Kathy Rain review

Game Info
Platform Win, Mac
Publisher Raw Fury Games
Developer Clifftop Games
Release Date May 5, 2016

Kathy Rain is a throwback to adventure games in the LucasArts style.

Thanks to the work of publisher-studios like Wadjet Eye, this has become something of a sub-genre itself. Pixelated graphics and an ever-expanding inventory may have been a revelation when games like the Blackwell series and Gemini Rue revived them a few years back, but now they're something more akin to a cottage industry.

Without the novelty of that nostalgia, games like Kathy Rain stand on the merits of their storytelling. Luckily, Kathy's got a story that, despite some reservations, is worth hearing out.

Kathy gets plenty of opportunity to grow and evolve

Our titular heroine is a somewhat unconventional choice for a protagonist in a genre usually fronted by well-meaning buffoons or lantern-jawed everymen. Kathy Rain abuses cigarettes and alcohol, defaults to "caustically sarcastic" in her interactions with those around her, and lacks any particular talent for solving mysteries. Her affinity for motorcycles and her surly disposition make her closest corollary Ben, Full Throttle's hard-riding and harder-punching star.

When Kathy's grandfather dies under mysterious circumstances, she returns to the hometown she was torn from as a child and finds herself drawn into a mystery far deeper (both literally and symbolically) then the game even hints at in its opening hours. Kathy didn't come by her hardened exterior by chance, and much of the game's narrative is preoccupied with unearthing the reasons for her nature and seeing how evicting the skeletons from her family's closet helps her find peace.

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Though her tough-as-nails routine sometimes veers into cliche, Kathy also gets plenty of opportunity to grow and evolve into a surprisingly compelling character. Seeing her journey from loathing everyone (including herself) into someone a little more open-hearted is one of the game's real delights.

Her journey would probably be more emotionally impactful if Kathy Rain were populated with more interesting characters. Kathy herself is well-drawn and complex, but most of the characters she meets are gratingly two-dimensional. There's a take-no-guff sheriff; there's a priest with a secret; there's a biker gang that seems to have gotten lost on their way to a Sons of Anarchy cast reunion. Kathy's grandmother, her only familial connection still living in Conwell Springs, spends the the entirety of the game's five-day story sitting on the couch waiting for Kathy to return. (I know you're in mourning, lady, but c'mon, you're running a real risk of developing a deep-vein thrombosis if you don't at least stand up from time to time.)

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A well-drawn protagonist is a great first step, but without equally realized characters who can get under her skin, we're left with a surface-level sketch. A good story needs real people; what Kathy Rain has is clue factories. Luckily, watching those clues coalesce over time into a dark, unpredictable mystery is a real treat. If you're a fan of Twin Peaks, you'll find kindred spirits in Swedish developer Clifftop Games. Kathy Rain is loaded with direct references to David Lynch's series, but shares thematic similarities too, especially in the way it uses a seemingly by-the-numbers investigation to lead its hero into something far stranger and, ultimately, more profound.

Perhaps the biggest knock against Kathy Rain is just how little new mechanical ground it manages to cover. The game is set in 1995, but it could just as well have been made then for how little it iterates on the adventure game formula. Kathy combs the various nooks and crannies of Conwell Springs, stealing anything that's not nailed down and interrogating everyone who happens to move into her field of vision.

Kathy's roommate and Dr. Watson stand-in Eileen, a bookish Christian who lends some much-needed positivity to Kathy's world, provides one of the few interesting mechanical quirks. She loans Kathy a computer that's able to analyze images and create fake voice recordings compiled from other audio sources. Sadly, these genuinely cool segments are one-offs, a real loss for a game in desperate need of a little more to separate it from others in the genre.

Thankfully, Kathy Rain executes on old ideas pretty well. Solutions to puzzles skirt "put the pulley in the rubber chicken"-levels of obscurity, but still require some lateral thinking. One of my favorites involved egging a down-on-his-luck performer into reciting a monologue so unnerving that it would distract the nurse guarding a computer Kathy needed access to. It was all the more satisfying because it required a lot of critical thinking about the man's previous roles, information he had previously relayed in a bit of dialogue that had initially seemed like nothing more than goofy diversion. It's not a solution that could be reached by chance; it's one that required a blend of common sense and wit that left me feeling, as a good adventure game should, like the smartest guy in the room.

One of the nicest small touches is that Kathy has tons of responses for incorrect solutions that are close enough or silly enough to warrant comment. These quips are cute, but they also can provide subtle guidance to help keep the experience from becoming too frustrating.

That said, I could have done with just a little more frustration. There are couple of puzzles that reach beyond "use this with this," but I would have liked a few more to give me the sense that I was a cerebral detective cracking a case, as opposed to a passive participant connecting some fairly obvious dots.

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Wrap Up:

Kathy Rain's story is strong enough, but slow to take hold

Kathy Rain tells a satisfying story, but if I hadn't been reviewing it, I'm not sure I would have stuck around long enough for it to hook me. There's nothing inherently wrong with an adventure game leaning on well-established mechanics, but doing so requires note-perfect storytelling. Kathy may fall short of that in her first outing, but she's compelling enough that I hope she gets a chance to return with characters and challenges that are as well-designed as she is.

About Polygon's Reviews
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