Kathy Rain [official site] is the first adventure from Clifftop Games (Joel Staaf Hästö), the story of a journalism student investigating the strange circumstances of the last few years of her grandfather's life. I previewed it last month and was really impressed. Will that continue for the full game? Here's wot I think:
I think possibly my favourite aspect of Kathy Rain – a traditional point-n-click adventure built in the pixelly AGS engine – is that for a really long time I couldn’t guess in which direction it was heading.
Would the mid 90s-set tale be “Mysterious goings on turn out to have rational explanation”? Or “Ordinary world turns out to be invaded by science fiction?” Or something in between. Clearly I’m not going to tell you, and as such, am somewhat limited in sharing the full details of what makes the story so interesting with you. But let me take you as far as is safe...
Kathy Rain is a journalism student, a disaffected and faux-rebellious 20-something, with the apparent roommate from hell – a diligent and pious Christian girl who attempts to bring order to Kathy’s days. Which appears to involve a good deal of intrusion into her private life, including learning that Kathy’s estranged grandfather has just died, with a funeral taking place the next day.
Kathy, always fond of her grandfather but long separated from her family, decides to attend, and for the first time in many years talks to her widowed grandmother. A grandmother who reveals there was more to her granddad’s death, including recent years spent in an unexplained catatonic state. Kathy’s journalistic ambitions kick in, and she becomes determined to dig through the secrets of her small home town to learn exactly what had been going on.
What follows is a pleasingly traditional adventure, complete with inventory, multiple options for interacting with many scenery items, and a good dose of in-context puzzles to solve, as well as lots and lots of conversation. Which makes it quite a relief that for the most part it’s very well written, and throughout superbly acted. Occasional florid writing does make a few scenes a little silly, and the local priest’s habit of saying, “My child” in every sentence is extremely embarrassing, but these are few and far between. There's also the splendid inclusion of a "think about" option for lots of items, which is something I'd love to see more adventures copying.
For a good long while this really holds itself together, with solutions to puzzles opening up options for the next (this sounds so obvious, but boy is it rare in adventure games these days, with the majority appearing to be constructed out of dead ends), and a broad cast of characters each offering snippets of the story you piece together. And the puzzles are fair, perhaps leaning toward the easier side, but still interesting.
A little after the halfway mark, things get a touch looser. It reaches a point where rather than exploring new locations and finding new items, your task is really only to go from place to place putting new conversation options to old characters, trying to find the one who’ll unlock the next. It’s at this point that the game’s very slow movement speed can start to grate, and unfortunately there’s no slider to speed things up (nor any double-clicking to teleport to exits). Heading to a previous location just in case, and having to sit through the glacial arrival animations, only to discover there’s nothing new there, is galling.
And very near the end there are a couple of puzzles that are... not ideal. One in particular involving a poem will have people reaching for walkthroughs and painkillers, primarily because it’s far too open to ambiguous interpretation.
However, countering that are some puzzles that made me feel like Mr Clever Clogs for solving, lovely details where paying attention to one thing gives you a ‘click!’ moment elsewhere, and you pat yourself on the back for being so excellent. And as I’ve said earlier, the high quality of the characters and acting adds a great deal even through the leaner sections, making this quite a feat for a low budget, small team execution.
The story touches on subjects that will be difficult for some, I imagine. There was one particular scene that had me gnaw on a knuckle for fear of what it might be about to say (which it then handled in a mature and interesting way), and there’s a rare gaming appearance for the word “cunt”, in a very aggressive manner. Which is to say, this is for adults. Good.
Comparisons with Wadjet Eye games will be immediate, if only because this is a for-sale game made with AGS with gorgeous background art, strong writing, and pixel characters that look barely anything like their close-up profiles. Uncanny. And those comparisons are well earned! This is up there with the likes of Technobabylon and Shardlight, and Wadjet’s Dave Gilbert provided the splendid voice direction.
I think the ending could have been better embellished, provided a little more closure and be a bit less rushed. And gosh does it desperately need speeding up a mite. But I had a splendid time with Kathy Rain, and thoroughly enjoyed a game where I couldn’t see where it might be heading. Kathy proves a complex and interesting character, and, well, I thoroughly enjoyed playing it. Which is the simplest recommendation of them all.