Kathy Rain

I know I like to put up visuals, but seriously, just watch this.

So you can likely guess how I feel about this game already, but let’s get the usual bits out of the way before I delve into just the trailer, let alone the game.

Title card!

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Kathy Rain was released on May 5, 2016.  It is a classic-style point-and-click adventure game, and is available through Steam, GOG, Bundle Stars, Humble Bundle, Green Man Gaming, and even IOS and Android.  The official website is kind enough to link you to all of these.  It is developed by Clifftop Games, which, upon a not-so-close investigation, you see is a one-man team by the name of Joel Staaf Hästö.  It was published by Raw Fury, and overall this will shape up to be a pretty interesting review for quite a few reasons, and here’s where things get different.

First!  Kathy Rain is the story of our protagonist for whom the game is named.  Kathy is a young-something in college in 1995; a sassy Journalism major with a chipper Christian roommate who needs some lessons on personal boundaries but is overall very sweet.  Eileen, said roommate, informs Kathy that after she did some snooping (which Kathy can and does call her out for quite a bit in-game), that her grandfather, Joseph Rain, has recently died.  Kathy reluctantly finds herself going to the funeral, and we find her callous nature came from her upbringing with a deadbeat dad who took off and a mother whom she institutionalized shortly before college.  Kathy visits her grandmother, and finds that there was something… odd… that had happened to Joseph back in 1981.  To bring some peace of mind to her grandmother — and herself — Kathy begins an investigation into what really happened to her Grandpa that fateful night in ’81.

Now, I say this review will be a bit different because honestly, outside of the old childhood games like Putt Putt and Freddi Fish (I see you judging.  Don’t you dare hate on Putt Putt), I have actually not played much in the way of the Point-and-Click Adventure.  I’ve watched some King’s Quests from people who loved and hated it, I’ve seen some Space Quest and Leisure Suit Larry, Grim Fandango, Secret of Monkey Island, etc, but I have never actually played anything akin to the old P&Cs a lot of gamers grew up on.  The closest I’ve gotten is the newer Telltale Games, and those I play on my consoles.  While they do classify as P&C, they definitely don’t have the same style as the old games, with an inventory which your character can look at, inspect, combine, and use on various items.  So this is what I would define as my first “oldschool” Point-and-Click gaming experience.  And holy shit, is it a great one to have.

There are a lot of interesting things surrounding this game, so I’ll begin and end with two big ones.

First, let’s address the trailer.  This is easily one of my favorites.  We see a girl (Kathy) curled up in a chair, channel-surfing.  The channel-surfing immediately sets the tone and takes quite a few of us to a full-body flashback of the 90s.

Not only that, but there are quite a few clever references to things within the game itself: we see a scene from Pulp Fiction first.  Kathy has a poster for the movie hanging in her dorm room, and upon inspection she tells us how much she loves the movie.  Clever.  A couple of cute jokes about how “the internet should be for everyone” and our first shots of her sardonic humor, along with potshots at the “violent videogames” argument (yes guys, it’s been going on for that long).  There’s also a shot of Bill Clinton in there to remind you that yep, this is definitely the 90s.

We’re reminded of that with a couple more flashes of sitcoms, old commercials, and the annoyingly catchy Full House theme song before another reference pokes its head up: A man riding a motorcycle.  Some of you are scratching your heads at that small videoclip, while others are smacking the table excitedly and pointing at the screen.  That is indeed Ben from LucasArts’s old P&C Full Throttle, which also came out in — you guessed it — 1995.  After that, Kathy shuts the TV off, apparently not in the mood for her favorite movie, and decides to “go for a ride.”

Ironically, Kathy Rain herself has been compared to Ben from Full Throttle for multiple reasons, and the most obvious one is here: her motorcycle, or as she calls it, the Katmobile.  Here, the trailer takes a more serious turn as she internally monologues and the game shows us its beautiful pixel art and backgrounds as the music swells to cement Kathy’s tone: Serious, somber, and melancholy.  This bit is brilliant; right off the bat, we’re showcased the phenomenal voice acting, the gorgeous artwork, the realistic sound design, and the incredible music; as well as hooking us with questions as to what exactly Kathy is talking about.  It’s a very subtle trailer that treats you intelligently, rather than shoving a bunch of flashing lights in your face and trying to go LOOK AT HOW COOL THIS STUFF LOOKS, and just lets you experience it for yourself.  That already wins major brownie points.  I like a good, loud, flashy trailer every once in a while, but when it’s become the norm, it’s so refreshing to be reminded that subtlety is a beautiful thing.

The game will continue to remind us that.

My favorite thing about Kathy Rain is that it was subtle.  Not in puzzles, not even in plot, but in character growth and just as importantly, tension.  This is a mystery we’re trying to get to the bottom of, and things do start to Get Weird.  There are quite a few homages to Twin Peaks (which always captures my heart), from the subtle to the outright overt.

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Me, in a burst of excitement at my cabin: “IT’S A TWIN PEAKS REFERENCE!!!” startling my friend Kaity so badly she actually jumped.

It doesn’t devolve as quickly as Twin Peaks does, but it absolutely took a page from the cult classic and from a few other sources as well; but those would be spoilers, unfortunately.  I have about five different puns and jokes I could crack, and I can’t because they would all spoil another element to it.  Trust me, I’m not happy either.  But I mean, when you see this

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and stare into this guy’s dark eyes which define the trope Uncanny Valley, then you know you’re getting Twin Peaks-ian and you should buckle up.

Back to my point.  This is a mystery we’re trying to solve, and therefore, tension needs to be built.  The game does a tremendous job doing so without relying on sound cues, which is astonishing to me.  Usually, sound, or lack thereof, in a game can tell you that something is going weird.  This was actually pointed out to me by a YouTube channel I enjoy very much, YourMovieSucks:

Oh wait, I get it!  If everything stays really really quiet, it anticipates people for jumpscares that may or may not happen.

Ever since that review (Unfriended, Part 1), it’s been a lot more obvious to me in the media I consume when things go silent and there’s about to be a jumpscare.  Now that I’ve pointed it out, see if you start noticing it.

Here’s the thing, though.  In Kathy Rain, it’s all very natural.  The soundtrack doesn’t cut out to build any anticipation or tension.  Silence is there when it needs to be, such as when Kathy is entering the graveyard (every single time, no inconsistencies).  There is no abrupt cut and lack of sound to indicate you should be feeling tense; things naturally progress that way.  Not to say that using sound to build tension is a bad thing, because it’s not.  Play one of the first three Silent Hill games then tell me sound can’t build anticipation.  But I was very impressed with how the game actually managed to build tension, suspension, and apprehension (all those –sion words) in the transitions between screens or in certain locations.  It also happens with the sound on and the soundtrack playing in the background, so I give full credit to the stellar writing for the game.

The scares in this game (yes, there are some), are just as subtle, and that’s what scared me far, far worse than any big buildup or musical sting.  The best subtle scares are ones characters don’t comment on — I can think of one in particular, but it’s actually in a game I’d like to cover later, so I’ll hold that close to my chest.  The fact that Kathy comments on these, however, doesn’t detract from the creepiness and confirms with you that yes, that did just happen, and Kathy is as alarmed as you are.

Speaking of sound, the sound design (the crunching of Kathy’s boots against dirt, the motorcycle revving, doors unlocking, etc) and the music are superb.  The soundtrack is wonderful to listen to and at no point got on my nerves.  There’s usually one place or one song in any game where you just don’t want to deal, but I had no problems with that in Kathy Rain.  The music is atmospheric without the game relying on said music to provide atmosphere.  Each location has its set track, and the sound cues more come from Kathy’s exclamations of “got it!” or something along the lines of what a sassy adventure game protagonist would say.

This is your typical old Point-and-Click adventure in which you look at all your inventory items, try to use everything on everything when you’re stuck, and can even combine items inside your inventory as some P&Cs like to do.  That said, a weakness of the game is that the puzzles are, for the most part, fairly straightforward.  I’m not really a puzzle person — I’ll level with you guys and admit I played the Layton games with a guide the entire time because I didn’t care about the puzzles so much as I did the plot, and some would argue that I ruined the point of the game entirely, but I still wound up in tears multiple times through the series so I’d say not.  But even I could figure out most of these.  A couple puzzles had me frustrated — there’s an infamous poem one near the end — but overall it was due to me not connecting a very subtle clue from earlier to what I needed to do, or simply not inspecting something that needed to be inspected.  It’s fairly straightforward, so fans of the more obscure puzzles of old P&Cs will be incredibly disappointed.

Thankfully, it doesn’t pull a Sierra Games; you can create multiple save states, but by no means does the game render itself unwinnable by you accidentally using something on something else you’re not supposed to.  For those who don’t know, Sierra was infamous for that, making hours-long games where you’d use an item only to realize about three hours later you needed to use it on something else, and you would have to start all over.  To me, this indicates that Clifftop wanted to focus more on the story than on the gameplay, but I would have liked a few more challenges than the once-in-a-while-obligatory Cryptic Puzzle.

Fans of pixel art will love this game.  It is stunning, especially in its backgrounds and attention to detail.  Those can speak for themselves:

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lot of love went into the aesthetic for this game, and it isn’t afraid to be colorful, which is fantastic.  Many games that try to build suspense or have you solve a mystery often dump you in a rather drab-looking area.  While The Vanishing of Ethan Carter was a fantastic game, for example, I found its color scheme to be rather boring.  It’s always impressive when a game can find the proper use for color without detracting from the game’s intent or atmosphere.  What I’d love to address more, however, is the subtlety in the character portraits.

Here we see two images of Kathy; her in her smarmy, smirky mode, and Very Unhappy Kathy.  The details, when I peered closely at her portrait, were astounding to me.  The shading blends very well so you can see Kathy’s cheekbones without there needing to be a line for it.  The coloring does a lot of the speaking for the character portraits, which is incredibly important in a game that relies on those and voice acting for emotional range due to the actual character sprite being unable to show the range of emotion the writing calls for.  The tones of Kathy’s overall scheme blend so nicely together, making her look natural and like a stylized portrait rather than a simple mass of pixels.  While that was a contradictory statement, it’s one I feel works very well in the game’s favor.  Even just the slightest quirk of her lips is a fantastic detail that Clifftop did not have to put in the game, but chose to anyway.  I’ve seen similar games with one character portrait that relied on the voice actor to do all the emoting, and regardless of the voice actor, it makes it hard to take the situation seriously when your character’s expression never changes.  The fact that this was made by one man is astounding.  His eye for pixel aesthetic is great; I never felt as if the style was being abused too much, as some games that attempt to go for a retro feel do.  He blends the harshness of the character sprites and the smoothness of the portraits and backgrounds just enough that it fits nicely and looks great.

My favorite scene involves Kathy talking with a lead, and it looks downright cinematic and sticks out as it is the only shot in the game that looks like this.

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Mwah, mwah, I love the art for this game and this scene looks like a great shot in a movie.

I actually found out about this game through one of my favorite YouTubers, John Wolfe, and I actually forced myself to stop watching the game so I could experience it properly myself.  This was something I was incredibly intrigued by and didn’t want ruined.  I didn’t even make it to the second video; I went to Steam instead and put it on my wishlist as fast as possible.

With all the praise I’ve heaped on it, it is not a flawless game.  I already pointed out how easy the puzzles were, but the biggest flaw to me was by far the ending.  While it is difficult to find a proper ending to a great story that’s done a spectacular job in characterization and buildup, the ending absolutely leaves a lot to be desired.  It is, and this is zero spoiler town, simply a hook for another game, which we already could have inferred by the subtitle: A Detective is Born.  There were plenty of interesting conflicts that were brought up but not resolved.  I realize that some of these may be covered in later installments, as they deal with who Kathy is as a person, but there was one idea in particular I found really fascinating that we never got an answer for, and it’s something that needed to be answered within the context of the first game.  That was incredibly disappointing, as our Big Bad definitely had the Creep Factor down pat, but did not, in any way, feel like a threat to me, even when Kathy inferred that he may try to stop her from ending his scheme.  That was, honestly, incredibly disappointing.

That said, the journey was worth the confused stare at the end and I wouldn’t call it a total waste.  It is a disappointment, absolutely, but not worth sticking my nose up at the game for.  Everything building to that point was incredibly enjoyable and very well put together.  That being said, I would love for Kathy Rain to be a series.  While it’s implied that there will be at least one other game, the developer is currently working on another project (that I can’t wait to play) and it will be a while before we see Kathy again.  Again, simply by the title, we could have inferred that this was the beginning of a series.  It was a surprise that a game that had treated me so intelligently just left me with a very stereotypical sequel hook without any real resolution with characters Kathy interacted with.  Unfortunately, I can’t expound more without giving out spoilers, but if you play the game you’ll see what I mean.  And if you do, please, please reach out to me in a private message because I love talking about this game.

Another… not necessarily weakness, but oddity, is the price difference.  On iOS and Android, it retails for $4.99, while on PC, it retails for $14.99.  I find that ten dollar difference to be very weird, especially if we’re getting the same experience.  That said, I have not purchased the mobile version because I do not have the money to do so, so I can’t attest to whether you’re being “cheated” of anything.  I think a safer $9.99 all across the board would have been better.

That said, this was a development by a one-man team, and it is absolutely astounding to see his writing, artwork, sound design, and direction.  He didn’t do any of the voice acting, obviously, but the fact that he essentially made the entire game himself blows my mind.  I had more fun playing this than I do some of the Triple A titles that fall out of giant game studios with a far bigger budget.  So that being said, if you are a fan of point-and-clicks or if anything about this hooked you at all, I implore you to get it, whether on your phone or your computer.  Any bit of money helps support the creator, and not only does he deserve it, he needs it.

Kathy Rain, while critically acclaimed across the board, is not doing terribly well in sales.  That is understandable due to it being a niche market of games that is, unfortunately, fading, but it’s still sad nevertheless.  The good thing to take away from this, however, is that the Kathy Rain IP will remain in the hands of Clifftop, regardless of if it makes its money back or not.  Publishers Raw Fury released a statement that said so, along with many more encouraging things:

Here’s the thing—Kathy Rain simply needed to exist. When we partnered up with Joel Staaf Hästö, the one-man army we know as Clifftop Games, we didn’t do so expecting to become insta-rich when the game launched. Nope.

We expected his game to be loved though, as we loved it. And we expected it to do well financially over a longer period of time. It’s a niche game from a new developer in a very tough space within games, and these things take time and patience.

Even though things have started off a bit slowly on the sales side, we know that eventually the game will turn a nice profit. It will grow a long tail because of its critical acclaim, timeless looks, and a story that tackles taboo stuff not typically discussed in video games.

It will take a bit of time but that’s A-OK. We were prepared for that. We can afford to be patient. We have money for a rainy day. We can wait. But do you know who can’t wait?

Joel. The developer.

And this is usually where the developer dies

They go on to explain how a developer can get desperate and their career can get cut tragically short, then go on to say:

Raw Fury is about what makes us happy. And doing this—what we’ve just described by making sure an indie dev can stay independent instead of going back to work for a larger company—makes us very happy. We love games and we love nothing more than being able to help support the people that make them. That is what makes us tick and we truly believe that by focusing on the people and not the quarterly bottom line, we’re more likely to be both happier and better off in the long term. And, perhaps more importantly, help foster an indie ecosystem that thrives even when we don’t hit our targets right off the bat.

The article is right over here, and I highly suggest you give it a read.  I’m very interested in them as a publishing studio, because this is a kind of integrity and passion I haven’t seen in a long time, and I very much admire them for what they’re doing with Joel’s creation.  Not only did they not expect money back, but they want him to continue to flourish and create rather than fall into a bigger company that could potentially stifle the creativity he has in spades.  I can’t put my foot down and say they’re awesome yet because I haven’t done all of my research on them, but in the case of this game, that is pretty fucking cool, Raw Fury.

Definitely give Kathy and her story a shot; it’s one that’s brilliantly told despite its shortcomings, and a breath of fresh air in today’s gaming world.

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