Almost immediately upon seeing the first available footage of Heavy Rain, I knew Quantic Dream was on to something special, and that I wanted in. Based on their previous effort, Indigo Prophecy, it was clear that this game wasn’t going to fall under any previous pretenses of what a video game was. Even the developers themselves were quick to assert that this was an experience more akin to an interactive movie than it was a video game. Despite the fact that it doesn’t have as much in common with Gears of War and Uncharted as those two have with each other, that doesn’t mean Heavy Rain can’t be a great game. After finishing Heavy Rain, it’s clear that Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain is more than a game; it’s an experience.
Heavy Rain is an epic story about four people trying to catch a serial murderer with a predilection for children and weeklong rainstorms, known as the Origami Killer. The narrative is told from the point of view of an FBI agent named Norman Jayden, an photojournalist named Madison Paige, a shamus named Scott Shelby, and the father of the most recently abducted child, Ethan Mars. All four characters have their own agendas, but how they play out relies solely on your input. Each of the characters has the building blocks for a few different types of personalities, and it’s up to you to put the pieces together to create a fully fleshed out character. If you want Norman Jayden to be a completely by-the-books government agent, or the type of man who flies off the handle at the drop of a pin, you can do that. If you want Scott Shelby to be a cranky old ex-cop, or a genuinely compassionate man, you can do that. You can have any character be a combination of a multitude of emotions and attitudes. Quantic Dream has put a ton of varied decisions into each second of a character’s story, and every single decision you make affects not only how your story plays out, but also what type of person each of the characters will be by the end of the game. That is, if they survive the experience.
It’s no secret that at any point in the game, you may lose a character permanently without getting a “Game Over” screen. During a play, it’s fairly obvious where these sections of the game are, and you’re likely to try extra hard not to fail because that’s the way you’ve always played games. Nobody wants to lose. In Heavy Rain, losing is actually encouraged. Not doing everything properly actually makes the game more interesting. It’s going to be difficult for many people to wrap their heads around not reloading a checkpoint or save immediately upon screwing something up, but if you can grasp Quantic’s concept of letting the game play out solely on your first impulsive responses, the experience becomes that much richer. Of course it would be great to see the game completed perfectly, but there are so many choices and alternate paths in the game, it’s almost impossible to discern what the proper path is right up until the end of the game, and even then it’s not 100% clear if you did everything right or not.
Now, there are times when the game won’t let you fail, and you must complete a task in order to proceed. While I can understand the need for moments like these to happen, it sort of takes a bit away from the whole “every decision is yours” aspect of the game. You almost never get the feeling that you’re in control of your character’s destiny or motivation in a video game today. Even other games that have tried to incorporate moral decisions still end almost identically, with the only difference being what powers you’re able to obtain during a playthrough. With Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream did such a phenomenal job making sure you are in total control for so much of the game, you almost forget that someone put those decisions in there for you. These unchangeable portions of the game remind you that you’re playing a game that someone else designed, and it’s a shame because you’re immediately pulled from the immersion. It doesn’t ruin the game one bit, but these segments do feel oddly out of place. There are also some decidedly boring segments of the game where you’ll have to do everyday tasks like set the table or buckle your seat belt, but despite how frequently they happen, they are brief, and you’ll be so drawn into the wonderfully woven tapestry of the mystery at hand you won’t mind for one second the monotonousness of every day life in a video game.
Aside from the very different way in which Heavy Rain tells its story, the controls may be the most divisive element of the game. Heavy Rain has very little in common with other games when it comes to its control scheme. For the most part, every interaction you have with your environment is context sensitive. If you want to open a door, you’ll have to move the right analog stick according to the prompt on screen. If you want to brush your teeth or dry off after getting out of the shower, you’ll have to shake the Sixaxis controller in the right direction. More complex tasks, like carrying groceries, sneaking up on people, or traversing muddy inclines, requires you to hold a series of buttons down in succession, and though it can feel cumbersome, is actually not that bad of a way to relate the action on screen with what a player is doing with their hands. Pretty much everything you interact with outside of the game’s few action sequences relies on these context sensitive controls. At first, it does feel a bit weird, particularly during the opening sequences for each of the characters, but after a little while, everything feels natural. It’s almost like you realize, “Yes, this is what the motion would be if I was going to take sunglasses out of my jacket, and put them on.” From then on, the game’s non-action controls become almost second nature. Well, almost. Walking is an absolute disaster. Simply holding down R2 causes your character to start walking in the direction they’re facing. As long as you have a clear path, this isn’t a problem. However, the moment you start making quick turns, or need to navigate a crowded area, your character controls like a Jell-O tank. How they were able to get so much right in the control department, but make the simple task of walking one of the most frustrating elements of the game, is a mystery to me. If you’re able to overlook this shortcoming, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what the rest of the game has to offer.
The game’s action moments revolve solely around quick time events, and even though they’re typically a tired and overused gaming convention at this point, they actually make a great deal of sense in the context of the game. Early on, it’s actually pretty hard to fail these moments, but as you progress deeper into the mystery of the Origami Killer, these instances become much more frantic, difficult, and engaging. The longer you play, the more attached you become to these characters. You already have it engrained in your head that you’re supposed to win in order to beat the game, but when you become as involved with a set of characters as you do with the four in this game, you will want to see them survive any obstacle. The great thing about the QTEs in this game is that even they are branching. If you don’t hit a button fast enough, it’s only likely to cause a brief change in the way the scene is currently playing out. Missing more adds to the likelihood of the result not being in your favor, and could result in the death of a character. How these sequences unravel can also be influenced by what your character is thinking at a particular moment. Throughout the game, you can hold down L2 to see what your character is pondering at a given instance. There will often be multiple thoughts racing through his or her head, and it’s up to you to decide the train of thought. While it may not sound like the most interesting of gameplay elements, putting doubt or confidence through into your character’s head can dramatically impact the way everything in a particular section plays out.
If you’ve seen one trailer or picture from this game at all, you know that Quantic Dream is pushing the envelope graphically, and that they’re closing the distance between what gaming hardware is able to do and the uncanny valley. The characters you play as in this game, as well as the ones you directly interact with, are stunningly lifelike, and are among the best we’ve ever seen. When put up against even the most impressive of its contemporaries, like Uncharted 2 or Mass Effect 2, the only place in which Heavy Rain can’t compete is in environments and tertiary characters. For the most part, everything is animated superbly, but as stated before, walking is one sore spot that should have been addressed, especially considering just how much walking all these characters do. Every single person walks the exact same way, and they all learned to walk from the Ministry of Silly Walks. Again, how everything else could be so good, yet walking, which is one of the most basic tasks a human being can perform, is so pathetic, escapes me. The voice talent is pretty damn impressive, particularly when you have to consider not just how many different lines have to have been read, but the different inflections for different emotional states as well. Sometimes a character does come across as reading from a script, but those instances are rare, and hardly a reason to condemn the complete package. Heavy Rain’s score manages to be haunting and beautiful at the same time, and other games would do well to take note of how well the game’s music accentuates the story instead of being tacked on as an afterthought.
Heavy Rain is going to be one of the most polarizing games of the year, if not the next few. There’s so much here that is beyond what we typically expect in a video game. Unfortunately, some people may not be able see beyond the fact that there isn’t much gameplay here aside from quick time events and context sensitive interactions. Those that do will find an experience well worth the effort of completing multiple times to see how the game plays out from every possible angle. In a year already filled with amazingly quality titles, and about a dozen more coming in the next few months, Heavy Rain can be added to the list without question. Where games go from here is going to be up to the audience that plays this game. Quantic Dream puts forth some truly incredible ideas and concepts as to what a game can be, but they’ll stay ideas and concepts until gamers are willing to accept that they deserve more than another GTA or Call of Duty clone. Heavy Rain is without a doubt one of the most impressive games of the last five years, and it shouldn’t be missed by anyone. It’s just a shame not everyone will have a chance to enjoy what the title offers.