With a long legacy of high quality titles named [blank] Rain such as Vampire Rain, Chocolate Rain, and Blood, er, Rayne, Heavy Rain has some pretty big shoes to fill. Joking aside, Heavy Rain is the first game in a while (not including Fahrenheit, a long while,) to covet the notion of an interactive movie. It almost feels like the ‘interactive movie’ idea has become a dirty word in the current climate; I guess angels fear to tread where one such as Rob Schneider has failed…
Heavy Rain tells the story of four characters, with their individual stories woven around the investigation of serial murderer dubbed The Origami Killer. There’s definite potential to spoil critical plot elements by simply alluding to things or making vague references, so if you’re dead set on a pure experience, and aren’t offended by QTE action sequences, then my suggestion is to stop reading and go pick up a copy now.
If you are offended by QTE gameplay though, then you’ll be offended by large section of Heavy Rain. Possibly one of the smarter or ambitious conceits is that it’s not attempting the cinematic experience of an action movie, but rather an emotional drama with action scenes peppered throughout. Arguably, you’ve got more than an action movies worth of action scenes crammed in there, due to having a few movies worth of playtime all told. As far as QTEs go, Heavy Rain makes full use of the breadth of actions available on the six axis or dual shock 3 controller, with all the standard obvious button taps, stick pushes having to now contend with controller jerking. Crass as it sounds, there’s been some careful work to make sure that the action on the controller keeps with the action on the screen, with the six axis motion detection generally being reserved for violent actions like a headbutting, or kicking a door in. When you’re not following a sequence of button-pushery, there’s a somewhat unconventional control scheme in play; left stick is for camera movement and controlling the direction you’ll walk in, whereas compelling them to walk forward is on the R2 button. Whenever you’re near something that can be interacted with, a small icon depicting a motion for how to move the right stick to interact with it (or occasionally a button press or controller jerk). It’s not a perfect system, on occasion I found myself walking past something I wanted to interact with, and finding the turn-around animation a little slow (if I managed to have them turn around at all). I’m willing to chalk it up to a lack of familiarity, but there’s also the weird case of what happens when you fail a button sequence. In particular, there are situations where you have to press and hold a series of buttons; one that sticks in my mind is where the character you’re controlling needs to make a jump – you’ll start out at the edge, and being prompted to press and hold three buttons in sequence will cause them to pace out a run-up. If you mess up one of the buttons or let go too soon, it’s practically a reverse of the animation that will play and leave them back at the edge. It’s as awkward to watch as David Schwimmer in one of the ‘we-were-on-a-break’ episodes of Friends.
A father, a private investigator, an FBI agent, and a… er… insomniac fashion magazine person are the main stars of Heavy Rain, and there’s been an obvious amount of work put into the way they look and act. Supporting roles have received slightly less attention, and so on down to the chance encounters who all look like you’d expect for a videogame in this day and age, which shouldn’t be construed as a major criticism. There’s also a considerable amount of voice work squeezed onto that BluRay disc, most times when you’re in full control you can hold down L2, and four key thoughts will appear swirling around the character, pressing the corresponding face button that appears will cause some internal monologue to be voiced; it’s like a less-intrusive hint system. Depending on the mood, the button icons may jump around in a jittery kind of effect; it’s a nice subtle touch that adds something to the experience despite the fact that you’re following on screen prompts.
The mood of any visual story often takes an important place in any narrative, and Heavy Rain not only takes the namesake to heart with the weather, but also with the rather oppressive use of dark colours and a nice textured dirtiness to the surroundings to give it a little more oomph in the believability stakes. Along with the buttons prompts going on the fritz, the orchestral score does a pretty great job at keeping with the ebb and flow of tension and suspense, or even the outright panic of the action sequences.
With anything this ambitious though, there’s always some weirdness that goes along with it. If you’re familiar with the kind of weird things that pop up in Shenmue which are half player choice and half game design, you’ll know what to expect. Walking into your wife like a moron while she prepares food, shouting “JASON!” over and over again in a crowded shopping mall because the button prompt compels you, or picking the obviously fatal jump out of a window of a burning building, it’s all there, and it’s all still a little bit weird. It’s actually enough to make me think that perhaps the 4th-wall obliterating tutorial by David Cage in Fahrenheit is warranted, to explain to players that they are using the characters as actors in a story (on top of the uniqueness of the controls). To continue the Shenmue comparison, there’s also a touch of foreign-translation in it too; it’s only present in a few lines of dialogue for every hundred or so, but they’re there. There’s also a couple of animations in the body language that ring a little hollow as well. Both of these quirks seem to be a little bit more concentrated around the children, so it might be worth giving it a pass for daring to take on the “no pets or children” rule of show business, in the context of its other movie-esque aspirations. It may be handled a little bit better than its peers of past generations (you only have to look at the way the main character in Fahrenheit moves to bear witness to that), but it’s proof that we’ve yet to hit the plateau on the other side of the uncanny valley just yet.
As far as the story goes, it’s one of the best quality-for-time-invested that I’ve ever experienced. It’s not a long game, but it’s longer than you might expect for something that’s so clearly attempted to bridge the gap between two mediums.There’s maybe a couple of scenes which felt a bit like filler in the greater context, but that’s only something I looked back on with regards to the overall story cohesion; they’re a nett positive, and certainly don’t detract from the experience. Yet again, I find myself withdrawing for fear of entering spoiler land, but I can say that there’s some powerful material here. It’s something of an epic tale at a personal level; with no crazy supernatural nonsense entering the mix.
Provided that you know what you’re entering into, Heavy Rain doesn’t disappoint. QTEphobics should steer clear, but everyone else should give it a look; you don’t even have to be a fan of rain, or even a mere weather enthusiast; Heavy Rain is a downpour of the visual splendour of a dirty world with flawed characters.
The fact that there are several different endings is neither here nor there, for what my opinions worth. They exist as proof that your input can affect the end result; however had they not existed, it wouldn’t have turned my opinion around. Heavy Rain is an outlier on the curve of videogame narrative, treading subject matter and scope that has been all but foreign to the medium until now.