Kathy Rain: A Detective is Born is a new adventure game from developer Clifftop Games (a one-man studio helmed by Joel Staaf Hästö) and publisher Raw Fury (Kingdom, GoNNER). As soon as I saw a trailer with a Full Throttle reference, a 90s vibe, and a woman protagonist with a motorycle, I knew I wanted to play this one.
Watch the trailer:
“Kathy Rain tells the compelling story of a strong-willed college girl with a knack for detective work (and a Harley) who returns to her hometown after being gone since childhood. Set in the 90s, Kathy starts investigating a local mystery and the legacy of her recently deceased grandfather. As she follows a trail of clues he left behind, questions emerge… What was Joseph Rain really looking for that night all those years ago? What turned him into a mere shell of a man, confined to a wheelchair? What secret did a suicidal young artist take with her to the grave, and why are so many people in Conwell Springs going mad? The truth is dark and sinister…”
The story begins on September 25, 1995 with a drunk Kathy coming into her dorm room; her roommate, Eileen, has news that a Joseph Rain has passed away – Kathy’s grandfather. She goes to the funeral and speaks to her grandmother, who she hasn’t had contact with in years. Her mom is in a mental health facility, and her dad left when she was very young, so her family life hasn’t been the greatest. Kathy quickly learns about a mysterious incident in her grandfather’s past that led to his illness. She decides that she’s going to find out what happened in 1981, and quickly sets out with her trusty notebook (a clear homage to the Blackwell series) to solve the case. Up until about the mid-point of the game, I was really intrigued by the mystery – small town detective stories are some of my favorites. Unfortunately, it all goes completely off the rails. Spoiler section (highlight for more): the game ends with nothing truly resolved, and requires a massive suspension of disbelief because it veers into the supernatural without a smooth transition. By the end, we’re dealing with Old Gods, mediums between the real world and wherever the hell you end up at the end of the game, and a lot more weirdness that honestly makes very little sense. I have “wtf” written in my review notes twice, and not in a fun way! It’s just weird. At the very end of the game, after the credits, despite Kathy seemingly destroying the alternate universe (???), the villain is still alive and kicking for a sequel hook. I was left really unsatisfied.
Spoilers over. Something else that bothered me a lot was a small sequence about midway through the game. Kathy has to go to a biker bar to get some information from them, and when she enters, she is accosted by a man who physically assaults her. Once she uses a stun-gun on him, she gets called a slut, a gash, and a cunt. This was absolutely, COMPLETELY unnecessary to the plot and could easily be cut; I honestly have no idea why it was in there. It’s upsetting. Kathy herself also has some aspects that made me cringe: she calls another woman a bitch for a very small reason, utterly dismisses womens’ magazines, and just generally feels like she was written as a “cool girl.” More spoilers for some other treatment of women that I found questionable: in the late game, Eileen is kidnapped and drugged, and you have to rescue her – she’s a damsel in distress. You also only see your mother once, in the nightmare parallel universe, and her characterization throughout the game is incredibly one-dimensional – Kathy had her institutionalized, but we never find out why, and it just doesn’t feel right. In the nightmare world, Kathy has to stab her because she transforms into a monster, which is the only on-screen death, and afterwards she’s not a monster anymore. The biggest offender is a reveal that Kathy has had an abortion. The first time you discover this, it’s in a dream/memory; Kathy doesn’t want to tell her mother. The second time it’s brought up, at the end of the game, it’s in a semi-graphic, disturbing way that could be very triggering for some people. It’s extremely plot-irrelevant too – if you cut those two small scenes, you lose absolutely nothing. It felt like it was included for shock value. Basically, I was left with a bad taste about the overall portrayal of women.
Graphics and Sound
The graphics are in old-school adventure style, with some truly excellent backgrounds (look at those clouds!). The sprites are detailed and well-animated. The portraits are detailed and expressive, and I always really appreciate when they’re included, because it lets you connect with pixelated characters a bit more when you can see their face up close. The soundtrack is excellent – I love the main theme, and every different place on the map has its own theme. There is full voice acting, and everyone does a great job. All the voice acting is in English, but you can also play with German and French subtitles. Note for photosensitive readers: there is one moment in chapter five that has a quick, flashing light (one bright, white flash).
The puzzles in Kathy Rain are completely logical, for the most part. I only had to check hints in the provided walkthrough a few times, and even when I did, I realized how I should have gotten to the next step once I saw it. The game uses a verb coin to interact with objects, so you can play the whole thing with just the left mouse button. The verbs on the coin are context-sensitive, which is nice. Pressing space will show you hot spots, and you can skip dialogue by clicking. You can also turn on an option that won’t allow dialogue to advance until you click. There is a maze-like puzzle, but you have a clear, non-frustrating way to navigate through it, so it was a non-issue for me. One of the most important puzzle-solving elements in the game is your notebook, where you’ll gather clues. Unlike the Blackwell games, you don’t need to combine clues, but you can ask people about them and also show them stuff in your inventory. I really like this style of puzzle solving and wish more games would use it! One of my favorite puzzles involved messing around with a desktop PC and a floppy boot disk – very clever and fun. Used inventory items that you don’t need anymore will disappear. There’s no map, but you use icons to travel around the city, which you can see in the screenshot below.
It took me about five hours to finish. There are twenty achievements. I found at least two Full Throttle references (Kathy smokes Corley cigarettes, and her motorcycle is a ’76 Corley) and I’m pretty sure the leader of the biker gang you interact with is at least partially based on Father Torque.
From the trailers, Kathy Rain looked like it was made with a checklist of all my favorite things. The gameplay is good and the puzzles make sense, but the story is what ultimately dragged it down for me, and since the story is so central to adventure games, I ultimately can’t say I enjoyed this one too much. The portrayal of women also left me with a bad taste.
This is not a game for younger children; there are a lot of adult themes and aspects, including suicide, assault, cursing, and two spoilers (highlight): abortion and hanging. Probably don’t get this one for your kids!
[Disclaimer: A review code was provided for me to review this game.]