If asked the question “What are games to you?”, how would you respond? Games can be many things. To me they’re both a form of stress release and a source of inspiration. They pass the time. They entertain. Games can serve any number of purposes to any number of people. I found it good to keep this in mind as I played through Heavy Rain, a PS3-exclusive title from Quantic Dream.
So what is Heavy Rain? Some could argue it’s not even a game. You could call it one gigantic Quick Time Event and be correct. Likewise, you could also call it one of the greatest thrill rides in some time, and also be correct. Most people have chosen to dub it “Interactive Drama”. I think that works just fine.
You see, in most games, it’s the gameplay that matters. A game can still pass as “good” with a horrible plot, as long as it’s got some nice gameplay to keep the player hooked. With Heavy Rain it’s the other way around. Here it’s the plot that matters. The gameplay is there solely to give the plot a nudge here and there. Think of it as one those “choose your own adventure” kinda games, and you’ll likely have the right idea.
A bit of the magic of the game comes from going into it knowing as little about the plot and characters as possible, so I’ll be brief in explaining it. The prologue begins with Ethan Mars, a successful architect who’s leading a happy life with his wife and two kids. What begins as a happy, slice of life sort of deal quickly delves into chaos when Ethan and one of his children are hit by a car. Ethan falls into a coma but eventually awakens, but his son isn’t so lucky. Fast forward two years, and the guy is a total mess. His wife has divorced him, his remaining child is unhappy, and his guilt has steadily hurt his psychological condition. Meanwhile, since the incident, a serial killer hunting boys age 9-13 has arisen in town. Dubbed the “Origami Killer” for his/her tendency to leave an origami figure at the site of the crime, the killer eventually kidnaps Ethan’s last son, completely devastating him on both a mental and emotional level.
Enter investigative journalist Madison Paige, FBI profiler Norman Jayden, and private investigator Scott Shelby. Madison wants a scoop on the killer. Jayden wants him behind bars. Scott just wants to know the killer’s identity, for the sake of the families who have already been hit by him/her. Of course, you play all three, in addition to Ethan, as they attempt to track down both Ethan’s son and the killer.
Generally speaking, Heavy Rain is a slow playing game. You play primarily by performing commands when prompted. A lot of the time this is “on rails”, but other times you’ll be given the chance to simply wander around a given environment, interacting and exploring. As Madison you might do a bit of breaking and entering, investigating the residence of a suspect. As Norman you might use advanced FBI tech to scan for clues on a crime scene, which will hopefully point you in the right direction.
The unique thing about Heavy Rain is that, while there is an overall plot that the game follows, the details can branch off every which way at multiple points in the game. That house you were sneaking around in as Madison? It may have suddenly become a death trap, when the suspect comes home, and likely tries to kill you. Scanning for clues as Jayden, you might come across a bit more than you bargained for. This is the part where someone might try to off you for knowing too much.
All cutscenes in Heavy Rain are driven by button prompts. Whether or not Ethan survives navigating a field of live electrical conduits may be entirely dependent on your ability to hold X, L1, R2, Square, and Circle all at once. Or whether Scott can overpower his attacker may come down to how fast you can mash the X button.
There are a few different prompts besides the standard one button press. A pulsating button symbol represents actions requiring endurance or strength (like pushing something over), and means you have to tap it repeatedly and as quickly as possible. An arrow indicates a direction that must be executed with the right stick. A dotted lines means the action must be executed slowly, for actions that require precision (like treating wounds). The game also makes use of the motion sensors. Though awkward at first, I found soon enough that executing motion control commands are just about as easy as button commands, thanks to the use of simple movements, excellent calibration and forgiving recognition. Often the game will also have you hold multiple buttons at once, to simulate complex body movements (like climbing and navigating small spaces). Fortunately, the hold button sequences are rarely long or complicated, so you won’t usually feel like you’re playing Twister on your controller.
While normal dialogue decisions are dotted throughout, the game will frequently present you with other, much tougher ones. Regardless of what you choose, regardless of what happens, the plot will move on, forcing you to deal with the consequences of the decisions you make (unless you play cheap and just replay the chapter). In Heavy Rain there’s little such thing as a game over. If a character dies, the plot moves on without him or her, adapting to their absence. If all the playable characters die, the plot simply concludes early.
Moving on to the technical side of things, Heavy Rain is a mixed bag in terms of visual fidelity. For the most part, animation is excellent, though it shows its computer-generated weaknesses every now and then. The commands are integrated extremely well into the game so as to not be overly distracting, but still get your attention. Environments look swell overall, though I thought the level of detail was not the same among some objects. Each chapter’s load screen presents the moving face of the character you’ll be playing as for that chapter in a ridiculously lifelike fashion, though the character models aren’t quite so detailed during gameplay. Simply put, visual quality is impressive most of the time, but somewhat inconsistent. I do however applaud the camera work, the overall visual themes are topnotch. Constant heavy rainfall throughout the story runs parallel to Ethan’s sorrow and depression, and plenty of gray, brown and green hues are thrown in to help convey the darker tone of the story.
The audio is another mixed bag. Characters are voiced pretty well generally, enough that they can adequately deliver on the game’s more intensely emotional scenes, but it’s not perfect, which wouldn’t be a big deal in most other games, but stands out here because the plot and presentation are the big hooks. It stands to reason that voice acting should be damn near perfect, as a result. Fortunately, the soundtrack picks up whatever slack the VOs drop. Nearly every bit of the BGM is an aural delight, and the sound design helps to pull you further into the game than anything else I’ve experienced in some time.
Unfortunately, the game is one of the buggier ones I’ve played in recent times. Though framerate issues are few and far between, the game has frozen on me a couple times, and I’ve known the audio to skip or blatantly loop. Most of these have only minor impacts on the player however, due to the game autosaving pretty much every couple of minutes, and the ability to jump right back to your last save point from the main menu.
Heavy Rain offers a great experience, one definitely worth having. But perhaps more importantly, it represents a milestone in digital entertainment. Quantic Dream took a basic plot and gave you the reigns to push it where you want. Despite being QTEs, action cutscenes are surprisingly intense, and will no doubt have you on the edge of your seat. Both the audio and visuals, while not perfect, both serve to pull you into the experience, and do so to remarkable effect. One playthrough will only take several hours to beat, but most of the 60-some chapters can be replayed in multiple different ways, with different choices and actions, and of course there are many, many endings to this tale. Seeing all there is to see in this game will take quite some time indeed. A 9/10.