Review by Mwulf

Reviewed: 02/24/10 | Updated: 05/07/10

A Deeply Flawed Experience

Heavy Rain is a difficult game to discuss. Partly, because Heavy Rain doesn't really conform to many of the generally-held notions of what a game is. Opinions seem to be evenly split between those who think Heavy Rain's unique approach to storytelling qualifies it as one of the most innovative, imaginative games of all time; and those who see Heavy Rain as little more than a typical B-movie masquerading as interactive entertainment.

Most of the gaming media has gone bonkers over Heavy Rain. I don't blame them--when your nine-to-five job is to play video games day-in, day-out, anything unusual automatically becomes good. Heavy Rain was always a unique game, and as such it has been lauded with virtually universal-praise ever since it was first demoed several years ago. Now the game if finally out, and reviews are coming in. It's unanimous: Heavy Rain is a masterpiece. It's the first foray into the strange and exciting new world of truly interactive storytelling. It's the start of a brand new genre of gaming, ready to usher in a glorious new gaming Renaissance.

Or not.

Let's face it: there's a lot of hype surrounding Heavy Rain. This is a game that's been built up to be the new Alpha and Omega of the industry for a very long time. No one really seems content to see Heavy Rain for what it is: it either lives up to all that hype, and is perfect, or is fantastically terrible because of all the hype. The trick is to look beyond the apotheosis and see Heavy Rain for what it is: an intriguing, entertaining endeavor into an oft-overlooked genre, suffering from a number of flaws and unrealized potential.

Gameplay:

Heavy Rain is not a game--at least not according to Merriam-Webster. There's no competition in Heavy Rain: no matter what you do or don't do, you'll never find yourself in a situation where you win or lose. You can do everything wrong--fail every task--and still make it all the way to the final credits. There are no puzzles to solve, no obstacles to overcome, no riddles to ponder. It's a very straightforward experience that simply refuses to delve into the risk/reward situations that typify gaming in general.

Naturally, a game not being a game is a pretty strong point against it, no? Heavy Rain's tireless yes-men are perpetually dismissing this very valid argument by stating that Heavy Rain is not a game, it's "interactive fiction." Indeed, the back of the case bills itself as such. "Your smallest decisions can change everything," it declares. Interactive fiction--meaning a truly branching storyline, where even a small choice early on in the story can have drastic effects at the very end. Fiction where the player is able to alter the course of the story. Interactive fiction is a very, very appealing genre with a number of excellent games (almost entirely of Japanese origin). Each time you play through interactive fiction, you get to experience an entirely new story.

But Heavy Rain is not interactive fiction. Rather, I would call it "participatory cinematic fiction." So what is, "participatory cinematic fiction," anyway? Simply put, it's a single story (think of a broad narrative in a novel or film) where the player—that is to say, YOU—is allowed to participate in the act of telling the story. You do not dictate the story, nor do you play a character in the story. Think of it rather as if Heavy Rain were a movie being filmed as you play. The script has been written, the sets built. The cast has been assembled and the characters established. Where most games set the player as an "actor," in the story, Heavy Rain grants the player the responsibility of being the "director." You cannot alter the overarching scope of the narrative, nor can you influence the minds or emotions of the characters as they hurdle toward the tale's inevitable conclusion. Instead you are granted leave to manipulate the minutiae of the storytelling process. How should each scene be set up? What should which actor do or say, and when? Where should the cameras be positioned? How should the actors deliver their lines? Heavy Rain has a very specific story to tell, and it offers the player the ability to determine how that story is told—something precious few games have ever attempted.

There are two main aspects of gameplay: exploration and exposition. While exploring, you have the ability to haltingly move your character about each set (most of which are very small, though detailed) and examine various items. This grants you an insight into the world about you, the people you're dealing with, and helps to establish the overall atmosphere of the narrative. You can determine where to place the camera for each scene, which order to speak to which people, and how your character moves about. Want to rush out of your car? Pull the analog stick quickly during the applicable quick-time event. Want to exit the vehicle at a more leisurely pace? Just be gentle. Exploration is all about setting the pace and atmosphere of the story, and all of the gameplay mechanics are handled via various quick-time events (or QTEs) of varying intricacy. Unfortunately, the quick-time events are largely cosmetic—the framing of the story only changed depending on whether you succeed or fail the event—and frustratingly easy. You have to make a conscious decision to fail any specific event, and thereby see how the scene in question would play out after a failure—which is mostly very similar to how the scene would play out after a success. Sometimes, failing a QTE will mean missing out on some more exposition, or some precious clues to the identity of the mysterious Origami killer. But it's not challenging at all, quickly becomes stale, and there's no real punishment for failure. Indeed, you can fail every single QTE in the game and still play all the way to the ending credits.

In the expository aspect of play, words flit about your character's head like a swarm of gnats—each one indicating a potential avenue of dialog. Hold down the R2 button, and the swirling words instead represent inner monologue—the very thoughts of your digital actor. Frequently, you will be given five or six subjects to speak or think about, which you can order however you wish, but you cannot ever exhaust all of the options. Out of six dialog topics, you may only be able to bring up four before the scene moves on. This forces the player to prioritize what he or she wants the character to say (or consider). Various actions are performed by way of quick-time events (with very lenient timers, ensuring an easy time on even the hardest of difficulty settings) which alter, to various degrees, how each scene plays out. There are upwards of seventy scenes to play through, each somewhere between 5 and 15 minutes long, depending mostly upon how long the player cares to linger in each one. The same events will occur in nearly every scene (though the story does branch a bit toward the end), so all the player really gets to do is alter the small details in each one. You cumulative sum of your actions will have a direct impact on each scene, and a much more subdued impact on the overall narrative—with a few, crucial exceptions.

Ultimately, while you are afforded some control over the way the story of Heavy Rain is depicted, you always feel isolated—outside. Like a spectator watching a film. Heavy Rain is not a game you'll have fun playing, mostly because it's not a game to play. The gameplay is, simply, "functional"—and nothing more. The directorial command given to the player is intriguing and fun for a time to fiddle with, but it's more of a means to an end than anything else.

Rating: 04/20

Story & Characters

Heavy Rain is a crime drama. There's a murderer on the loose, and it's up to your four-character cast to seek out and ultimately defeat the criminal. As a movie, the story is far too long-winded to stay interesting, but as a game it ends up being just a bit too simple and straight-forward. A few of the twists in the story seem a bit too forced, and the ultimate finale of the game feels far too much like a by-the-numbers movie plot--though there are occasional moments that manage to strike emotional chords that most Western games are incapable of touching.

The characters are fairly archetypal, but interesting enough to guide about through the world. Your ability to manipulate the course of each scene gives you a nice sense of power, which makes it fulfilling later in the game to see the consequences of your various actions. It makes the game very personable—not so much that it feels like your story, but more that it feels like a story you helped to create. It feels like a collaborative effort between you—the "director"—and everyone else who worked on the "film." As such, watching those final credits roll can be very fulfilling.

Though the various choices you make (or do not make) can impact the story, the overall course of the narrative cannot be altered. Yes, there are certain scenes where one of the characters can die. But when this happens, the story marches on. Think of the story as a river. Your four protagonists are sailing down this river in a boat. The boat may zig-zag a bit in the current, it may dip madly up and down or cut through the water smoothly. A character or two might fall overboard—the boat itself may capsize—but ultimately, you cannot escape the current. Heavy Rain is not about altering what the story is that is told, but rather how that story is told. The charm lies solely in the subtle details, all of which, added together, can merge into a great many remarkably different conclusions to the same tale.

Rating: 17/20

Audio:

The audio quality of Heavy Rain is a bit of a mixed bag. The music sounds fantastic, and fits the moods of each scene exceptionally well, and the various sound effects are equally well-executed. Heavy Rain goes a step beyond most other games in offering different language tracks—English, French, Portuguese and Spanish—which are all fully lip-synced. Very, very impressive. Playing the game in a different language can provide a very fresh, interesting perspective on subsequent playthroughs. As there was no German or Japanese track, I can only comment on the voice acting in the American audio (other than to say that the French, Spanish and Portuguese voices all seems just as well cast and acted as the English counterparts). For the most part, the voice acting is top-tier. There are a few exceptions, where certain lines are delivered poorly—too flat, or artificial sounding. It's a minor annoyance, but as you'll be spending a great deal of time with the game, even minor annoyances can grow into significant irritants.

One thing I want to mention specifically is the rain. It sounds perfect. Just as varied and hypnotic as real rain—it's obvious the sound effects team spared no effort in recording the weather effects, and it really shows. Or, rather, it really sounds. The sound of rain (soft, hard, windy and everything in between) does a lot to add to the brooding atmosphere of the game.

Rating: 19/20

Graphics & Presentation:

Heavy Rain is a beautiful game, no doubt about it. The environments, textures and lighting are all extremely impressive. Unfortunately, the animations can be very, very stiff at times and graphical user interface (GUI) can be annoyingly obtrusive. Small clipping issues and the occasional texture hiccup can be pretty hard to ignore. Thematically, everything in the game is dark. The environments are a reflection of this, so don't expect to see much color. This helps set the mood of each scene, but it can also make the game feel a bit bland at times.

So much effort seems to have been spent in the facial animation, lighting and texture aspects of Heavy Rain's presentation, that even the PS3's hardware seems, at times, to be lacking. The various sets for each of the scenes feel very small and confined—and some of these small sets even require additional loading screens when moving about, which can be very disconcerting. By all means, Heavy Rain looks beautiful on the surface—but once you get into the game and start moving around, the world begins to feel very artificial.

Rating: 16/20

Final Comments:

Heavy Rain is a milestone. It marks an important step on the long road toward truly interactive fiction. But it's just one step, and not a particularly large one. Ultimately, Heavy Rain fails to excel in any particular aspect, ensuring that this title will never be anything more than a curiosity. While the narrative is sufficiently compelling to propel the characters toward the game's inevitable conclusion, it lacks the streak of imagination, of color, to make the journey at-all memorable. And that, when all is said and done, is the great flaw of Heavy Rain—it's not going to be a "classic" game. In however many years it takes for the industry to begin producing truly interactive narratives, no one will remember Heavy Rain. Now, it is unique, and—let's face it—that unique quality is why we're both here, now. But Heavy Rain lacks staying power. If you classify yourself as a fan of film, or gaming aficionado, you will find Heavy Rain severely wanting. It will not satisfy on either level.

Odds are, you're going to find Heavy Rain to be a mostly unfulfilling experience. Once the novelty of playing something so new and different wears off, you'll be left wondering what it was, exactly, that made Heavy Rain appeal to you in the first place. While Heavy Rain brings a well-crafted, cinematic approach to storytelling, it fails to fully capitalize on its promise of interactive fiction (which is not at-all a new concept: the "visual novel" in Japan is a genre filled with well-written stories, capable of reacting to dozens or hundreds of player choices--the fantastic "Clannad" immediately leaps to mind). None of your choices in Heavy Rain have much in the way of tangible consequences till the climax of the story, which makes re-playing the game more of a chore than it ought to be.

To be certain, Heavy Rain is an immensely intriguing experience, and it can be stimulating—but rarely is it genuinely fun. Interactive storytelling is overwhelmingly unpopular in the Western industry, and Heavy Rain does help to make the experience more palatable with top-tier cinematic presentation, but I can't help but feel it loses a lot of what makes interactive storytelling fun--so much so that, as I've said, it simply does not qualify as interactive fiction. If you can understand these fults and still find Heavy Rain appealing, please, go ahead and grab a copy. If, on the other hand, you're expecting a game that fully lives up to the hype--a game where small decisions can change... anything... I'd recommend caution. Heavy Rain is interesting, yes, but odds are it is not the game you expect it to be.

Rating: 12/20

Final Score: 68/100

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Heavy Rain (US, 02/23/10)

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