Review by Suprak the Stud

Reviewed: 04/19/10

Rain, Rain, Go Away

Of all the weather related phenomena I can think of naming a video game after, rainfall appears somewhere to the bottom of the list. Something like “monster death tornado of fire” or “hailstones from the beyond” are the sort of things that grab my attention, while “heavy rain” is the sort of thing that I might mistake for a game about weather forecasts. Any sort of threat I can thwart with a parka and a pair of galoshes isn’t something I spend too much time worrying about (considering I always have my emergency parka on hand). In general, rain is fairly boring, doesn't serve as much of a impediment to my daily routine, but is annoying to transverse in if only for the fact that things don’t control as well as they typically do when they’re in the rain. So, on second thought, I guess Heavy Rain might be a fairly appropriate title after all. Heavy Rain is a exclusive title for the PS3, and is actually a fairly unique concept. It bills itself as more of a interactive story than a typical game, where each of your decisions affects the story and the its eventual outcome. It is sort of hard to sum up my feelings on Heavy Rain. Not because it is a unique title and a completely different approach to gaming, but because it does so many things wrong along the way that it is difficult for me to decide which of its many faults is worth criticizing first. There are some fairly interesting ideas every now and then, and every once in a while a scene is executed well and I’m almost sold on the idea of an interactive story. However, nearly every aspect of the game is significantly flawed in some way, making it hard to recommend this game to any one other than the curious who want to see the first fledgling step of the newest awkward mutation in the evolution of video games.

Technically, Heavy Rain isn’t really the first fledgling step of this new type of game, because the studio released another game named Indigo Prophecy a couple of years ago that followed roughly the same format. Hoping to improve upon the general formula, Heavy Rain was released featuring a lot of the same sort of gameplay ideas while introducing a new story and characters. This time around, the plot focuses on the Origami Killer, who reminds me a bit of the Jigsaw killer from films if the Jigsaw killer had to come up with his ideas on a deadline and thus his torture techniques were a bit rushed. He is kidnapping and murdering young boys throughout the area, holding them for several days before they bodies reappear with both a flower and an origami figure, which is pretty creepy for anyone to be holding regardless of how dead they may be. Near the onset of the game, he has struck again, and it is up to you to solve the case and rescue the boy (preferably alive). You play through the game as four separate characters, each with a unique perspective on the case. There is the boy’s father, who must undergo a series of trials to save his son, an FBI detective called in to assist on the case, a private eye hired by the parents of some of the victims, and a female character who is desperately trying to get naked and forced into near rape situations as often as possible. Oh, she’s also a photographer but I have a hard time imagining she has much time for taking pictures as her schedule seems pretty full of alternating bouts of getting naked and being exploited. The characters are all interesting enough, I suppose, but they do feel like the came from a create-a-mystery-character factory and might as well have a generic stamp marking each of their foreheads.

As this game is billed as more of an interactive story than an actual game, it is pretty much imperative that the narrative be strong, engaging, and capable of holding your interest throughout the entire experience. And for the most part it is pretty alright and not too terrible, which is only an assessment you’d be happy with if you were considering how you felt after eating spoiled food. The game suffers from the fact that it takes way too long to get going, and even when it finally gets started it just sits there idling for another couple hours before it finally decides to go somewhere worthwhile. Even when the game finally hits its stride, it seems like almost every other scene is either way too drawn out or complete filler. The game also has the odd habit of inserting fight scenes every so often just to make sure you’re still awake, and while some of these are pretty entertaining, I’d estimate that roughly half of them have little to no importance to the plot and seem shoehorned in. It feels like Heavy Rain suffers from a weird form of Tourette’s where instead of blurting out profanity it just keeps interrupting itself with fight scenes.

Even if I ignore the fairly obvious pacing problems, there are multiple other problems with the story that leave it somewhere in the range of quality between made for tv movie and late night infomercial. The plot is a mystery at its core, with you attempting to figure out the case concurrently with the four characters in the game. The premise here is actually fairly interesting, and while the Origami Killer does seem like a version of Jigsaw that has been so watered down that he should come with a floatation device, the hunt for the missing child does lead to some genuinely tense and emotional moments. Especially towards the later portions of the game, there are a couple scenes that are executed really well and a couple of choices that I actually had to stop and think about. And while these moments were really nice and memorable and cinematic and all that good stuff, there are so many instances of just bad writing and storytelling throughout the game that it is hard to take the story very seriously. The mystery plot itself is alright I guess, but slightly marred by the fact that the game introduces a couple of the dumbest red herrings in the history of ever to throw you off track. Worse yet, these things just aren't ever explained and its like the writers were hoping we’d somehow forget about the build up during the first half of the game when we got to the end. The revelation of the culprit was a bit of a surprise to me, but only because the game spent half of its time dropping evidence in another character’s lap like it was trying to frame him because it didn't like him for some reason (probably the voice acting).

Unfortunately, this isn’t the only example of bad storytelling in the game and the story really lacks cohesiveness at time. It almost seems at times the scenes were written by completely different people who got into a fight at some point during development and then stopped talking to each other. There are multiple instances where something happens that seems like it should have some sort of ramification later in the story, but it is just never addressed again. I think part of the problem is that the game seems to have ambitions of being opened ended and allowing the actions of the player to impact the story, but this doesn’t work as well as it initially appears to. While there are a couple of ways to get through each scene, it usually only changes a couple of lines in that immediate scenario before it is promptly ignored and forgotten about during the rest of the game. In order to make sure the game is always cohesive, they didn’t make your choices affect later in the plot (except for in a couple key scenarios), so now it just feels like most characters suffer from short term memory loss and the scenes unfurl in largely the same manner regardless of your choices earlier in the game.

It feels more like a choose-your-own-adventure book than a truly open ended story, and the book has about half of its pages torn out. During several scenes, there are usually a couple of ways to handle what is going on, and my first time through the game I was pretty amazed at how many different permutations of choices were available and actually looked forward to playing through the game again to see how all these things affected the story. On my second playthrough, I found the answer to this was “not very much at all” and for almost all of the choices you alter a line or two of dialogue but do not impact the story progression or ending. Maybe two or so of these options have any sort of long term impact on the story, and what ends up being far more important for the endings is passing certain quick time event sequences. Technically, the story is interactive, as you guide your characters through the process but it really is more linear than it initially appears. Even the multiple endings are a bit misleading as there pretty much are only one or two substantive endings and then various conclusions that pretty much feel like a game over. The game makes itself out to be huge, and from a quick glance it really appears to have a panoply of options, like an enormous mansion with numerous rooms budding out all over the hallways. However, upon closer inspection you’ll find all of the doors just lead to a brick wall and there really is only one path through the game.

While I have a lot of complaints about the story, I have considerably less bad things to say about the rest of the game, but only because there really isn’t much else to Heavy Rain besides the story. There is really a minimalist approach to the gameplay, which sort of illustrates why the game is pushing itself as an interactive story so much. Heavy Rain typically operates in one of three modes, and you either play through a series of quick time events in some sort of action scene, answer a series of questions or direct your character to do a specific action by pushing buttons corresponding to your choices, or wander around a room and solve some sort of rudimentary puzzle. What is truly impressive is that with such limited gameplay options they still managed to muck it up pretty badly. All of the quick time event segments work well enough, although some of them feel pretty forced. Changing a poopy diaper isn’t exactly something I find fun, and a diaper changing QTE pretty much tops my list of chore based QTEs that I’d rather not participate in (luckily the toilet scrubbing and lawn mowing minigames appear to have been cut). Still, the QTEs are pretty much the high point of the gameplay, which actually made me a little depressed to type.

Outside of the QTEs, everything else really isn’t implemented that well, which is amazing considering how simple the concepts are. The game likes to provide you with a question or sometimes just a list of options of how you’d like to proceed or what you’d like to say. This is such a straightforward concept that it would take some effort in order for the developers to mess this up, which is why you’ll be impressed to find out that they somehow find a way. They like to have the options circle around your head like some sort of ethereal vulture, the point of which appears to be to make it harder to read and identify, especially when your large opaque head blocks out a couple of the options. Worse yet, the options themselves tend to blur and shake depending on the intensity of the situation, making it hard to identify which button corresponds to which choice. At times, I couldn’t even make out what I was picking, and this whole situation is made worse by the fact that the game straps a time limit to all of these choices so if you take too long trying to read the blurry mess on the screen the game just picks one for you. I know they’re trying to keep the game flowing at a reasonable pace as Heavy Rain clearly has some sort of ambitions of being a movie, but they don’t put a time limit on most other sections of the game, and you can sit around certain areas for what seems like hours without the game prodding you to move forward. It is just that if you’re going to advertise this as an interactive story, you better make sure that the interactivity comes easily and feels natural, and Heavy Rain seems to get too excited and take the interactivity away from you if it feels like you’re wasting its time.

There are a lot of other little annoyances you encounter during the game, but all of these minor issues lead to one big problem as a whole, and that is that the game itself isn’t very enjoyable. Most of the game has you walking around whatever area it has localized you to, either trying to solve some puzzle or playing around with various objects in the house until the game finally decides to get going again. There is nothing terribly wrong with this as a concept, and a lot of games have done this well in the past (pretty much any point and click title of note), but Heavy Rain is kind of clumsy with the idea and at times it feels like you’re just meandering around without any sort of pertinent goal. The controls are pretty bad, and they’ve somehow made walking into a two button endeavor. It isn’t that it is impossible to move the characters around, but the whole thing is far more difficult than it should be and the movements themselves are pretty stiff. Interacting with things around the room are simple enough, except that the camera likes to take weird angles at time that obscure exactly what you need to push. It seems like a bad idea to have a characters body obscure the prompts as they could just of easily appeared over the characters. Some of the time you don’t even know exactly what you are being prompted to do and you’re just pushing the buttons because you’re being told to, like some kind of trained seal. And there isn’t even any sense of reward for completing these segments, because the puzzles are so straightforward that there isn’t any sort of accomplishment. I don’t know if the hurdles were set intentionally low so we could breeze through the story, but there are only a couple of segments that require any sort of thinking and not just following the prompts shown on screen.

From a technical standpoint, everything is top notch. The visuals are great, and both the character models and the backdrops look really well done. However, I feel like this sort of visual performance is just really par for the course on PS3 games, and saying a PS3 looks good carries the same amount of weight as saying a Wii game looks bad. All the bells and whistles are good too, with all the sound effects being really impressive. The voice acting is a bit spotty, and while Madison and Scott are fairly well done, Jayden’s accent is bad enough to make me want to skip his scenes. I think they were going for a Boston accent, but he sounds more like a stroke victim. Still, the production values are really good for Heavy Rain, and while the game seems to spend so long floundering around and trying to be a movie, this is one aspect where it actually comes fairly close to succeeding.

While there is a lot that Heavy Rain does wrong, it at least has ambition and there are a couple of enjoyable portions. Unfortunately, even the most ambitious failure is still a failure and there isn’t nearly enough here for the price of admission. Heavy Rain advertises itself as an interactive story, but neither the interactivity nor the story aspect of it work very well. The story does have some interesting parts, and some of the QTE action scenes are actually fairly well scripted. It really isn’t terrible, and the later portions of the story should incite you to finish the game even if it seems to be trying its hardest to bore you out of it during the early parts. But the game is marred by bad gameplay ideas, bad gameplay implementaion, and a story so full of holes that it would take an entire cavalcade of worker elves with an industrial sized bucket of caulk to patch the whole thing up. Nothing feels like it was really well thought out and it is hard to recommend this game to any one unless they are extreme aficionados of precipitation or possibly know someone that worked on the game. Otherwise, you should just use the remote to fast forward or rewind a movie you already own, as that is most likely a better interactive story experience.

Downpour (THE GOOD):
+Some well done scenes in the second half
+Great visuals and sound
+A couple of well executed QTEs

Drizzle (THE BAD):
-Game is slow to get going and a couple of hours pass before interesting things begin to happen
-Story help back by bad writing and some logically baffling decisions
-Subpar controls during exploration segments
-Lots of examples of poor implementation of ideas for gameplay
-Response portions of the game not very well done at all
-Story not as interactive as it initially appears and most choices have very little influence

Drought (THE UGLY): Pressing a certain button allows you to chose from several thoughts swirling around the characters head. These tend to be somewhat superficial and you don’t really gain much more of an insight to the characters, but something I definitely learned is that all of the playable characters suffer from some sort of multiple personality disorder. For every thought, almost its exact opposite is also present, so it isn’t unusual to hear, “it is hopeless, I should just leave” immediately after, “there is something to be found here, I just know it!” The thought don’t influence the game in the slightest, but now we get to play a fun game of guess which psychological disorder your character is suffering from.

THE VERDICT: 3.75/10.00

Rating:   2.0 - Poor

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

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