A several months after its release, I finally got down to playing through Heavy Rain, the mystery thriller developed by Quantic Dream. I remember playing the other game they developed, Indigo Prophecy, and getting the same sense of satisfaction mixed with disappointment after finishing Heavy Rain. The game is good. It’s not really a game, but is nonetheless a worthwhile experience on the PS3, in my opinion. However, some issues come into play in the gameplay, presentation, and storytelling that keep it from being a truly stellar performance.
This is perhaps where Heavy Rain stands out the most from any competition, in that it really doesn’t have competition. The gameplay of Heavy Rain is very unique in a way that would suggest it almost isn’t a video game. It is an interactive cinema. You ever go to the movies and there is someone in the audience who is talking to the characters, telling them what to do? Maybe you’re that person who I want to throw my bag of Skittles at for not being quiet. Essentially that is actually what you should be doing here, because the situations these characters end up in require the player to make the choices that could determine drastic changes to the storyline.
The way the game works is that the player inhabits a particular character, out of a roster of four, for a scene that can be as brief as five minutes or as long as a half-hour. While inhabiting a character you are free to move around in the environment and interact with it as you see fit. For instance, if there is a razor on the bathroom counter, you can shave off some stubble. Some interactions only require a quick flick on the right joystick, while others require more complex button combination and stick movement. Sometimes you have to move the stick slowly in a clockwise fashion, or sometimes you have to press several buttons together to get the character positioned correctly. It’s hard to describe on paper, but the game gives the tutorial that is easy for most gamers to comprehend.
So essentially, there is no punch or kick button. There is no particular talk button, just choices to make in conversations. Sometimes choices never come back around during dialogue due to the characters themselves, or the passing of time in the scene. The fact that time is often a factor on what you can get done makes the choices seem more relevant and risky. There is a constant pressure to finish as much as you can before time runs out, or to get as much information as possible to solve the mystery before you miss your opportunity.
Unfortunately the gameplay and controls are not necessarily refined. There were plenty of moments, especially during chase scenes, where I was truly fighting the controls. The only button that serves as an action button for the character is the “walk” button. But with the camera angles shifting frequently for the most dramatic shot, either by the game’s choice or your own, moving through the scenes was often a huge challenge. It was especially difficult with the intentional obstacles placed in your path. I would frequently get turned around in a feeble attempt to bypass an obstacle with the controls that did not feel entirely familiar.
Sometimes with the quick-time events and button interactions the indications for tapping a button and for doing something slowly would come right after another, practically ensuring that you would fail the first attempt. But I would have gladly suffered that minor inconvenience if it meant that I got a better indication for what I was about to do half the time. Each time a character walked up to an item the icon would appear for the joystick action you had to mimic in order to use the item. Unfortunately, there would be times where you couldn’t tell what the character was going to do. For instance, the camera angle shows you two icons, however the only item you see on screen is a pair of sunglasses. One action probably means putting on the sunglasses while the other does something you don’t know. You decide to use the sunglasses icon, turns out the character throws them in the trash adjacent to him or her. If that’s actually in the game I don’t know, but situations similar to that would happen, and all I’d like are better clues to what I’m about to do or even a hint if this was the last thing to do in this scene, reducing the odds of me leaving the scene accidentally. Indigo Prophecy had icons to indicate what you were about to do, albeit very vague ones, but it was nonetheless helpful in determining what you were about to do. The controls these games are unique, but could still use a little work for future similar titles.
When the first scenes and screens of Heavy Rain were released to the public, the game looked astonishingly realistic. The details of the characters really stole the show and made you stare in awe at how good the people looked. The environment with the steady pour of rain as well as the textures on the surfaces of objects seemed incredibly realistic to the point of disbelief. Having played the game in its entirety I can say that there is a great deal of that realistic detail present, but at times that realism spent on the characters works against the game’s overall presentation.
The main characters all look really good. Close-up shots of their faces (including the ones during loading screens) allow you to see the expressions, the creases in the skin, the cuts and scrapes from violent encounters all in graphic detail. These characters look great, but the ones that play minor roles or no role at all in the story get the short end of the stick on presentation. Textures are flat or blurry on the other characters with no real details to make them stand out. Sometimes this is an artistic choice to make the masses of unimportant people seem like just dust in the wind, but here it just feels like a choice of constraint as opposed to style.
The game also requires the player to take close examinations of particular objects in the world, which many times look perfectly fine, but occasionally there is one here or there that looks like something out of a game from years ago. My best examples are whenever a character grabs food out of the fridge. Regardless of what the food is, it always looks horrible upon close examination. Textures that look flat and blurry on the food only seem worse when you know that there are other things in the game that stand out because of their acute detail. It’s unfortunate that something as seemingly small as detail on an unimportant object would take me out of the moment, but this game is constantly trying to appear realistic to your eye and a blurry box of microwavable mac n’ cheese instantly stopped my immersion.
The sound department is also hit and miss. The music is superb. If you haven’t listened to the soundtrack, I highly recommend it. The orchestral tracks really play the melancholy notes and dramatic moments in ways that got me either amped up for the drama or as emotionally vulnerable as the characters.
As for the voice acting, its really only good with the main characters. The main four deliver their lines well for each scene and in the way the game intends based on the choices you make. If you want a character to lie, the actor does a good job at indicating the choice for that scene. There are some exceptions where it’s just a little absurd or even annoying like the “Jason!” scene, but for the most part, the main characters sound good.
However, the same cannot be said for the other characters. Much like the physical presentation, you get the sense that they didn’t have the time or resources to get proper voice work done for the other characters, in particular the children. The delivery of every single child’s voice was flat and stiff with the emotion trapped underneath the actor’s inability to express anything beyond what was written in front of them. It was also rather annoying for me that I could hear for many of the side characters, including the children, a French accent. One of the nonplayable characters closely related to the story might as well have gotten of a boat from France before taking up her role in the story. It’s not extremely thick, but it’s there and I would have preferred they either came up with an excuse in the game for the French accent or that they just forked over the money to get some American actors to do voices for a story that takes place in America.
Okay, so this is the part that is truly important in terms of reviewing Heavy Rain. If it were just down to presentation and gameplay, it wouldn’t really be a game, just good looking people wandering around doing random daily actions at your disposal. It’s the story that you are playing this game for. It’s the story that drives the characters. It’s the story that requires me to give a major *spoiler warning*. If you do not want to know the story, the twists, or even any surprising moments in the game, stop reading this now; go read another awesome, lengthy review of mine. I feel that in order to discuss the impact of the story on the game I have to go over the moments I experienced in my playthrough (since there a many branching paths throughout the game). Frankly, I’m surprised I managed to go so long since its release without seeing more than a scene’s worth of footage, which is really the way you want to play the game. If you’re planning on playing Heavy Rain, play it blind if you can. Not knowing the “right” choices to make the first time through makes the game much more fun and interesting. So don’t let me spoil it for you.
The prologue starts with Ethan Mars, the main character of the game, enjoying a sunny day on his son’s birthday. After a brief tutorial wandering through his home and watching him shower, the tranquility is shattered when the family goes to a very busy mall and Ethan loses sight of his son in the crowd and thus must shout “Jason!” many times if you tap the X button. The scene gets more and more intense until finally you find him somehow across the street. Then doing the stupid things kids do, he runs back across the street and promptly gets added to the list of Darwin Award winners, despite his father’s best efforts of diving in front of the car to save him. It’s a good thing he had two sons!
So there you go, right off the bat the happiness and sunshine in the prologue is gone and replaced by the dismal depression and rain that is to continue for the rest of the game. You continue to follow Ethan, less than a year after his son’s death, who is obviously depressed. The perfect family is broken, he is separated from his wife and sees his other son Shaun on occasion, and he lives alone in a much worse neighborhood than in the prologue. He also starts experiencing blackouts and waking up in the middle of the street holding origami pieces. Naturally, he starts visiting a psychiatrist for post-traumatic stress disorder and in hopes of getting over his guilt for his son’s death.
In the background there is this other plot that is well underway concerning a serial killer, who we quickly learn targets children. The press has named him the “Origami Killer” due to the fact that he leaves an origami piece on the bodies of the young boys drowned in rainwater. Another character you inhabit, Scott Shelby, is a private investigator trying to unravel the mystery behind the Origami Killer. Through Shelby’s storyline we don’t get so much about the killer, as we do about the parents of the victims. He goes around asking former parents about when their children disappeared and what may have been the reason their children were targeted by the killer.
The next character, Norman Jayden, is an FBI agent specifically assigned to investigate the case of the Origami Killer. His scenes are the ones where we get the most information about the killer, his motives, his methods, and the evidence that you need to start making guesses on who might be the killer. This is all entirely dependent on your ability as the player to find all the necessary clues at the crime scene. Using a handy sci-fi device called Ari, Jayden is able to scan the area for clues that are out of place and make notes on them. It’s a good way of allowing the player to be a detective without the searching overly tedious. While Shelby gets his details and clues through dialogue, Jayden is more introspective and solitary in his investigation.
So obviously with the two detectives working on a murder case where the killer targets young boys, how else is Ethan going to get involved than by being the newest parent to have his son kidnapped by the Origami Killer. Ethan gets a box containing a camera phone, a gun, and several origami pieces. When he turned on the video in the phone I was half-expecting to hear, “I want to play a game.” Instead it asks “How far are you willing to go to save your son?” With the tools at his disposal, it’s unclear what Ethan has to do specifically. Each origami piece stands for a trial to overcome and has a number on the bottom to deem which trial to do first. With each trial complete, Ethan gets a few more letters in a game of hangman as to where Shaun might be.
One of the things that makes the game more fun is that there are details about the story that can be skipped over and you could miss the important references completely. So if you manage to get some of the important details, it’s that much more satisfying. I know I complained earlier about not being able to tell when I was going to end the scene, but it does occasionally work to the game’s advantage.
The game never lets you forget that you are racing against the clock too. The fact that the killer drowns his victims in rainwater makes the little notes in the corner at the beginning of every scene much more important because it’s constantly letting us know that we are running out of time to find Shaun before he drowns. A simple technique of giving players/viewers a timer at the beginning of the crisis helps propel the story along in the background while the characters work.
What the game does not do well is maintain such a strong momentum through the middle of the game. You play as the detectives but once the investigation starts to shift over to Shaun Mars, the investigation seems to go cold. Much of the scenes seem to have dead ends or not enough purpose to propel the story and it feels like we’re just killing time asking the wrong people the wrong questions. Ethan is the one who makes the game continue to move and stay interesting. It’s unfortunate that the detectives couldn’t seem more crucial to the plot and the progression of the story.
Once you get the initial clues with Jayden, that’s pretty much all you get that’s any help in the investigation for a long while. He goes on a lot of dead end chases with the most exciting moments involving either fighting a criminal who has nothing to do with the case, or fighting his addiction to the Ari device. It seems dramatic at the time, but never all that satisfying afterward because you know it has no real importance to the murder case. It just makes me wish he got to investigate more crime scenes because those were his most interesting moments.
Meanwhile, Shelby gets some interesting conversations with people and often ends up physically fighting somebody for his own drama. But at the end of each conversation he doesn’t get much helpful information. With Shelby, it feels like we’re jumping through hoops to get a stale treat. There is a purpose to this in terms of the story, but it doesn’t make me like his investigation much more.
The investigation side of things is what was done really well in Indigo Prophecy, in my opinion. The main character actually commits the crime while the other two detective characters are sniffing out the clues. One detective may notice something the other wouldn’t and there was a certain balance you wanted to reach because if the cops were too good at their job, the main character might have more trouble in his plot. In Heavy Rain, even when Ethan Mars becomes the wanted fugitive assumed to be the Origami Killer, you play as the detectives but it never seems to get you closer to the truth to discovering who the killer is. You pretty much just have to play along till they tell you.
Now I’ve talked a lot about three of the characters, but not the fourth. Madison makes a rather late and odd appearance. She sort of injects herself into the story and quickly gets involved. It was a little offsetting the way she suddenly appears and gets involved. They give the reason that she’s an investigatory journalist in hopes to make her quirky nosiness and persistence more believable, but I had trouble accepting her role. However, I think her investigation proved the most fruitful out of all the other characters.
The scenes with her and Ethan were meant for her to be a love interest in nursing his wounds back to health after each excruciating trial. But the scenes she shines in are the ones where she’s by herself trying to uncover clues. Unlike Shelby and Jayden, she can’t flash a badge or a gun to ask questions, she has to work for the information. In the scene with the crazy doctor, I managed to avoid drinking any wine, talk a little information out of him, and find the clue I needed to progress to the next scene without having to have the violent encounter. Trying to be smart with her and improvise is part of what made her sequences fun because she seemed the most vulnerable, apart from Ethan.
Unfortunately her involvement didn’t help the end too much. You pretty much have to wait till the game tells you who the killer is and the revelation is surprising but not really satisfying. In fact, with a few of the plot points left unexplained—like the origami pieces found in Ethan’s hands after his black outs—I was convinced that the developers had a different overall ending planned.
In Indigo Prophecy the developers went absurd with the supernatural elements in the story by the end. In many ways, that was the game’s downfall and it became very cheesy when alien technology became involved. As for Heavy Rain, it seems like they started off with a supernatural plan, but never quite had an end for it. The experience is something similar to seeing a movie that has had its screenplay passed through so many hands you’d think it was made out of money. I thought there would be a supernatural ending among the game’s multiple outcomes, but the killer is always the same character and I just had trouble buying it. Once again **spoiler alert** The fact that the Origami Killer sent out so much stuff to each father of the kidnapped child makes it seem physically impossible for Shelby to cover it up completely. His whole storyline as the killer collecting evidence not as an investigator, but as someone intending to destroy all of it doesn’t sit well with me. There is just too much to get rid of.
There were certain traits about the characters and their roles that I thought were done well. I liked the fact that Madison was, in some ways, a safety net for Jayden and Ethan. I liked how the game gave you opportunities to make a small decision that could take a character out of the game (without necessarily killing them) but if you managed to keep Madison around, she could bring one back in. The game did a good job with the choices, giving the player plenty of options in different situations that might not have changed the outcome as much despite an obvious difference, or options that seemed somewhat miniscule but make a huge change to the story.
Heavy Rain is not for everyone, plain and simple. If you want an interactive storybook, then this is right up your alley, but the pacing and gameplay may turn people off pretty quickly. The story itself is okay, but it seems to fall apart toward the end, suggesting that there was a different plan originally that the developers decided to change at the last minute. If the presentation and story are any indication on how this game was made, it would show that there were areas where a great deal of effort was spent, while others fell by the wayside. It’s not the perfect storybook game, but it’s a good start.
Funny side note (spoilers):
Try playing through the sex scene on expert while eating some pizza and not laugh at the fact that the sex mini-game is almost as difficult as the real thing with a pizza slice in your hand.