Review: Heavy Rain

HeavyRain.jpg How far would you go to save someone you love?

At first blush, that seems like a fairly simple question to answer. If asked that, I’m sure most people would say they’d be willing to go as far as it takes. But is it really that easy? Would you kill another human being in cold blood? Or perhaps cut off a finger, crawl through tunnels of broken glass, or put yourself in harm’s way in other horrifying ways? It’s not only a matter of would you do these things to ensure the safety of a loved one either, it’s also a question of could you do these things? Making the decision is the easy part, actually having the willpower to do what must be done is something else altogether.

These powerful questions of morality and personal sacrifice are the driving force behind Omikron and Indigo Prophecy developer Quantic Dream’s new crime thriller Heavy Rain — coming exclusively to PS3 February 23rd – and they set the stage for an exhilarating, emotionally-charged adventure without equal.

Heavy Rain is a cinematic “whodunit” crime drama chronicling the chase for The Origami Killer, a serial killer who kidnaps young boys, drowns them in rain water and then leaves their bodies around the city with their faces covered in mud, an orchid on their chest, and an origami figure in their hand.

In pursuit of The Origami Killer, you witness the changing events unfold through the eyes of four playable characters: Norman Jayden, an FBI agent dispatched to the local police station to help in the investigation; Scott Shelby, a private investigator hired by the families of the deceased children to find the killer; Madison Paige, a sexy photo journalist who suffers from insomnia; and the lead protagonist Ethan Mars, a successful architect whose life goes to hell in a hand basket after a tragic family accident thrusts him into severe depression and one of his sons becomes the latest victim of the killer.

Make no mistake about it: Heavy Rain is a story-driven game taken to a whole new extreme, with conventional gameplay interactions taking a back seat to elaborate quick time events (QTEs) and making choices that alter the narrative progression. Thusly, it’s integral that the story be gripping enough to make the player attach himself/herself to the characters and feel the consequential weight of every decision made.

Fortunately, this is where Heavy Rain succeeds most. The story is presented beautifully with Hollywood-caliber cinematography and voice acting and a stirring musical score that is always in perfect unison with what’s taking place on screen, invoking emotions of despair, tension, fear, horror, pain, triumph and passion in all the right places. And even though the plot has you jumping back and forth between each character in a long sequence of short chapters, the pacing, amazingly, never wavers. While there are some awkward lip-syncing moments, by and large the facial animations are also as detailed and realistic as they come – you can feel the emotion of each character just by looking at their expressions, and that’s not an easy thing to pull off in videogame storytelling.

Heavy Rain is very much an R-rated experience as well, and also needs to be commended for the way it handles adult subjects like violence, explicit language, and, most importantly, nudity and sex. In games like Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto, The Saboteur, and God of War, sexual content is treated in such a shallow, juvenile manner. But in Heavy Rain, sex (and the other mature themes) is presented in a way that fleshes out the story and its characters in a meaningful way – none of it feels thrown in or overdone for the sole purpose of grabbing attention.

As a game, Heavy Rain shares countless similarities with and is an unmistakable evolution of Quantic Dream’s last project, Indigo Prophecy, and in many ways represents a revolution of the adventure genre as a whole. Typically, adventure games are about scrolling over static backgrounds, collecting and combining items, and solving basic logic-type puzzles. However, Heavy Rain dumps all those old staples and presents an adventure experience emphasizing realistic environmental interactions, quick decision making, and piecing the clues together in your own mind before the ultimate conclusion is reached and the killer is revealed.

The power of choice is indeed the lifeblood of the Heavy Rain experience. Some choices are easy, such as choosing which of Ethan’s sons to play with first in the backyard, yet others are far more morally challenging, such as deciding how far to push a suspect during interrogation, whether or not to withhold medication from a dying man, or pursuing emotional involvement with certain characters.

Every decision you make is immediate and permanent, and no matter what – even if your actions get a character killed – the story goes on. This style of open storytelling makes for great replay value, as there are multiple outcomes to pretty much every scene, leading to many different endings. I’ve played through the game twice in full already and further experimented with different scenario outcomes using the chapter selection mode – you can go back to any chapter you’ve completed and restart the story from there – and am amazed at how differently certain chapters can play out and how drastically the story can change based on a single action taken or decision made. I do have to point out, though, that because there are so many ways to alter the story flow, certain paths through the game aren’t quite as cohesive as others. On my second playthrough, I began to find scenes that were a bit clumsy in their integration with the rest of the story progression, which left me feeling a bit cold at times.

Actually playing the game is pretty basic. Much of the game is controlled via simple button presses, controller shakes and analog stick movements prompted by elegantly-presented contextual overlays and dialogue trees that circle around your character’s head. Yes, QTEs are in abundance, but their implementation is far more dynamic than any other game before. Normally, QTEs are cut and dry: if you don’t hit the button in time, you fail and have to retry. But that’s not how it works in Heavy Rain at all. If you miss an action, the scene carries on, and if your character gets beat up or killed, the story adapts and proceeds accordingly. There are no do-overs and you are never pulled out of the experience by a game over screen.

With each controller interaction, you also feel an emotional tie to the accompanying in-game action. When gently tilting the analog stick back and forth to rock a baby to sleep, mashing a face button repeatedly in a hand-to-hand struggle, or holding down chains of upwards of four to five different buttons at once during moments of extreme physical exertion, you actually feel the emotion of your character through the required controller manipulation. It’s really quite remarkable.

You do get to manually control each character like a normal third-person adventure game too, but sadly that’s where the game runs into problems. Character movement is clunky and tank-like, bringing back not-so-fond memories of the original Resident Evil and Tomb Raider games, and the camera shifts often lead you into turning the wrong direction. I also question the control scheme as it relates to character movement. Instead of pushing the analog stick to move around like in any other game, you first have to hold down the R2 shoulder, otherwise by itself the left stick turns your character’s head to eyeball surrounding points of interaction. I would have preferred to see these mechanics laid out in reverse — moving with just the analog stick and entering “look mode” by holding down R2 seems like it would’ve been a more natural method of control.

For a lot of people, Heavy Rain will probably be categorized as an interactive movie, but personally, I like to think of it as a virtual “choose your own adventure” novel, where every button press and every flick of the analog stick is like turning the page in a book. Though not without flaws, Heavy Rain is a truly unique experience and a monumental achievement in videogame storytelling, and if you own a PS3 it is not to be missed.

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Pros:
+ Thrilling storyline with numerous twists and memorable characters
+ Unique and intuitive contextual interface
+ Choices and dynamic QTEs have real impact on story progression
+ Beautiful soundtrack
+ Phenomenal production values
+ Many different scene outcomes and endings to discover

Cons:
– Clunky character controls
– Certain scenes lack cohesion with the constantly-shifting story
– Lip-syncing looks unnatural on occasion

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: SCEA
Developer: Quantic Dream
Release Date: 2/23/2010
Genre: Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!