Review: Heavy Rain

Quantic Dream would have you believe that Heavy Rain is not a videogame. The studio has long-standing fantasies of being in the film industry, to the point where its last game, Fahrenheit, completely masqueraded as a movie. Director David Cage even put himself in the game, sitting in a director’s chair in the middle of a “movie studio.” Arrogant, perhaps, but you have to admire the team’s conviction. 

Heavy Rain takes what Fahrenheit started one step further, producing what Quantic Dream calls an “interactive movie.” Of course, most gamers will realize that what Quantic Dream has done isn’t all that new. This PlayStation 3 exclusive is more of a game than it would like you to believe, evoking memories of old point-and-click adventure games, albeit with a little more Hollywood flair. 

That said, Heavy Rain should certainly be complimented on its achievements. It’s not often a videogame can claim to be a psychological thriller, and the team has succeeded in bringing an underutilized narrative genre to videogames. Heavy Rain does a lot of interesting things, but interesting does not automatically mean good.

To find out if Quantic Dream’s ambition paid off, read on as we review Heavy Rain.

Heavy Rain (PlayStation 3)
Developer: Quantic Dream
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment
To be released: February 23, 2010
MSRP: $59.99

Heavy Rain tells its story from the perspective of four characters, all linked in their bid to track down the Origami Killer, a serial child-murderer who drowns young boys and places an origami figure on their bodies. The main protagonist is Ethan Mars, an architect who had already lost one son in a car accident, only to potentially lose a second to the killer. The hunt for Ethan’s son draws in private detective Scott Shelby, FBI agent Norman Jayden, and insomniac photographer Madison Paige. Each character has their own unique adventure as they individually investigate the Origami Killer case, and each one will have a potentially unique story depending on the choices the player makes throughout the game. 

Heavy Rain starts out quite dull indeed. Whereas Fahrenheit instantly gripped players by starting with a brutal murder and forcing players to hurriedly clean up the crime scene, Heavy Rain begins with perhaps the dullest and most boring game intro I’ve ever experienced. Players wake up, get out of bed, shake the SIXAXIS to brush their teeth, and do all manner of mundane things. Unfortunately, this will become a common thread that runs throughout the entirety of the game. During the course of Heavy Rain‘s story, players will perform such thrilling tasks as shaving, putting on lipstick, and slowly dressing wounds. If that sounds thrilling, then you lead a very boring life. Let me tell you right now that it is not thrilling. 

Fortunately, however, the game’s many boring moments are offset by some of the most intense and sometimes terrifying sequences ever found in a game. Although the game’s action sequences are all quick-time events, they actually succeed in drawing players into the game. Think of it like Guitar Hero, but if the music was replaced with an epic fight scene or chase sequence. Tightly-scripted, fast-paced and always accompanied by a lingering sense of dread, these action scenes have provided me with some of the most nail-biting moments I’ve ever experienced. 

Of course, these scenes are fantastic until you learn one thing — very rarely does your input matter. If Heavy Rain does one thing amazingly well, it’s create an illusion of urgency, and a feeling that your choices matter to the game. Sadly, however, that’s what the vast majority of them are — illusions and feelings. You are made to believe that any one of your four characters could die at any moment, but that’s not true. There are many sections that, no matter how hard you try and fail them, will always be completed successfully. Ethan, for example, must undergo a number of “trials” in order to save his son. They are dangerous and life-threatening and on the first play, you might believe Ethan is in danger. He is not. He cannot fail many of these sections. In fact, most of the time, you can simply put your controller on the floor and the game will play itself for you. In that regard, Quantic Dream most certainly created a movie experience.

That’s about as close to a “movie experience” as Heavy Rain gets, though. You see, if Heavy Rain really was a movie, critics would tear it apart. The narrative, like the game, starts off incredibly slowly, gets very interesting toward the middle, and then becomes the worst shambles of deus ex machina and incredibly stupid plot twists that you could hope to find. Without spoiling the plot, it’s hard to tell you exactly why the story is so terrible, but let me simply say that Quantic Dream tried too hard to be clever with the narrative’s unchangeable elements and overshot by a mile.

The game’s main conclusion, whch all gamers will experience, plays a certain trick that is at once inanely predictable and utterly bemusing. The closing chapter of the game is full of so many plot holes, disregarded story elements, and failed attempts to shock for the mere sake of shocking, that any player with a brain would be rightly angered by the smug and frankly inept conclusion. Depending on the choices players make in the game, it can be even worse. You might have characters make references to things in the ending that they never actually experienced during your personal play-through, which seems to indicate that Quantic Dream never bothered to tie up certain narrative loose ends. This is easy to believe when you realize that certain revelations and red herrings in the plot are never resolved — they are simply discarded once they become inconvenient.

This is before we even go into the characters. Two-dimensional and accompanied by mediocre-at-best voice acting, the Heavy Rain cast is impossible to empathize with. The relationship between Ethan and Madison, for example, is so rushed and forced that it feels as if a child devised their interactions. About the only compelling character is Jayden, whose addiction to the fictional drug Triptocaine makes him a rather conflicted and interesting protagonist, especially in the scenes where players have to try and resist his addictive urges.

In a rather desperate attempt to come up with as many Origami Killer suspects as possible, Heavy Rain also introduces us to about five different psychopaths in the space of a few hours. From doctors that want to perform surgery on people while they’re still awake, to club owners who get off on forcing women to strip at gunpoint, the game is full of so many ludicrously over-the-top characters that it becomes simply laughable. It’s the sheer volume of ridiculous situations and unbelievable characters that make the game so hard to get behind. If it could have limited itself to just one or two overtly maladjusted comic-book villains, it might not have been so bad, but it seems that ever other chapter has yet another crazed sociopath ready to hold up a sign that says “I MIGHT BE THE KILLER OMG.”

It’s sad because, from a conceptual standpoint, Heavy Rain does a lot of things right. The sections with Ethan’s trials are brilliant from a narrative perspective, and the very fact that Quantic Dream even attempts a serial killer story in a videogame is worthy of respect. The game is very good at presenting tense moments, intriguing choices and a sense that whatever you do, it will have an outcome on the game’s conclusion. Of course, many of these choices aren’t really choices at all, but that’s not to undermine the moments where decisions really do have long-standing consequences. Characters can die before the game’s closing chapters, and a player’s going to have to think long and hard if they intend to keep everybody alive for as long as possible. 

If anything, Heavy Rain deserves to be played simply to see the potential of games in this style. In the hands of better writers and the throats of better voice actors, a game like Heavy Rain could be absolutely amazing. This particular game is good in many ways, and is truly a trailblazer, but it falls short of its own ambitions, possibly because it thought it was so clever that it didn’t try harder. The game’s plot is awful in many ways, yet it still made me wrack my brains over who the Origami Killer might be. The gameplay is more smoke-and-mirrors than life-or-death, yet it still shook my nerves and provided me with some fast-paced excitement that I won’t soon forget. For the memorable experience and the sincere attempts to be interesting, Heavy Rain deserves praise. The fact that the ending is so stupid doesn’t take away from the fun I had, but likewise, the fun I had doesn’t make up for the dull and frustrating moments where I was moving the right analog stick incredibly slowly so that my character could apply mascara without jabbing herself in the eye. 

Quantic Dream also chose style over practicality, representing all its QTE button prompts with stylized white windows that are sometimes hard to differentiate. During tense moments, the game will have all the button prompts shake in order to make the player feel that they are under pressure. However, there is a prompt that pulses in order to indicate that players need to rapidly tap a button. During intense QTE sections, it can be hard to tell straight away whether the game wants you to hold a button down or tap it rapidly, due to the fact that all the icons are trembling. Perhaps this is what the developers wanted, but it’s frustrating to experience regardless. 

The camera doesn’t help things either. Some button prompts end up hidden off-camera, or behind other objects. The game made them appear in dynamic areas, but the camera doesn’t recognize that, and sometimes it’s hard to interact with an object because the prompts to do so are not placed clearly enough for the player to see. 

As well as the QTEs, Heavy Rain also has players perform certain tasks by holding down certain buttons while pressing new ones. At first, this starts simply. Hold X, then keep X held while pressing Triangle, now keep Triangle and X held while pushing R1. However, as the game continues, one can end up playing Twister with their fingers as they struggle to keep the buttons held while accessing new ones. It sounds like it would be painful and annoying, but it’s surprisingly challenging and rewarding. 

The game certainly looks very good, which is something it does have going for it. The characters are incredibly detailed, and the environments are varied and remarkable in their normalcy. The constant rain effects create a drab atmosphere that is actually quite appealing in its bleakness. However, the great visuals are offset by rather stiff and awkward animations and a tendency for the game to shudder at odd moments and skip frames when transitioning the occasional camera angle. The voice acting, as we’ve already determined, is atrocious for the most part, but the music, at least, goes some way toward making up for that. Morbid and beautiful, the game’s score is one of the highlights. 

Heavy Rain wishes to be compared to movies, but it is very lucky to be a videogame, a medium where a poor narrative is more readily forgiven. When compared to movies, Heavy Rain not only falls short, but is almost embarrassingly sub-par. Hell, compared to some of the leading narratives in videogames, Heavy Rain is below expectations. Less demanding players may be tricked into thinking the game is telling a brilliant story simply because it’s not telling the kind of story that gamers are used to seeing, but make no mistake: its naive conclusions and impossibly weak characters would get Heavy Rain laughed out of any serious film festival. 

For its ambition and the genuinely exciting moments it provides, Heavy Rain is a good game. It had enough tools to be something truly spectacular, but its developers were unfortunately not up to the task. PS3 owners should definitely play it, and many will hail it as a classic, but anybody with an eye for a good story and a desire to not have their time wasted will be exasperated by the many slow chapters and the poor writing. Everybody should be able to have fun with it, and that is the most important part. It’s just that the fun is accompanied by a sour aftertaste.

Ultimately, Heavy Rain is an experiment that both succeeded and failed, when it could easily have been a total success if the brains behind it weren’t trying so hard to be smart, and cared more about providing a sensible plot as opposed to a shocking one. As a game, Heavy Rain is pretty good for the most part. Heavy Rain is just damn lucky it isn’t the movie that it wishes so badly to be. 

Score: 7.0 — Good (7s are solid games that definitely have an audience. Might lack replay value, could be too short or there are some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.)

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James Stephanie Sterling
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