Heavy Rain Review
Low Level Spoiler Alert: While Heavy Rain can be quite easily ruined by someone telling you about plot elements before you get the chance to experience them first-hand, it’s almost impossible to give you my impressions without stating the situations to which they apply. To this end, this review will bring up a few in-game situations characters find themselves in, but I’ll keep the character names and motives to a bare minimum.
I’ve found myself a little confounded at how best to explain Heavy Rain to anyone who hasn’t played it. Quantic Dream’s new “interactive drama” for the PlayStation 3 manages to confound a great many base assumptions about games and on what level we judge them. It’s probably easier to rule out a few things that Heavy Rain isn’t, rather than try to explain what it is. It’s not an adventure game, as most problems that the game presents to you need little in the way of working out. It’s not, in the traditional sense, an interactive movie, as characters rely on the player for both physical and psychological guidance. It’s certainly not as revolutionary or as innovative as Quantic Dream head David Cage would have you believe, either.
Nor is it, as Sony head Jack Tretton may have you believe, completely unique style of game. To better prepare myself with David Cage’s body of work before trying Heavy Rain, I purchased and completed Indigo Prophecy (also known as Farenheit) a few weeks ago to get myself in the mindset. For anyone who wants to find out if they’d like Heavy Rain without the hefty price tag, I’d suggest doing the same. For those of you who have played it, Heavy Rain is easily described as Farenheit HD.
Heavy Rain is a very good looking, immersive and badly written choose-your-own-adventure crime novel. That’s the best way I can sum it up to those who know nothing about it. The player takes control of four different characters through the course of the story, all of whom are wrapped up in a series of events surrounding a serial killer known as the Origami Killer. There’s Ethan Mars (who’s son is kidnapped by the killer), Scott Shelby (a private eye investigating the case), Norman Jayden (an FBI criminal psychologist) and Madison Paige (an insomniac who later turns out to be a reporter). Each of these four has their own view into the case, and their own motives behind finding the killer. As the story plays out, the actions of these characters alter the plot’s progression in what’s (incorrectly) touted as offering a new experience for every playthrough.
To interact with their environment, players have to trigger prompted commands that pop up on the screen as they play. To turn on a light-switch, for instance, might require flicking down on the controller’s right thumbstick. Most of the prompts are set up to somehow resemble (in controller form at least) the action taking place on screen. Holding your hands up in surrender involves holding down the R1 and L1 bumpers, while opening a valve requires holding down a button and swirling the right stick in the correct direction. The more complex the action, the more complex the button sequence. In times of high stress the prompts will even judder and twitch to visually add to any given situation’s suspense. Prompts will ask for inputs from the thumbstick, face buttons, shoulders bumpers, and there are a great many highly effective uses of the PS3’s SixAxis sensor.
These prompts, and let’s be fair, are really the only gameplay mechanic that Heavy Rain involves, and from them also springs the only real challenge the game offers. The creator’s sole aim is to keep you immersed enough in a feeling of control that you begin to relate emotionally to what the characters are doing, and this is where the game can both shine and also fall well short.
This is because it’s not just you playing Heavy Rain, there are actually three distinct forces acting upon the storyline at any one time. Firstly there’s the player’s motivation, which is what we as the controlling party want to do. Secondly there is the character’s motivation, which limits the player’s motivation inside the bounds of what the character would actually do in “reality”. Then finally, and possibly most importantly, there is the designer’s motivation, which wants so badly for everyone to be on the same page that it can impact quite severely upon the player’s enjoyment of the game.
For example, everything that the player does has to fit into the overall story, and to this effect Heavy Rain works by simply limiting the range of options that are actually available to the player. The gameplay is reactionary. You won’t be deciding how to fight a villan, you’ll simply be deciding how well said villan is fought. To this effect, the player’s motivations are quite often ignored, as what you as the controlling party think is a good solution often isn’t one of the available solutions to any given situation.
This is backed up by the character’s motivation. Each character has their own individual goals (which you can determine by listening to their current thoughts), and to do anything outside of those goals is almost impossible. Ethan, for instance, will at no point give up on saving his son. It’s just something that’s not in his psychological make-up. The worst case scenario is that he is blocked from his goals, but his goals remain the same. Where this starts to break down is that there are quite often situations where you’d consider that a character wouldn’t actually perform the actions you’re forcing upon them, which breaks the reality of any situation. For example, there is a scene where one character must sever the top section of their finger to gain information about the Origami Killer. If you decide to do so, there are plenty of sharp objects on hand to perform the deed with, but so few of them make sense. I mean would anyone in their right mind consider using a pair of scissors over a swift hatchet fall in they found themselves in this situation? The sensible answer is no, but you can feel free to ignore what would seem sensible to the character in this situation and force a much more unpleasant resolution.
Meanwhile, circling below all of this is the most important motivation, which is the over-riding motivation of the designers. For all that Heavy Rain is spruiked as having endless possibilities, for the majority of the game this choice is just one big illusion that Quantic Dream wants you to believe. When you’re in the moment, and while you retain the belief that your reactions and input matter, Heavy Rain is a deeply moving and certainly highly enjoyable experience. Every dangerous situation is tense, every dialogue potentially world-changing. But if for just a few moments you attempt to stray from what the game wants you to be doing, you’ll see that there is a deep linearity to this game that can’t be exponged by any matter of button-pressing.
In an attempt to keep you feeling connected with the game’s characters, almost every action demands a button-prompt. Press up to open a door. Tap square to move an object. But the same mechanic that’s in play to help you feel connected can also distance you from the game the most. Characters will happily sit inside a car for hours on end as the soundtrack swells dramatically and we cut from camera angle to camera angle just waiting for someone to push the thumbstick left. Some mundane actions occur unbidden, while others apparently warrant an unmissable “nothing-will-happen-until-you-do-so-get-on-with-it” prompt. There are also a great many sequences when you could happily be out of the room eating cereal for all the difference the success of your inputs makes. In one scene a character’s car is swerved out of control by the passenger, triggering a selection of SixAxis prompts. If you successfully perform them the car comes back under control. If you ignore every single one of them … the car comes back under control.
It’s also, despite the developer’s assurance that death can take place and the story will continue, very difficult to cause a fatality, which is something that will probably surprise most players when they find themselves in different situations the game throws their way. There are plenty of highly dangerous acts that the player can fail to complete successfully, but very few of them lead to a character dying which is where players may also find some cracks in the game’s facade.
For a game that’s based solely around a compelling plot, Heavy Rain also fails to deliver. The game’s suspenseful reveal is a culmination of many hours worth of red herrings. Players should also be warned, especially if they enjoy the “add up the clues” kind of crime-thriller, that Heavy Rain will out-and-out lie to you to stop you from discovering the plot’s secret before the appropriate time. Both of these are big marks against the title, if you ask me, because at one point you’re happily enjoying the intrigue and then you’re ripped straight out of the moment because you know what’s being shown has already proved false. I can’t really say any more than that without spoiling the plot, but let’s just say that I admire the people who can suspend disbelief enough to swallow the game’s climax whole.
Visually the game is stunning, there’ll be no argument there. Although some of the character models will look a little odd at points, this is mostly because Quantic Dream have provided such a close approximation of reality that anything out of place will automatically get noticed. You’ll notice screen-tearing more than you usually would with any other game, and any glitches that crop up will stick out like a sore thumb.
But the clean playing space also allows the player to create some very cinematic moments inside the game, which will quite often increase the dramatic impact of the current scene. I found one of the most profoundly moving scenes of the entire game is Ethan bringing his son home from school and realising they have nothing to discuss. An almost silent scene plays out where Ethan makes his son dinner, watches him do his homework then puts him to bed. The camera angles and attention to visual detail managed to make that scene one of my favourites from the entire game.
The voice acting is widely ranged. Some of it is fantastic, some of it is less than impressive, and you’ll have to shake the feeling with some characters that their accent is changing from sentence to sentence. For the most part, however, it’s appropriate for the scene and won’t pull you out of the game too badly.
When all’s said and done, Heavy Rain is certainly an interesting title, and definitely something that developers should be experimenting more with. But unfortunately, just like a Peter Molyneux game, it starts with some big ideas then fumbles on their execution. I’m certainly not giving up on the genre when it’s so young in it’s development, but Heavy Rain is simply a step along the road, and not it’s final destination.
Pros: The game is visually spectacular, and sports some of the most detailed character and facial animation you’re likely to see in a current gen game. When this game is at it’s best, it will have you emotionally invested in it’s outcome, and that’s a very rare feat.
Cons: A promising crime drama is cruelly cut down to a smoke and mirrors mess, where the reality is unbelievable to the player, and plot holes run rampant. If you’re broken out of the game’s world for whatever reason, you’ll find it’s very hard to get back in, and much of the focus on suspense and choice is merely an illusion.
Overall: There’s no question to me that all gamers should experience Heavy Rain, and that creating a very different kind of game like Quantic Dream has should be applauded. But like most crime dramas, you’ll find that with each rewatching your level of interest will drop. And thanks to the game’s rather dishonest plot, there’s not even a lot to go back and enjoy when you know the identity of the killer. This is a renter, folks, a game to play two or three times through to see what choices do and don’t effect the game significantly. Otherwise, as many gamers like myself take it back inside the 7 day refund limit, this will be a game to pick up cheaply from the preowned shelves. Just be sure to have yourself a square piece of paper ready so you can do the installation origami! It’s a 3 out of 5 from me.
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