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.