That sense of "seen it before" extends to the story, which I'm afraid struck me as quite derivative. Obviously of Gabriel Knight
and Twin Peaks
, but also the Blackwell
series and other Wadjet Eye titles (e.g. some bits of Resonance
). Some of the character details and story beats (aspiring journalist, mother in an asylum, story is kicked off by the death of a relative, visiting a bizarre, hallucinatory other plane of existence...) almost made it feel like a Blackwell-knockoff.
I also don't think Kathy Rain herself is a very strong character. The snarky attitude to hide vulnerability has been done a lot
at this point, and I don't get a clear sense of her personality beyond "a mix of April Ryan and Rosa Blackwell" or about a hundred other female adventure game protagonists, not to mention heroines like Veronica Mars. While there is some specificity to some elements of her character (e.g. her being a biker), it doesn't really go anywhere, and feels fairly arbitrary and superficial. I'm not sure to what extent this is intentional, since it seems clear that much of her attitude is a pose, but if so I think there should be a stronger contrast as that mask is lifted. In Full Throttle
, I know why Ben is a biker: it’s a fundamental part of his character and of the story. Here, I don't know that it would have made any real difference at all to her characterization if she wasn't a biker, wasn't a smoker, didn't have purple hair and a piercing...
It also doesn’t seem to inform how other characters relate to her, apart from the priest and maybe Mrs. Myers out by the lake. Everyone seems to judge her more as “the little Rain girl” than based on her style (the only one who seems prejudiced against her at first only talks with her over the phone, so that's unrelated), which raises the question: if her being a punk biker chick doesn’t make a difference to the story or her character, why make her a punk biker chick? (Along similar lines, the 90s setting also seems fairly arbitrary. One suspects that the only real reason for it is to exclude cell phones and Internet searches.)
Her background also gives me a bit of trouble: She was raised by a mentally ill, likely substance-dependent, small-time-criminal single mother who's now institutionalized, without contact with the rest of her family, and she's currently a journalism student. How did she end up there? Was she exceptionally driven to become a journalist? (Apparently not. She just parties and then skips class for a whole week.) How can she afford it? Does she have a job? (Clearly not.) It doesn't seem to add up. Why is she studying to be a journalist? What does she want to do? Does it motivate her investigation in any way? I don’t feel I can answer those questions, and that’s a problem IMO.
Her unclear motivation also leads to a lack of stakes for the story. There’s quite a lot of digging she has to do before it’s even apparent that there’s anything interesting going on at all. Then for a while it seems like there’s going to be some big dark secret: You have hints of links to the military, a powerful rich man with possible skeletons in the closet, a family history that may be darker than imagined, a girl whose suicide might not have been a suicide… but: The military link comes to nothing, the rich guy turns out to be on the up-and-up, there isn’t much more to the family history than what we knew, and the girl really did
commit suicide (though she tricked her mentally challenged brother into helping her, which… not cool, Lily!). What are we left with? A crazy preacher who I guess has been drugging random people (none of whom are individually identified or appear in the story apart from Eileen) – which is SOOO rote – and a bunch of freaky ghosts (or whatever) goofing around being all cryptic and shit. It doesn’t feel very consequential.
Much as I wasn’t quite sold on the The Samaritan Paradox [SPOILER!]
twist; at least it adhered to the convention of the modern “socially aware” mystery that the investigation should shine a light on the dark underbelly of society: peek behind the facade. I also think it’s part of what makes the weirdness of Twin Peaks
work: the Black Lodge is a reflection of the evil and madness that is found under the surface o “normal” small-town America. Here it's basically picket fences all the way down, and without that thematic link, the machinations of supernatural forces don’t have much weight, particularly when they’re so obscure that you can’t tell which side you should be rooting for.
I’m frankly wondering whether the “almost everything is more or less what it seems”-nature of the story is because it was cut down from a longer draft where we learned more about Joseph Rain’s dark side, Charles Wade’s shady links to the Lily Myers drowning, and so on. There are a lot of loose ends and things that seem underdeveloped, such as Joseph Rain's interest in mathematics, the relationship between Joseph, Charles and Cocky, what the hell was going on with Lily, and the whole "glowing orbs"/Crimson One thing in general. I’m particularly curious about Charles Wade, because he’s the focus of so much of the early part of the investigation and backstory, but then you just talk to him once, and he disappears completely out of the case. As it stands, he’s something of a dead end or red herring, story-wise, and I can’t help but wonder if the story wouldn’t have been better served by focusing more on the Rain family instead, since that has a direct impact on Kathy but is only dealt with very obliquely.
I wanted more about that; about Kathy’s childhood, about why she never went back to Conwell Springs; about her grandmother’s reaction – her uncomplicated “nice to have you back” without any reservations or conflict whatsoever is a bit pat, and after their reunion you don’t really get any sense at all that they’ve been estranged for 15 years. (In general, the grandmother’s character doesn’t seem to go deeper than “nice grandma who only gets up from the couch once in the entire game”. She'd be much more interesting if there was anything
more to her than that, like how Eileen isn't just "chipper Christian goody-goody". E.g. if she still spoke to Kathy like a little girl, or if she was grieving more openly, or if she was addicted to soap operas, or if she was carrying on an affair with a neighbor – or hey, maybe with Charles Wade – that would explain why he is still in town, which is otherwise awfully contrived... Anything!) Since the family stuff is what ends up being the climax of the game, I think you need to lay more of the foundation earlier.
Finally, I don’t think Conwell Springs provides a good sense of place. Even just in physical terms, I don’t have a good sense of what it looks like. We only see a few exteriors (some silhouettes on the horizon in the graveyard, an empty field while riding the bike, a dingy street outside the clinic, and the lake house), which all seem rather different. The presence of an air force base and a very wealthy family (living… somewhere around there) are referenced, but don’t seem to have any impact on what we see. The church doesn’t seem like it really fits. It doesn’t all come together as a real place. A few more exteriors, a map screen, or let’s say a cutscene showing Kathy riding into town, would do wonders to tie the whole thing together.
On the sociological side, I feel like the mix of so many things (snooty rich folks, biker gang, weird church, middle-class stability, air force, magic trips in the forest) makes it hard to get a bead on what kind
of town this is. Like I said, the general lack of reaction to Kathy’s style is surprising, and not really in line of what you might expect from a small town. A couple of touches (e.g. the cop who knew Kathy as a child) do try to make the town seem like a community, but for example, if Joseph Rain was such a beloved figure in town, why isn’t there any kind of wake for him, or people coming by to pay their respects to his widow? IMO the best indie adventures are informed by a strong sense of place (the Blackwell games are very much set in New York, The Samaritan Paradox
makes good use of Gothenburg, etc.), but here it all seems a bit thrown together.