Solving an adventure game puzzle brings about a feeling rarely found elsewhere: You haven't just won—you've actually outsmarted the game developers.
It's something I felt multiple times during Kathy Rain, Clifftop Games' debut creation that does its best to emulate the point-and-click games of old. In fact, if you showed someone steeped in PC gaming just a screenshot, they'd swear Kathy Rain came from 1994. Thankfully, it plays like a much more modern game, one built with the hindsight that comes with having more than 30 years of experience with the genre. But even with their thoughtful design, Clifftop Games can't help but fall into a few all-too-common traps we adventure game veterans have had our fill of by now.
Kathy Rain plays out like your standard mystery story, and chooses to take place in the now-ancient year of 1995—most for the sake of dialing back technology to the point where it can't instantly solve any problem. And if you couldn't guess, the hard-nosed college journalist Kathy Rain takes the lead role in this little adventure, which tasks her with finding the culprit behind her grandfather's mysterious death. It's a bit Twin Peaks-y, too, as Kathy Rain dips into supernatural themes suddenly—and often unexpectedly—within the setting of its small, strange town.
At its best, Kathy Rain keeps the player moving by being very direct. For the most part, the game breaks itself up into five days, each with their own unique goals and new locations. In terms of size, Kathy Rain offers a fairly small world to explore—around seven or eight locations—but this approach does the experience a lot of favors. With such a small scope, there's only so much you can try out, so even if you're incredibly stumped on a particular puzzle, it doesn't take long to slowly whittle away your options. And this small scope definitely leads to some of the best and most fulfilling puzzles: One day of the investigation takes place entirely within Kathy's dorm room, where you're tasked with stealing the admin's password in order to give your friend access to the network. Even with just a roomful of objects to work with, Clifftop Games crafts an excellent and rewarding self-contained puzzle.
And it helps that the interface has also been streamlined so much. Like the recent Day of the Tentacle Remastered, hovering your cursor over an interactable object shows all of your possible actions with said object—and if it can only be examined, Kathy will tell you about it, then and there. Kathy's journal also figures heavily into solving puzzles, as learning things about the central mystery adds another term or name she can ask people about while talking to them—and as she learns more, Kathy updates these entries to be more specific. Again, Clifftop Games worked hard to modernize the experience, even though they're presenting Kathy Rain as a game from the past.
Kathy Rain tries its best to be economical, so the times when it isn't tend to be extra irritating. Clifftop Games has the tendency to teach Kathy one new entry in her notebook at a time, meaning a good chunk of the game involves trying said entry out on everyone you've already met—and who you need to talk to next isn't always obvious. After a few hours, I kept a walkthrough next to me to tell me where to go next, if only to save me precious minutes of trial and error. Kathy Rain also has the annoying tendency to delay your progress for seemingly arbitrary reasons, just because you didn't interact with an item in the proper way.
For instance, Kathy refused to go back to her dorm room to end that day until I finished playing an answering machine tape that misled me into thinking it had only one message on it. In another case, she refused to pick up a vital item at the end of the game until I had an unrelated conversation with another character. Kathy Rain tends to give the player smart, non-patronizing hints along the way, but the few unnecessary hurdles it throws in your path are just as annoying as they would have been 20 years ago.
And it's unfortunate that Kathy happens to be the worst character in a her titular game. She's not actively annoying, per se, but her always-capable, unflappable personality drew too close to the dreaded "Mary Sue" territory for me. It's a real shame too, since Kathy Rain wants to tell the story of her redemption, as she's a character with an exceedingly tragic past—yet we see very little weakness behind what could be her cool, biker chick persona. Kathy Rain also swerves a little too hard into the supernatural, which allows the developers to work with stranger ideas, but also clashes with the surrounding content in a way that feels unintentional. At the end, I found myself satisfied with the story Kathy Rain decided to tell, but preferred when its sense of otherworldliness was on the periphery, rather than smothering me.
Even though I did a bit of complaining throughout this review, Kathy Rain's bad bits stand out so much only because Clifftop Games clearly knows how to craft a good adventure. Overall, it's an experience designed to draw in adventure game veterans based on its appearance, but one that also extends the olive branch to newcomers with its streamlined design and (mostly) smart puzzles. For a studio's debut, it's definitely impressive.
Kathy Rain simplifies the traditional point-and-click interface for a UI that works incredibly well.
It's a linear adventure, so don't expect to want to play through it again until you've forgotten all of the puzzles.
While Kathy Rain's graphics are old-school, the music feels much more modern, and adds much to pervasive sense of intrigue.
The gloriously detailed, low-res graphics should appeal to anyone who grew up in the era of VGA. (And they look damned good today.)
While it still carries some common adventure game problems, Kathy Rain acts as a nice update to the genre that still looks like a product of the '90s. Adventure game veterans and newcomers should find a lot to love with this one.