Heavy Rain Review
Genre: Interactive Drama
Platform: Playstation 3
Developer: Quantic Dream
Price: $59.99 (USD)
I remember playing Indigo Prophecy back in 2005 and being amazed by it’s unique blend of cinematic story-telling, high tension scenarios, quick time events, and compelling narrative. It wasn’t a perfect game, but it had such wonderful potential in what it was trying to achieve, after the credit’s rolled, I couldn’t wait to see what developer, Quantic Dream, had in store next.
Fast-forward another year, and they lifted the curtain on Heavy Rain, which at the time was nothing more than a “Casting Call” demo showcasing their attempts to capture a wide array of emotional extremes in a digital character. It was nonetheless impressive, but I couldn’t help but wonder what the title would be about. I got my answer soon enough, when they finally revealed that the game would be an intense “interactive drama,” revolving around 4 characters and how their lives are affected by the Origami Killer, who has been kidnapping and murdering young boys. Does Director David Cage, and his team at Quantic Dream pull off their ambitions? Read on to find out.
It’s easy to write off Heavy Rain in it’s early moments. The game is very slow to start, with the player controlling architect Ethan Mars as he wakes up on his son Jason’s 10th birthday and goes about his day to day. Players help him brush his teeth, shower, get dressed, even take a piss. As opening game fodder, it’s not very glamorous. There are no explosions, no gunfire, no barely dressed, buxom women. Just a 30-something father of 2 drinking some orange juice and playing with his kids.
The beauty of this opening sequence doesn’t really hit home until the Mars family heads to the mall. I won’t go into too much detail, because so much of this story is about the emotional connection between characters, but tragedy hits the Mars family, and as a solitary red balloon floats upward into the sky, I was genuinely saddened by the events, wishing there was a way to take it all back. And this opening prologue is easily the “worst” section in the game.
We pick up 2 years later, and Ethan Mars is picking up his young son Shaun from school on a dreary, rainy day. While rain is the main motif of the game, the gloomy skies and constant downpour are a perfect reflection of what is going on in Ethan’s world. His marriage is strained, and the once happy and energetic Shaun is withdrawn into himself, sullen, foot shuffling and monotone, barely saying a word to his father when questioned about his day. This scene is possibly one of the saddest things I’ve ever experienced in a game. Trying to cheer up Shaun, get him to talk, or play, or even smile connected with me on an emotional level I don’t think I’ve ever really experienced.
Things only compound when further tragedy strikes, as Shaun Mars is taken by the Origami Killer in a wonderfully tense moment. From there, the story does not let up with high intensity moments that actually force players to make difficult decisions, and live with them for the duration of the game.
There is no “game over” or “fail” state in Heavy Rain. If you choose to say a certain thing, or pull the trigger, you are forced to live with that option, and the story molds itself to that decision very naturally. I’ve played through the game three times, each time being a radically different experience than before. Even losing one of the four playable protagonists to death doesn’t result in a “game over.” The story simply carries on to its’ conclusion, sans that character. I highly encourage players to refrain from “restarting” the chapter if they encounter an unfavorable scenario. I made a costly mistake early on, but I stuck it out, and it made the experience much more rewarding.
Besides Ethan Mars, players will control Madison Paige, a photographer, Norman Jayden, an FBI Agent assigned the task of finding the Origami Killer, and Scotty Shelby, a Private Investigator hired by the families of the victims of the Origami Killer to help bring them some sense of justice. The four characters and their stories are intertwined, and depending on decisions made by the player, very different relationships will blossom.
I usually wait until the end of a review to discuss the games visuals, but the visuals of Heavy Rain hit you in the face from moment one, and they are astounding. Character models are often eerily lifelike, but the real star of the game’s graphical presentation is a combination of it’s spectacular set design, and expert camera work. The level of graphical detail present in each scene of the game is staggering. At first glance, it wouldn’t be uncommon to mistake some of the environments as real sets. Rain cascading down walls, onto the sidewalks, and soaking through the clothes of characters is amazing. The game oozes atmosphere. The tale is bleak, oppressive, and tense, and the visuals match it perfectly. I was tempted to play the game with an umbrella. A nice aside is that during my playthrough of the game, it was one of those rare, rainy days in Los Angeles. Talk about immersion.
Character animations are incredibly lifelike (thanks to some excellent motion capture work), and outside of some occasionally wonky movements due to the unorthodox control scheme (which I’ll get to in a moment), the characters and it’s world feel like a real, believable place. Which is great, since there are no aliens, ghosts, or mutants in this story. It’s 100% grounded in the real world. The game also manages to skirt the “uncanny valley” affect most computer generated humans in games often fall prey to. There aren’t any dead, soulless stares in this game. It’s not Polar Express here.
Moving onto the more “gamey” stuff, Heavy Rain is not a perfect package. The biggest issue many will more than likely face are the controls. Instead of going with a traditional 3D control system, or even the “Tank Controls” of the older Resident Evil games, Heavy Rain opts to tackle character movement (and interaction with the environment) rather uniquely. Pressing the R2 button on the Dual Shock 3 will cause the character to walk forward. Releasing the R2 button will cause them to stop.
By turning the Left Analog stick left or right, players adjust the direction the character is looking, and thus, control where he walks when combined with the R2 button. This setup took a bit to get used to, but it’s along the lines of racing games these days, where R2 is often accelerate, and the Left Analog stick is used to steer. Only this time, you are “steering” people, instead of cars. This makes it much easier for the game to retain it’s cinematic flair (camera angles often change for better, more movie-like angles, and players can manually change the camera angle with the L1 button). After the opening “tutorial” section, however, I was more than comfortable with this setup.
Using the Right Analog stick, players are able to interact with the world in various ways. There are multiple ways to interact with the environment, but an brief example is simply opening a door. Near the door handle, an icon will appear with a direction that must be pressed with the Right Analog stick. If the icon is down, press down, and the action will occur. The face buttons on the PS3 controller are also used for interaction, and during the many quick time event segments, in which quick reflexes can sometimes be the difference between life and death.
At any time, characters can also press the L2 button to bring up a series of “thoughts” mapped to face buttons. Upon pressing the corresponding button, you will hear what the person is thinking about any given situation. For example, while exploring an environment, you can go into the character’s thoughts and possibly find a hint as to where they could go next. Action sequences are framed with Quick Time Events, mixing Right Stick movements, Button presses, and even the Dual Shock 3’s motion controls to excellent effect. Often the QTE prompts are very intuitive to what’s going on on screen. A prompt may appear over a fist for a punch, or an object that can be used to ward off an attack. A prompt to thrust the controller forward often is mimicking the character on screen thrusting or shoving an attacker back.
As Norman Jayden, players have access to a neat little device called ARI, a pair of glasses and a special glove that allow Norman to scan the environment for clues. I wasn’t sure about this element of the game at first, but after a few segments frantically searching an environment for that one extra scrap of evidence, I found his segments to be much more enjoyable. It’s cop show type stuff, with a high tech twist.
In the game play department, Heavy Rain is a difficult game to nail down to any established genre. It’s not an action game, although there are certainly action moments in the title. It’s not an adventure game of old, where cycling through pre-rendered screens and solving puzzles was the primary game play mechanic. Heavy Rain is truly an interactive drama. It’s more along the lines of a Choose Your Own Adventure, but instead of turning the page, the results of your decisions have immediate, and far reaching consequences. The dilemmas your character’s find themselves in are often more than just the “flee from ‘bad guy” type. There are some very difficult, moral and ethical scenarios you may find yourself faced with. The “game play” of Heavy Rain can be summarized as players guiding the four primary characters through a series of scenarios in an attempt to rescue Shaun Mars from the Origami Killer. The one question that permeates the entirety of the Heavy Rain experience is “how far would you go to save the person you love?”
And this is where I think Heavy Rain ultimately succeeds as a piece of interactive drama, and where all of it’s positives outweigh it’s few negatives. Those opening, slow moments at the beginning are so important at establishing context that the events later on in the game have much more weight and importance than in a lot of other games out there. It is absolutely VITAL that Ethan gets his son Shaun back, because, as the player, you have made a connection with Shaun early on. You got to know him, and see the type of kid that he is. A kid you really want to reunite with his father.
What I find rather interesting about the title is how organically your choices are woven into the story. It was amusing to read various threads about the game, and hear players lamenting that it didn’t feel like they were making any real impact in the shape of the game’s narrative, only to be shocked at the often major differences in game segments other players were getting. Even I was amazed at how differently scenes played out for other people in comparison to my own game. Unlike a lot of other games, Heavy Rain doesn’t just lay out the cause and effect of any given action in pure black and white terms. It’s not inFAMOUS. As stated before, something as simple as pulling a trigger, or asking a question could be the difference between yours and someone elses game.
The other three characters are equally engaging, with their own quirks and motives, and they are overall, performed well. The voice acting is possibly Heavy Rain’s weakest part, but it is by no means unbearable or a train wreck. Some of the line delivery is off, but I wonder if part of this is due to the fact that, despite the game’s North American, US City setting (the city is unnamed in the game), the majority of the cast is French or European, as Quantic Dream is a European developer. For the most part, the performances of the actors don’t hinder the emotional connection I had with the characters.
The murder mystery plot is one element of the title, but it’s not the whole story. The story is more about the emotional bonds that the characters have with one another, and that the player has with the characters. The identity of the Origami Killer, while certainly an important factor to the story, is not the driving force behind it. Each playthrough of the game I’ve had, despite being very different from the previous one, allowed me to really absorb and pick up on things I missed the first time. If the game was all about the identity of the killer, subsequent playthroughs wouldn’t be as enjoyable as they have been. With over 6 different endings, and quite a few different epilogues, there is a lot of incentive to give the game multiple runthroughs.
VERDICT – BUY – Heavy Rain is not an “interactive movie,” as there is more control and freedom given to the player in shaping how the story unfolds for them. Heavy Rain is a game about consequence. Nearly everything you do, big or small, has some sort of consequence, or, at the least, will have an emotional response from you. Control and voice acting issues aside, the game is such a refreshing breath of air in this shooter crazed industry that I highly urge anyone with a Playstation 3, a love for a good mystery story, and a desire for something different to give Heavy Rain a go. Currently, there is literally NOTHING like it on the market. It’s not a game for everyone, and it certainly takes a good two or three hours to get going, but the emotional rewards for sticking it out through the end is worth it and then some. Quantic Dream promised an “interactive drama,” and I believe they delivered exactly on that promise.