Review by Tarrun

Reviewed: 03/02/10

Heavy Rain is the offspring between a film noir and a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

The word “revolutionary” gets thrown around a lot, particularly when it comes to video games and the rapid evolution of the technology it utilizes – a revolutionary graphics engine or revolutionary gameplay. After all of this hype, the end result is usually, at best, a fantastic game, but rarely something that could be considered revolutionary. In the end we’re still controlling a character, shooting bad guys, flying spaceships, or using magic in the name of saving the world, the girl, or whatever. Not exactly “revolutionary”.

But then, what does it even mean to be revolutionary? Sure, features like cover systems and character customization are great ideas that add whole new levels of depth to video games, but we’re talking about something that has never been done before and will change the way we perceive and play video games forever.

Enter Heavy Rain, a “revolutionary” game from Quantum Dream, creators of the standout title Indigo Prophecy. Announced in 2006 at E3, Heavy Rain initially peaked interests with its teaser featuring a disturbing soliloquy that showed off the game’s incredibly lifelike visuals. As development intensified, the public was told about how this wasn’t a game but an interactive film. When Sony made trophies mandatory for its games, Quantum Dream loudly voiced its discord, claiming their appearance whenever the player accomplished something would ruin the atmosphere. Over three years in the making, Heavy Rain has created some lofty expectations for itself, but from the moment the game begins it’s quite clear that the developers were up to the challenge.

Before really getting into the details of the game, however, it’s important to make sure that players know what they’re getting into. If all you want out of a game is the ability to run around and shoot bad guys, don’t bother with Heavy Rain. It’s not a game for everyone, for sure, and players accustomed to more conventional games will quickly grow tired of the slower pace and emphasis on dialogue and character development.

But enough with the introductions and formalities, just what is Heavy Rain all about? The game takes place in an unnamed city in the year 2011 where a serial killer, dubbed the Origami Killer, has been kidnapping and drowning young boys. The player takes control of four different characters at various points of the game, all solely connected by their ties to the Origami Killer case. Ethan Mars is a divorced father whose son is the latest kidnapping victim. He receives a letter instructing him to perform several challenges that, if completed, will lead to information regarding his son’s location. The other three are Madison Paige, a local journalist who encounters Ethan and attempts to help him, Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler sent to aid in the apprehension of the Origami Killer, and Scott Shelby, a private investigator hired by families of the other victims to track down their children’s killer.

The story is gift wrapped in an environment that’s absolutely stunning. Heavy Rain takes full advantage of everything the PS3’s hardware has to offer, and the graphics are some of the best you’ll see in a game. It’s a dark, gloomy world that’s meticulously detailed and beautifully emphasizes the mood created by the actions of the characters inhabiting it. The soundtrack accomplishes this as well, as you’ll find the minimalistic approach taken works to highlight a scene’s emotion rather than overwhelming it with unnecessary sound.

Labeling itself as an interactive drama rather than any conventional game genre, Heavy Rain abandons nearly every traditional practice found in video games and instead expends all of its energy building a story and developing its characters. The end result is actually unbelievably successful – in every other game, no matter what kind of bond it creates between character and player, there’s still some distance between the two that’s created as you perform the mindless objective completing that games always end up having. It still boils down to the fact that we’re controlling a fictional character that’s sole purpose is to entertain us for a while.

Heavy Rain is different. From the moment we take control of the character it feels like we understand and care about them, and there are a bunch of different reasons this is so. The script and performance of the voice actors is undeniably the primary reason – the two take ordinary people and place them in extraordinary situations, and the result is that the player can genuinely relate to the character’s feelings and emotions which are beautifully expressed in their own subtle ways, whether it’s body language, a facial expression, or the inflection of their voice. As a player, it was surprising to take a step back and realize that I honestly felt for the characters – I was happy for them when they accomplished something positive, sad when they failed, and afraid when they were put in harm’s way. Video games normally don’t evoke that sort of response, but Heavy Rain does.

The gameplay isn’t just for show, either, it’s another tool of connecting the player with its characters. About ninety percent of the gameplay is a quick time event – entering correct button sequences when prompted within an allotted amount of time. Success rewards the character, while failure frequently leads to pain and suffering. What this does is keep you on the edge of your seat at all times, desperately trying absorb all of the action going on and still catch every button command to protect your character. Heavy Rain also utilizes the Playstation’s sixaxis feature, meaning that besides simply pressing a button you’ll be jerking the controller around to simulate whatever action your character is performing on screen. At times this really adds to totally immersing yourself in the moment, and even if it doesn’t sound terribly impressive in writing, anyone forced to make some of the more grisly decisions will immediately understand the impact of having to imitate the action yourself. In essence, the game has the character development of a film without it being as passive. It’s the equivalent of watching a horror movie and pleading with the character on screen not to explore the killer’s hideout, except in Heavy Rain’s case you actually have the power to control their actions.

It’s also important to note that your four characters in Heavy Rain don’t have any extra lives. If you fail to lead them to safety in a given scene you risk permanently killing them off. If this should happen, the scene will end accordingly and the rest of the game will take a new direction to account for your actions, even in the case of all four playable characters kicking the bucket. Now, of course if you’re really set on getting the best ending you can always reload the chapter, but playing the way the game wants you to adds an additional layer of excitement in knowing that you may only have one chance to save your character. Of course, missing a single button in a sequence won’t immediately kill your character, instead shifting the direction of the scene away from their favor but still giving you plenty of opportunities to keep them alive. It’s still incredibly compelling, however, and as the action increases in the latter third of the game, you’ll be hard-pressed to think of more intense scenes than the ones you’ll encounter in Heavy Rain.

But enough gushing, despite the tone of the review up until this point, Heavy Rain is far from perfect. For one, the game is incredibly short. In a time when we’ve come to expect to invest fifteen to twenty hours in a game on a first play, Heavy Rain only manages about half of that. I personally finished the game in two days, in maybe seven to ten hours in four sittings total. Depending on how you played, who survives, and what they did you’ll receive several different variations of the epilogue, and in total there are about twenty different scenes that will be pasted together to form the ending for a given play-through. While this certainly offers quite a bit of replay value, not every scene will drastically affect the ending so players looking to experience everything Heavy Rain has to provide will have to put up with some redundancy in the process.

The controls are also not entirely flawless. For one, you have to hold R2 to walk, otherwise the analog stick simply moves the character’s head to check out their surroundings. This isn’t a huge cause for concern since you’ll never find yourself walking long distances, but it would seem more practical to implement the opposite system since you’ll definitely be walking more than looking around.

More actively annoying is the game’s ability to recognize some of the wireless controller’s sixaxis actions. Simply put, sometimes it just won’t do it. As already mentioned, there is a good deal of leeway given during the QTE’s, but sometimes it can still cheat you out of completing a sequence. Perhaps the most extreme example occurred while I was playing through the final chapter. In two separate sequences the game required tilting the controller left or right and jerking it up or down. I did so, but for reasons still unknown to me the action was never registered, and missing two of a dozen in each event resulted in two of my characters dying and ending up with a significantly worse ending than the one I “deserved”. Granted, you can adjust the difficulty, which will simplify or remove the game’s use of the PS3’s sixaxis, but there’s something unsettling about having to dumb down the game for no fault of your own.

Lastly, the plot, as intriguing and engaging as it is, is also not flawless. Even on a first play-through you will undoubtedly notice several major plot holes and others that just seem a little vague. Some of them are forgivable, some seem like cheap ways to throw you off the trail of the killer's true identity, some might get under your skin if you really think about them, and some are just silly. You’ll find theories on the Internet explaining some of these points away, but the fact is that the game never provides the player with an explanation, and there’s a fine line between subtlety and sloppy writing that Heavy Rain quite clearly stumbles over at times.

Additionally, while the pacing is, for the most part, masterfully managed, the earlier scenes can be quite slow at times and it may drive away some players. In an attempt to present the characters as ordinary individuals Heavy Rain introduces them by putting you in their shoes while they go about performing very mundane tasks, including making coffee, taking a shower, changing a diaper, and so on. While this does accomplish its purpose, it can be difficult at times to get past the idea that the game is simply wasting your time.

Despite its flaws, nothing quite like Heavy Rain has ever been released, and the game deserves a world of credit for taking such a huge risk. Nearly everything it tries to do works the way it’s designed to, and the result is a story that’s absolutely compelling. Other games have tried to break the barrier between games and films, but Heavy Rain far surpasses them and comes as close to the definition of interactive drama as possible. Twenty years from now we probably won’t be looking at Heavy Rain as the game that changed video games forever, but it’s still an incredibly captivating adventure that PS3 owners willing to participate in an unconventional take on what a video game is should experience. And that’s not so bad either.

Rating:   4.0 - Great

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

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