Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
Hours Played: 12
Progress: Completed all chapters and successfully finished game
People familiar with French developer Quantic Dream’s Xbox and PS2 title: Indigo Prophecy, will have a good idea of what to expect from their latest release and PS3 exclusive, Heavy Rain. For everyone else, this title is best described as an interactive movie, combining gameplay elements from adventure games, PC point-and-click titles and even The Sims. The story, which is the focal point of the game, is incredibly engrossing and makes this title, with its thriller-esque plot, one of the more sophisticated experiences available on consoles today. It’s not for everyone however and has some nagging gameplay issues that dilute the experience, so read on to find out what it all comes down to in the end…
The crux of Heavy Rain is without a doubt its story, it’s what the whole gameplay experience is based on and why people are talking about this title in the first place. The player will be taking control of four different characters, each with their own back story and motivations but all tied together by the murders of the “Origami Killer”, a serial murderer targeting young boys who turn up drowned, days after going missing. The characters are all distinct and likeable in their own way, in part due to the excellent facial modelling and voice work, but more so due to the superb writing that immerses the gamer in each of their struggles. You can look forward to taking control of: Ethan Mars, the father of a missing son, Madison Paige, a young women who becomes entangled with one of the other characters causing her to take an interest the Origami Killer murders, Scott Shelby, a private investigator who is investigating the murders on behalf of the family members of the victims and Norman Jayden, a FBI profiler who is tasked with assisting the local police department in apprehending the killer.
The developers were very deliberate in setting the tone for the game, which is by no means a light-hearted affair, although you may be fooled by the first hour or so of gameplay. Starting off slowly we become familiar with one of the characters, Ethan Mars, and his family, seemingly being inundated by mundane tasks like brushing teeth and setting the table, we learn that Ethan is just like many of us, a family man with a wife and kids whom he loves. Without giving too much away, as the story progresses things unravel for Ethan and he finds himself losing that which he loves. With the aid of some great music and solid visual presentation the gamer will feel Ethan’s pain, sadness and loneliness, quite possibly being able to relate to some of his struggles as I personally was and marvelling at how accurately the writers were able to capture those painful moments that happen when you’re walking in the shoes of Ethan Mars. The beauty of how Heavy Rain depicts the importance of being a parent, by making us feel what the loss of a child could possibly feel like, can not be understated. It’s a huge achievement and made me, and many others that are a parent just like me, value our kids so much more.
It won’t take long at all for the player to become emotionally attached to the game’s proceedings, there are so many great examples of moments that make this happen. A very apt example is a sequence where private investigator and retired police officer, Scott Shelby, visits the home of the mother of one of the murdered boys. Distraught by the loss, she’s struggling to take care of her other child, a baby. Your character will at once help in taking care of the baby while at the same time investigate the murder and prevent the mother from being a danger to herself and her child. It’s dramatic and gripping stuff that will make the player care about the story and become emotionally attached.
In many ways a murder mystery, Heavy Rain has some good twists that will keep players on their toes. Thankfully, many of these twists are presented throughout the game instead of being dumped on the gamer at the very end. A big “hook” of the game is how each of the game’s many chapters (there are over 50 of them) can be tackled in a variety of different ways, causing the decisions of the player to impact the rest of the story’s proceedings. This is of course the beauty of Heavy Rain being a video game, in that it allows the participants to have different experiences based on their own decisions, unlike a movie, which is linear and unchanging.
Although the game has its issues, there’s little with which you can fault the story. The first hour is slow and a bit tedious, but after that it picks up and you’ll never look back. Because the premise of the story is so mature and edgy and the dialogue gripping and satisfying, you’re tempted not to look at Heavy Rain as simply a video game, but more as a story (or a movie if that makes it more relatable) that stands on its own.
It’s tough to have a single, consistent opinion on Heavy Rain‘s graphics as there are both good and bad aspects to the visuals. I’ll start with the overall art style, the game shoots for a realistic look, with larger-than-average character models and assets. This obviously aids in attaining a cinematic experience, as does the absence of a HUD. The polygons, especially on environmental objects like cars, can be quite blocky, thankfully the character models are a lot more refined. Facial textures are superb, nowhere is this more apparent than in the loading screens in which we get a close-up view of the face of the character the player will be taking control of in the upcoming chapter. These close-ups show us details like pores, facial hair, wrinkles and realistic skin tones that bring the game’s protagonists to life. The aforementioned issues with blocky polygons don’t apply here as the shaping of the faces (and to a lesser extent the rest of the body) is very refined and (usually) completely based on the facial structure of the actors who bring the characters to life. The developers went to great lengths to create realistic animations, all the movements of the main characters are motion captured and although people don’t move with the grace of Nathan Drake in Uncharted 2, the level of animation is very impressive. There is one sequence where two young boys are playing in a construction zone, as they vault over walls, balance their way over pipes and jump down unfinished floors, you can’t help but be impressed with the way the developers portray character movement.
The textures in the environments don’t fare quite as well, they can be a bit plain and aren’t at the highest resolution or of the same caliber as the facial textures. There is even the occasional texture pop-in as a new scene is loading or a new camera angle is presented. The lighting fares much better however, the way Quantic Dream displays sunlight is fantastic. You’ll see sunlight stream through blinds or boarded up windows as it illuminates dust particles floating through the air. The way shadows play across the shirt of a character as he turns away from the window he was facing really displays the dynamic lighting in the game and was a highlight of the visuals for me.
The frame-rate presents some issues for the player, it can be inconsistent at times, making certain scenes stutter, not only that but there were numerous glitches that made the game freeze on me, the first time about two hours in, the 2nd time roughly 8 hours in as a character got stuck under a flight of stairs and gameplay prompts didn’t load, and a third time about 11 hours into the game. The game certainly tries hard, though. There are sections like the train station and nightclub sequences where there are a huge number of characters on-screen at the same time, but it obviously has problems loading data, the loading time between chapters can be excruciatingly long. At the end of the day the graphics do a good enough job of creating a realistic, not to mention cinematic, experience but there are enough glitches to prevent it from being truly impressive.
The music in Heavy Rain does a good job of conveying the emotional sense of the game’s different scenes. Many of the sequences that involve father and architect, Ethan Mars, are accompanied by sad and melancholy music that brilliantly conveys what the game’s character is going through. This is true for much of the game, whether the player is experiencing an action sequence or a suspenseful altercation, the music keeps the pace really well. The sound effects are equally impressive, for once footstep sounds actually sound like footsteps and all the little movements made by Heavy Rain’s characters are accompanied by true-to-life sound effects.
Voice acting is always going to be a huge part of a cinematic game and nowhere is this more true than in Heavy Rain. With four different main characters and a considerable supporting cast, the voice-overs aren’t always a home run. Some lines sound terribly scripted and although the game is supposed to be set in the United States, with the developers being French, some characters have an underlying, none-too-flattering French accent. Fortunately the quality of voice acting for the main characters is pretty good and with a large percentage of dialogue in the game delivered by them, the voice-overs are for the most part very solid. There’s a scene where one of the characters suffers from a “minor” dismemberment and the ensuing shriek of anguish is quite heartfelt, I imagined that’s what I would sound like if I ever was to lose a part of my body. All things said, the music impresses more than the voice acting, Heavy Rain‘s theme is beautiful and the game’s ability to convey emotions through its gorgeous score is fantastic.
Heavy Rain‘s control scheme is a bit of controversial beast. Apart from the left thumbstick, which controls character movement, and the L1 button, which toggles camera perspective, all character actions are context sensitive. Button prompts will pop up that, when pressed in the correct way, make your character do everything from putting on pants to folding an origami figure. It’s not just a matter of pressing the “X” or “O” button when they pop up, but also how you press the button, some prompts require you to press the button gently, others ask you to press it repeatedly, yet others want you to keep the controls pressed. Six-axis motion control is also a part of the comprehensive command structure you’ll have to master, so when putting together all the different button combinations and controller movements, you’re constantly on edge about what’s next. A huge issue here are the icons used to indicate in which way the button needs to be pressed, the differences used to distinguish between say, a button that needs to stay pressed, and one that needs to be tapped continuously is really small, a problem which can be compounded by the color of the background and the level of action onscreen. Apart from the aforementioned L1 button, which simply toggles between one of two camera perspectives, there is sadly no way to control the camera. Another button that’s sorely missing is one that allows you to run. The lack of both camera control and running can really hamper gameplay.
Since all commands are context-sensitive, you really never have a fixed move set at your disposal. The only thing that’s constant is the left thumbstick which is used for movement. Unfortunately, character movement is extremely clunky and sadly reminiscent of pre-Resident Evil 4 games. There’s a sequence where you are running from the police as you’re supporting an injured friend. You have to make your way on foot through gridlock traffic, instead of smoothly being able to duck between cars, your character is only able to turn in 90-degree increments, constantly forcing you to walk into cars and objects you meant to avoid. Although the context-sensitive button prompts are appropriate enough for a cinematic game of this nature, the control implementation is not perfect and in many cases negatively impacts gameplay.
As discussed in the “controls” section of this review, gameplay focuses on correctly matching the context-sensitive button prompts as the story unfolds throughout Heavy Rain‘s many chapters. Because the premise of the story is a murder mystery, the gamer is also encouraged to pay attention to the proceedings and think along with the main characters who, in their own way, all have an investigative focus; this is especially true for FBI profiler Norman Jayden. While playing as Jayden we experience a new gameplay element in the form of his super-secret-agent-man sunglasses-and-glove-combo, dubbed “ARI” (Added Reality Interface). When donned, these glasses provide an enhanced view of the surroundings with a focus on detecting forensic clues including things like footsteps, tire tracks, footprints and different airborne compounds. They further serve as a type of virtual reality device that can change the surroundings of your boring, rundown office to everything from a tranquil mountain top to a windswept desert. More importantly, they serve as a type of virtual filing cabinet, allowing you to go through uncovered clues, cross-reference them with geographic locations and provide analysis, removing the need for a computer altogether… take that Microsoft!
Although very innovative and cool to use, the main draw to Heavy Rain is not the fancy sunglasses, but the different choices the player can make while getting through the game. You’ll be confronted with a variety of different options while conducting a conversation, or when tackling certain challenges. Although hyped as being incredibly open-ended, I must say that many decisions lead to the same results, or alternatively, create a result only marginally different from others. There are many different endings (around 7) the gamer can aspire to however, which is great, but what’s much more satisfying is that the developers have strayed away from trail-and-error gameplay, instead respecting the choices you make and moving on from there. Sometimes the game is very good at creating tension, which can influence how you would normally choose to do something. A good example of this is a standoff with a delusional man where certain queues fooled me into taking a rash action I later regretted, instead of blaming the game I was impressed with how cleverly it managed to force my hand. On the flip side, there are some “tense” sequences that make the gameplay cheap, rather than challenging, when a character is under duress for instance, button prompts appear hazy and float around frantically, making it tough to discern, which button does what.
Which leads me right into some of the game’s biggest issues, even when your character isn’t suffering from minor cardiac arrest, it’s very common for him or her to obstruct the button prompts, with so many of them being time sensitive, this can be infuriating. The bigger cause of this problem are the horrible camera angles that can rarely be fixed by toggling between the two available viewpoints. Although cinematic, these camera angles often obstruct objects you can interact with and can really mess up your sense of direction. What compounds this problem is that the camera will suddenly change perspective once you walk past a certain point, often causing the direction you were pressing the thumbstick in to be reversed, causing you to walk back in the other direction, once again forcing the camera angle to change. As such the gameplay can feel somewhat archaic and reminded me of the older fixed-perspective Resident Evil games.
As Gabe from Penny-Arcade.com fame recently posted, Heavy Rain may not be the best game ever made, but it is one of the most important. By that he means that in terms of story the game is able to move you, especially if you have kids, in a way no other video game has ever done. It has some nasty traits that diminish the gameplay but the overall enjoyment comes mainly from the tense, dramatic and well written story that’s more enjoyable that any movie you’ve ever seen due to the impact your own decisions have on the development of Heavy Rain‘s proceedings.
It’s not the longest game, lasting up to about 10 hours depending on how many times you restart the various chapters to experiment with all the possible outcomes, but it is satisfying from beginning to end (perhaps apart from the Sims-like sequences during the first two hours). Although it may seem reasonable to argue that there is a lot to come back to once you finish the game for the first time, just so that you can experience what kinds of results different decisions will bring, the reality is a bit different. The twists and turns of the story, along with the excitement of trying to find out who the Origami Killer is, only really work the first time, after that many of the surprises in the story’s development will be gone.
Heavy Rain is something special, a cinematic, story-driven experience that has a script that’s better and more dramatic than many movies out there. Adult gamers, especially those with children, will really be moved by the difficult concept the game presents us with. Having said that, adolescent gamers (who shouldn’t play Heavy Rain anyway seeing as how it’s a M-rated game) and those who have no patience for anything but the most intense of action games, are recommended to look elsewhere. Poor camera angles and clunky character movement hamper gameplay but in the end Heavy Rain‘s story conquers all and makes this a must-buy.
+ Tense and gripping story that will take you on a roller coaster ride of emotions
+ Well-written dialogue with story twists that aren’t just saved for the end
+ Original implementation of a very mature, thriller-esque plot into a video game
+ Great facial textures and character animation
+ Good- lighting and particle effects
- Certain polygon models can be rather chunky and textures can be plain
- Game can be glitchy with occasional freezes and long loading times
+ Great music that manages to capture the emotions of a scene perfectly
+ Good voice acting for main characters
- Voice work for supporting cast can be cheesy
+ Players’ decisions impact how the story develops
- Poor camera angles obstruct interactive items and control prompts
- Character movement is clunky and unresponsive
+ Best and most immersive story I’ve experienced in a video game
+ This game will really make parents appreciate their kids!
- Once you’ve seen Heavy Rain‘s twists, replaying the game is far less enjoyable