also say that there’s enough for a potential sequel – not only because the ending felt a bit patchy – but there’s plenty of set up with the multiple narrative threads which suggests there’s room for a sequel, and maybe even a series (as with Blackwell).

The characters are rich and engaging, with Kathy herself being well drawn as a protagonist. At first, I found her rebellious post-teen angst a little grating, but this is possibly down to embarrassing feelings about my own teen pseudo-rebellious streak.

I’m now perhaps more of a bland, unassuming sidekick type, and speaking of which, roommate and friend Eileen Summers is the yang to Kathy’s yin. The unlikely pairing of chain-smoking, motorbike-riding Kathy with Christian good girl Eileen is an odd dynamic that somehow works over and above the usual good cop/bad cop buddy trope, with Eileen often serving as the driving force behind Kathy’s action. Even if she is partial to constantly overstepping personal boundaries, Eileen’s wholesome and upbeat persona takes the edge off Kathy’s cynicism, while Kathy balances out Eileen’s relentless positivity.

It’s the voice-acting that really brings the characters to life, especially for Kathy (voiced by Arielle Siegel) who captures the protagonist’s snark and wit in a way that generally endears rather than annoys. And similarly, Eileen’s constant bubbly attitude isn’t irritating – an easy trap for such a character to fall into. All the voice acting is great: Sheriff Boyks is convincingly cantankerous, Grandma Rain has that soothing, old-lady air and the local priest perfectly straddles a divide between mild-mannered and creepy.

All this is worth mentioning seeing as KR is a pretty dialogue heavy game. Seasoned adventure gamers will know that lengthy dialogue trees come with the territory, and that they’re harder to digest if the writing’s a bit clunky and voice-acting is stilted. Thankfully, that isn’t the case here, though there a fair few swears, including the C-bomb being dropped at one point, which I found weirdly shocking for some reason.

The Sheriff regrets agreeing to answer Kathy’s questions.

I did find that the dialogue was so full of info that, at times, my brain struggled to process it all in one go. A handful of times I found I couldn’t have certain clue-containing conversations a second time around, whereas less crucial conversations could be repeated numerous times.

A cursory glance at Steam reviews suggest that the puzzles verge a little on the easy side. Perhaps I’m just out of practice after having twenty years off, but I really didn’t find this to be the case. There’s a good mix of inventory object and dialogue puzzles. I might be straying into Crystal Maze terminology here, but I want to say there’s a sprinkling of logic puzzles tossed in there too.

Overall, I found them to be well-balanced – challenging enough to make me feel (overly) victorious after solving them, but without feeling like progress came to an immediate halt without consulting a walkthrough. Some exist to gently keep the story moving forward, while others were more on the hair-pulling-out end of the difficulty spectrum. A puzzle in the mid/end game got me frazzled to the point of completely overthinking it and, bizarrely, deciding that astrology would help me figure it out (it didn’t).

The game flows at a nice pace with multiple puzzles to chip away at in the mid game, so if I got stuck on one, I could turn my attention to the other. For the most part, I had a pretty good idea of what I needed to investigate next, though at one point I found myself with little to no direction, and strayed into exhaust-all-dialogue-options and try-every-inventory-object-with-every-other-object territory, which got a little tedious.

Game mechanic-wise, there isn’t too much to report because point and clicks generally consist of exactly that. The interface is the standard wheel with options to ‘Look at’, ‘Talk to’, and ‘Use’. Though occasionally there’s an additional option to ‘Think about’ a certain object, person or place, which shed light on how Kathy might interact with it.

Not that I want to continually draw comparisons with the Blackwell games, but another similarity is the use of a notebook for investigating and talking to other characters, which updates as the story progresses.

It probably comes as no surprise that I really loved the look of this game. While it’s tempting to say that it’s because the graphics are so reminiscent of games from the good old days, putting it down to simple nostalgia doesn’t give enough credit, because the graphics are stunning. I know that opinion remains divided on use of character portraits, and, personally, I’m not a big fan, but I wouldn’t say that including them really bothered me. That said, I must mention that the portrait of Kathy’s Grandma reminded me of Cluedo’s Mrs White and once I’d made that connection, I couldn’t get away from it.

Eileen explains that she and JC have an understanding.

I really got a feel for the world Kathy lived in, and while there are various subtle nods to life in the 90s, these references don’t dominate. There’s a cosy autumnal charm to Conrad Springs, which makes it even more immersive. Comparisons with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks are often cited, and having only just got around to watching it myself [Have you been living underground or something? – FFG reader], there are definite similarities between the two.

And I don’t think this is unintentional, given the references to owls ‘not being what they seem’ and mention of the former sheriff, Truman, which suggests that the developers were perhaps fans of the series. There are a couple of other little 90s nods, too, such as Kathy’s ‘Corley Motors’ motorbike (a hat tip to LucasArts’ Full Throttle) and computers from Cyberdyne Systems (a reference to Terminator 2: Judgement Day) being used at a couple of points.

Overall, Kathy Rain far exceeded my point and click expectations. I was worried nostalgia would get in the way, but that really wasn’t the case. My only real reservation is with the ending, which left me a little unfulfilled, but not to the point of ruining my enjoyment of the game (and I’m still hopeful for a sequel). If you’re a fan of the old adventures, then Kathy Rain won’t disappoint.