Review: Heavy Rain
March 8, 2010, Author: Andy Corrigan
Quantic Dream earned an instant fan in me with the release of Fahrenheit back in 2005. It wasn’t your usual video game affair. Playing almost as if an evolution of the classic point and click genre, using context based analogue stick movements for logical actions in the game, this supernatural thriller followed the story of unwilling murderer Lucas Kane, and the two cops tasked with tracking him down. This story-heavy experience was absolutely captivating, at least until the final third when it unexpectedly disappeared right up its own backside.
As someone who loves a good story with his interactive entertainment, I could see that this new control scheme definitely had potential, only it would take nearly five years for Quantic Dream to return with their much-hyped ‘whodunit’, Heavy Rain. This game has seemingly become a title that Sony is banking a great deal on for 2010 considering the financial clout that they’ve backed it with, and for a game that could hold limited mass market appeal, that decision could seem to be a bit of a gamble. So how has it turned out? Well, it’s quite hard to say.
Why does it always rain on me?
Fear not dear readers, as someone who’s not a big fan of spoilers, I will not be releasing too much information about the plot here past the basic setup, as the story is that important to the experience. Over the course of Heavy Rain, you’ll be taking the role of four different characters, each with their own vested interest in unravelling the mystery of the Origami Killer. The serial killer in question has a long history of kidnapping young boys, drowning them in rain water, then leaving their corpses in an abandoned area with an Origami animal and an Orchid. His latest victim, Shaun Mars, will have a drastic effect on the lives of our four protagonists.
The story here is really the main focus of the entire game, and while studio boss David Cage might make comments of pretence about the game being more of a Hollywood project, the plot is far more TV Movie than Hollywood. Don’t get me wrong, as far as story-based games go it’s pretty ably written, and has a great impact; it’s the driving force that will make you want to play the game over and over to see what happens in different scenarios, but let’s be honest, there won’t be any Oscars heading in Quantic Dream’s direction. This is made worse when you realise that certain choices you might make can very well create plot holes. I can’t really go into great detail without spoiling major parts of the plot, but these will become more apparent once you’ve have had a number of playthroughs, and these things mostly come into play in dialogue. Fahrenheit fans and detractors alike will be pleased to know that Heavy Rain avoids the sharp downward spiral of farcical plot devices that the former is famous for. The plot here is more believable, consistent and the experience is much better for it.
What the story does very well is pretty smart characterisation that successfully allows you to bond a little with the characters. This starts as soon as you pick up the pad. Opening as doting father and family man Ethan Mars, you are teased with the perfect life, a real slice of the American dream. In this early portion you are encouraged to get used to the controls by performing some mundane chores such as cleaning your teeth, getting dressed and working your way around the house.
This may sound dull, but it’s these little moments of humanisation that helps create the empathetic bond with Ethan, and makes his future struggles seem much more important to you rather than leaving you as a distant puppeteer. Each of the main characters has their own inner demons and weaknesses that make them appear believable, and this is deeply important if you’re going to get any enjoyment out of the game. That’s not to say that the game hits the target of ‘emotional rollercoaster’ that Cage had been banking on, far from it, but the characters definitely have just about the right amount of padding to make you give a damn about their outcomes.
Fahrenheit with waggle
One of the major things that has really annoyed me when I’ve read other reviews out there on the interwebs, is the designated writer referring to Heavy Rain as an ‘experiment’ or that it’s ‘unique’ as if born of habit rather than observation. If these terms were at all applicable to Heavy Rain, then it wouldn’t simply be the slight evolution on Fahrenheit that it is. If it really is an experiment, then it’s one that begun back in 2005.
Heavy Rain takes what Fahrenheit did well with its control scheme and incorporates it far more smoothly both visually and effectively into the gameplay. The biggest difference here is navigating the various ‘sets’ you’ll encounter. Holding R2 will start your character walking, and then you steer them with the left analogue stick. As mentioned before here and here, this will initially seem very clunky and counter-intuitive, but after a short while of walking around like the T-1000, it will click and soon seem a very natural control method. At any point while you are in ‘free’ control of the character in this fashion you can hold L2 and see what thoughts are buzzing around the characters head, pressing the corresponding button will see that thought read out in the characters inner-monologue, in much the same way as conversations are handled.
Like with Fahrenheit, the general actions throughout the game are handled through context sensitive analogue stick movements and quick time events; basic actions such as picking up a cup might require a simple quarter circle motion, jumping in a certain area will require a simple up motion. There is some evolution in this system, some actions might require a gentle and slow approach, and are signalled by the on-screen directions displaying a broken border. Actions that require you to be quick are signalled by a timer appearing within the prompt. Motions that ask for a character’s strength or concentration are generally managed by constant button taps. There are also moments where you’ll need to hold more than one button at a time until one of the prompts has disappeared, and these moments are usually when someone needs a run-up or is climbing through something.
Yet again on a PS3 exclusive, I’m left pondering the use of the six-axis; I’m not entirely sure what I make of it. While still remaining context based, the waggle factor that plagues most Wii games seems completely out of place, even in a game that creates a great sense of pressure and panic throughout the storyline. With a game so story heavy, even one that puts you in moments where you have to think quickly on your feet, shaking the pad to strangle someone or struggle with a door consistently pulled me right out of any immersion the game had previously created.
What is totally different to Fahrenheit, is that you don’t have to manage your character’s mental health or morale, nor does it matter if you get caught by the cops. If any of your characters die, the story will simply evolve and end logically without them, although it obviously won’t be a very happy ending.
The game runs at a pretty slow pace all round, so fans of fast-paced action should probably look away, however that doesn’t mean that the game can’t create a sense of urgency. It is undeniably those pressure cooker situations when the game is at its absolute best, forcing you to quickly make decisions that are genuinely uncomfortable to make. It is both interesting and satisfying to see where these choices take you in the branched story structure; however none of it changes all that drastically as the various scenes transpire until right at the end of the game. You might get different information, other characters might appear or be missing in certain situations or certain scenes might play out slightly differently, but the outcome of each will inevitably be the same with just a few possibilities. While the impact of your decisions will definitely be felt, especially at the end, it does take away that sense of freewill that was promised when the hype machine was rolling into town.
Another thing that strips away the sense of freedom is that there are certain objectives that you absolutely must achieve before the game will allow you to end a scene, and its here you realise just how restricted you actually are within that contained environment. What is true though, is that there is enough flexibility over the entirety of the game, that once you’ve completed the story and seen what sequence of events happened in your ending, you’ll think back to certain points throughout and wonder what might have been had you taken a different option, which gives Heavy Rain its replay value. In the past week alone I’ve played it three times, and there are still things I want to go back and find out.
I’m sad to say that there are potential technical issues to be found, there have been reports by others about crashing scenes and music stoppages, however my experience thus far has been entirely flawless… when playing the game in a natural manner that is. In my second playthrough I discovered that on a few of the scenes I was able to effectively break the game on purpose. I stumbled upon these moments by accident, and won’t disclose how I achieved them, however it would lead to the main character flickering, getting stuck in an object or disappearing altogether for the remainder of the scene. Aside from that, I personally had no other issues, but just be aware that your initial experience might not be as flawless as mine.
Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink
It is true, Heavy Rain will probably be one of the best looking games you will play this year, but then admittedly it’s doing a lot less than most other titles do at any one time. Character models are absolutely outstanding (in spite of some pretty disturbing teeth work in some cases), and exhibit pretty believable flaws and mannerisms. It’s also fair to say that when looking at a character’s face it’s not often you are left in any doubt about what the character is feeling, much to the testament of Quantic Dreams character work here. What I did notice, having just watched the Hitman movie, is that I recognised a couple of the peripheral actors from somewhere. They were in Heavy Rain… That’s right, a lot of the characters are actually modelled on their voice-actor counterparts (thanks IMDB), and the likenesses must have been modelled masterfully for me to instantly recognise them when seeing them in another medium.
The environments and sets are also beautifully rendered, featuring some amazingly atmospheric effects, however a lot of the objects in the world are at noticeably lower resolutions to everything else; not enough to do significant damage to the visual experience, but noticeable nonetheless.
Splish-splash I was taking a bath
Heavy Rain features what is easily one of my favourite original video game soundtracks since Bioshock hit two years ago. Dark, dramatic and powerful; it nails everything you’d want to accompany a thriller, even slowing to a mournful and thoughtful pace when required. It’s a score that instantly creates atmosphere, and with this type of experience that’s all you can ask.
As well as the general story is written, some of the dialogue really isn’t delivered in a manner that compliments the rest of the game’s presentation. One of the characters that typifies this is drug addled Federal Agent, Norman Jayden. Norman is voiced by British actor Leon Ockenden, and his poor American accent really stands out against some of the better deliveries in the game. I’m not against British actors taking on US roles, it can work; see the performances from the cast of the tremendous Band of Brothers series for proof of that. Hell, some of the other Brits in the game provide some brilliant voice work, but some of it is hit and miss. The dialogue is mostly enjoyable and conversations flow naturally enough, but none of the voice artists are helped by some standout moments of clichéd (and possibly lazy) scripting.
Time for us to dry off
Even when considered warts and all, most will find that Heavy Rain is a suitably compelling experience, but I can’t help but feel that over time it’ll prove to be something of an acquired taste. Fellow fans of Fahrenheit will probably be instantly right at home here and will derive much joy from unravelling an intriguing story, but I fear that a lot of those sucked in by the hype may feel a little short-changed or underwhelmed with what they find. That, however, shouldn’t stop people from giving this a try, but with its slower pace I can’t promise that it’ll be the type of thing everyone will enjoy.