What makes a game retro? Kathy Rain (A Detective is Born) emulates the style of a ’90s point and click adventure, with low-res graphics, sound effects, dialogue trees, and “use key on door” puzzles. But at the same time it modifies the ’90s experience, smoothing out the bits that made those games frustrating, but also made them what they were.
Set in the ’90s, Kathy Rain is the story of a college journalism student (the titular heroine) who learns that her grandfather—whom she hasn’t seen for twenty years—has died. Taking to her Corley motorcycle (one of the many nods to the classic games that inspired it), Kathy discovers a mystery that haunts the small town—mysterious lights that strike people with a wasting disease or drives them to madness. And since this is a ’90s game, there are dream sequences and supernatural sequences that cause Kathy to wonder if maybe she isn’t going mad, too.
The designers have done an excellent job of using this interface for a mystery: Kathy drives to a location, and asks question. She notes useful topics (i.e., those that advance the plot) in her notebook, and asks other people about those. She can also pick up useful objects, combine them, or ask NPCs for more information about them. The process unlocks new locations and questions, of course, and it’s your job to put them all together.
The game really leans into the ’90s aesthetic; computers boot up into DOS, all the phones are wired to a wall, and several problems have to be solved using a phone book. I have to wonder what players who were born in the ’90s will make of that.
Where the game deviates from classic games is that…it’s simple. It makes sense. Most ’90s point and click adventures were so hard because the puzzles made no logical sense. To get into the room with the gold key you had to get a salami to catch the runaway cat to give to the baker who’d make you a special loaf of pumpernickel then add jelly and mustard to it when the baker isn’t looking because that’s what the guard is allergic to! In Kathy Rain, however, the answers are obvious; the sheriff won’t hand over the files, so you need to distract his deputy. And the solution to that is in the room next door. Only once did the game confound me, because it required an act of violence that seemed completely out of character for the character. And in that sense, Kathy Rain is slightly disappointing because there’s less of a challenge. It plays less like a classic game experience and more like a visual novel with a lot more interactivity.
That having been said, it’s a really well-rounded story. The town has its secrets, but so does Kathy—secrets about her mother and why she hasn’t seen her grandparents in decades are slowly teased out, and another scene in a biker bar turns very ugly. It’s a well-crafted homage to the genre that simply removes the worst part. Whether that part was also the most fun depends on your point of view.
Brian Eno said, “Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.”
Genre: Point and click adventure
Developer: Clifftop Games
Minimum Requirements: Snow Leopard, Intel processor, 1 GB RAM, NVIDIA GeForce 9400M, GeForce 9600M GT, GeForce 8600M GT, GeForce GT 120, GeForce GT 130, GeForce GTX 285, GeForce 8800 GT, GeForce 8800 GS, Quadro FX 4800, Quadro FX5600 ATI Radeon 4850, Radeon 4870, 1 GB available space
Price: $14.99 (demo available)
Availability: Now on Steam