Two relatively recent trends in video gaming have been the dreaded QTE (Quick Time Event) and a more story-driven style of gameplay. The QTE started its life cycle most notably with well-loved games such as Resident Evil 4 and God of War, but has since found itself over-used and much maligned in games such as Dying Light. Story-led gameplay, i.e. doing little but walking around terrain and selecting the occasional dialogue option, has really found its feet with the dramatic rise of Telltale and their games based on The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us.
One of the forerunners in the story-led gameplay genre, however, was Fahrenheit for the PS2 (also known as Indigo Prophecy across the pond). Although I’ve heard it is clunky in parts, having not played it myself, it did create the blueprint for what its production company, Quantic Dream, would set about doing in the future. This first progression from the cold barren wastelands of Fahrenheit was the game I’m currently reviewing, Heavy Rain.
Heavy Rain is a game that has attracted some truly mixed reactions, especially with the passage of time. I was encourage to buy at least one Quantic Dream game by a friend back in England, who is a big fan of both Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls (particularly the latter). Others find Heavy Rain to be a shoddily executed example of David Cage’s imagination spiralling out of control. What do I think? Well, my conclusions are somewhere in the middle, and rather than letting my blood boil over by what I played, instead I looked back on the whole experience and found it left a bland, non-descript taste in my mouth. It was as if my vindaloo had been covertly swapped for a korma.
Heavy Rain is labelled as a psychological thriller in which you play as four different characters, all with a specific connection to the Origami Killer case, which concerns a serial murderer who kidnaps young boys and drowns them in rain water. The primary character is that of Ethan Mars, a freshly divorced dad of two, who is still slowly recovering from a tragic accident. When his younger son goes missing, he takes it upon himself to track down the culprit and get his son, Shaun, back. Ethan is distinctly dead behind the eyes and yet is remarkably a sympathetic character; I personally found that I became heavily invested in making sure Shaun was found alive.
Ethan’s also got that understated dad bod thing going on. Mmm, mediocrity.
The other characters are perhaps less engrossing, so I will list them in the order of my increasing disappointment with their portrayal. Scott Shelby is a private detective who is also trying to crack the conundrum of the Origami Killer, for his own reasons. He has several rendezvous with parents of the killer’s victims, all of which paint Shelby as an intriguing character and give you options to pick between the Good Cop and the Bad Cop role (even though he’s a PI and not a cop…you know what I mean). It also gives rise to some of the most captivating action sequences in the game, including ones in which QTEs are put to good effect (for example, the fight that can be triggered in escort Lauren’s motel room, if Shelby intervenes during a run-in with Lauren’s domestically violent former partner).
The zoomed-in profiles of the characters during the loading screens is used to good effect, though when a scene is taking a large amount of time to load, it can become quite jarring. I haven’t quite figured out whether this is unsettling in a way which enhances the game, or in a way which pulls me out of the action through being creeped out about characters who shouldn’t be creepy.
Madison is an investigative journalist for a newspaper who is also en route to find out juicy details about the Origami Killer, to further her own career. Sleeping in a motel to get some respite from the insomnia she struggles with at her own apartment, she bumps into Ethan and becomes entwined with his search, and with his personal life. Madison is rather stiff and lacks depth; furthermore, her mo-cap is quite possibly one of the worst of the bunch.
Something about her facial structure just isn’t as realistic as Scott’s, for example. I think the lantern jaw and wide eyes combo doesn’t help.
The character who was handled the worst was Normen Jayden, an FBI agent sent to help the local police force in tracking down the Killer. A troubled soul with a burgeoning drug addiction and a bag full of fancy gadgets, we learn very little about Norman, his background and if anyone at all really cares about his hallucination-ridden state. We’re not given reason to really care much about him, unlike with the other characters; his mo-cap is also not particularly great. For that reason, I wasn’t so taken with Norman when compared to the rest of the characters, and I felt like there were missed opportunities.
There would have perhaps been an opportunity here to show a cop consumed by his work and a wife back home left to pick up the pieces: families being destroyed by the Origami Killer in more abstract ways. Instead, he’s simply a workaholic obsessed with catching his man. Both these ideas are quite cliché, but at least with the former, we are given reason to actually care about Norman. Since most of the other adult characters are rather solitary figures with just a handful of meaningful human relationships (though, crucially, at least one or two), a character with a loving family that he himself is destroying would have actually spiced things up a bit.
Also, Norman looks kind of like a rabid Blues Brothers fan with those specs on.
So, best to start off with a few very brief, spoiler-light comments about the plot. The game does an excellent job of getting you invested in Ethan Mars’ personal life from the off, with the tutorial section following Ethan as he and his wife prepare a birthday party for one of their sons. Even though the tasks you can complete are quite mundane, it never dragged on and instead felt like a worthwhile investment in the character. This is precisely why Ethan ended up being one of my favourite characters in the game, despite the general story being nothing out of the ordinary.
Some of the story segments work better than others. The action scenes tended to be well done, though I am actually quite fond of QTE and so I am predisposed towards liking those kinds of action scenes. As already mentioned, a fight scene between Scott and a visitor to a brothel is particularly hair-raising, as is an encounter between Madison and an extremely shady doctor. What did not work for me were some of the challenges Ethan was given by the Origami Killer; I cannot elaborate too much without providing large spoilers, but one which involved navigating a tunnel was extremely tedious to complete and became so poorly mapped out that I ended up failing the level.
Furthermore, all of the attempts to inject some sexiness into the game just fall flat on their face. The one sex scene in the game is so awful I could barely bring myself to direct the male character to unhook the female character’s bra strap (yes, you are controlling someone having sex without having sex yourself – how awful); while I wanted the characters to get together, and so had to run through the scene, I was very close to blue-balling the male character. Honestly, David Cage, if you insist on putting sex in your games, only approach it in such as immersive manner when the technology is there to achieve what you want to achieve. Also, learn a few tricks from porn – nobody finds fumbling about with underwear arousing to watch. I’m sure the purpose of the sex scene was to titillate, not to make us all feel tremendously uncomfortable.
In addition, there is a part of the game where different achievements can be unlocked depending on how far you get a character to take off their clothes – this just seemed unnecessary and akin to fan-service, which is not to my liking. Heavy Rain is supposed to be a cerebral, ground-breaking game, so being so blatant with shoving cheap sexual imagery in your eyes seems like a tonal misfire.
Moving on to the gameplay, Heavy Rain is not too far removed from a point and click adventure, but with certain movements being controlled with painstaking precision by the player. For example, to drink a can of beer, you would yourself direct the character to drink using the analogue sticks to tip the can back, or some sort of similar motion using the PlayStation Move controller (if you buy the Move-compatible version, you can switch between the DualShock 3 and Move controllers in the Options menu). Furthermore, you can press the circle, square, cross and triangle keys to hear the character’s thoughts.
I thought it was all executed rather well, particularly the ability to hear what was whirling around in the characters’ minds, though I really wasn’t so enamoured with the literal direction of the character. I felt like it was often done to death. There is a section in the game where you direct Scott in cooking eggs, and there is even an achievement attached to getting the timings right. Look, Quantic Dream, if I wanted to play Cooking Mama, I have the cartridge and I would – just because a mechanic is all shiny and new does not mean you have to jam it down my throat every five seconds. On the other hand, it fit like a glove with the fight scenes. I got the strong sense that when Quantic Dream knows it’s on to something good, it uses it at every available second until it loses its sheen. It’s a really bad habit to develop and something I would hope improved with Beyond: Two Souls, as I have only played its demo so far.
Another element of gameplay which I felt was executed poorly concerned Norman’s investigative abilities. The demo on using his ARI technique to sift through collected evidence was fairly scant and I felt left to my own devices too much, which resulted in me becoming complacent and getting an associated bad ending. Don’t get me wrong, I do not expect Heavy Rain to hold my hand (an area in which Ethan is also notably lax), but the game had been doing a lot of hand-holding with other areas, such as the prologue’s birthday party. I don’t think the precise movement controls took as much getting used to as knowing how to properly use the ARI. On the other hand, actually searching crime scenes was far too easy; it was a case of simply walking past anything suspicious-looking and seeing whether it lit up like a Christmas tree. I kind of expected the detective elements to be much more up to scratch in a thriller game.
Next up on the criticism roster are the visuals and the sound. I don’t think there is actually that much to complain about regarding the visuals themselves, considering the time at which the game was brought out; the problem is that the graphics were not developed enough for what David Cage was trying to achieve with his vision. Maybe a lot of the awkwardness in the sex scenes (mouths barely meeting, for example) and weirdness in the facial expressions may be corrected in the HD remaster for PS4.
However, I believe some of the problems also lie in how well the foundation work on animating the characters was done, as some characters seemed to suffer from more “uncanny valley” problems than others. The game actually became quite creepy at times, and for the wrong reasons, because while the characters looked incredibly realistic in some frames, sometimes the mouths would not move as expected or the movement of the body would be slightly unnatural. This is a problem of the visuals being great, but not excellent enough to match up to Quantic Dream’s vision. The Kara tech demo and recent trailer show more promise regarding what Quantic Dream can achieve, once technology has caught up.
The music in the game is commendable, lending a sombre mood to the entire game. Scott’s parts were particularly supported by a good theme tune of sorts. One part of the game which takes place in a nightclub was marred slightly by some over-the-top, 70s porn-style music choices, but it wasn’t so bad that it made a mockery of the scenes I was watching/playing through. It’s clear to see through all of the development choices that Quantic Dream knows how to plan out a good game and at least half of what it requires to execute their plans well, but they suffer from 2 issues: 1) getting ahead of themselves regarding what they can actually achieve, i.e. with the PS3 hardware; 2) not knowing when to ease off on certain ideas which are only good in moderation.
Regarding the general experience of playing and potential replayability, I do not really have much drive to pick up Heavy Rain again any time soon. This is not because I found it an appalling experience, because I actually didn’t find it anywhere near that bad. Despite all my complaining throughout this review, I was able to set aside all of my problems with Heavy Rain and get immersed in the game as an at-worst competent, at-best gripping drama while I was actually sitting in my armchair to do my first playthrough. I played it over the space of five evenings, with an alcoholic drink and family-sized bag of crisps at the ready, lapping it all up.
The problem is that because of the layout of the game, getting all of the achievements cannot be managed in one playthrough, and replaying story-based chapters that you’ve just seen, or even the whole game, once you know the plot twists is quite boring. This is a pitfall when the game is predominantly about story; unless you are a dyed-in-the-wool completionist, you’re not going to want to sit through it all again for at least a few weeks, if not longer. Sure enough, parts of the plot do adapt to your decisions towards the end, but chances are that the niggling doubts about Heavy Rain will stop you from wanting to take time completing it.
Heavy Rain is, in conclusion, a slightly haphazard but fundamentally competent game. If you’re anything like me, you will find it captivating at the time, but be done with it by the end of your first playthrough. I would recommend you pick it up as a cheap PS3 copy (I found mine at CeX in Manchester for £6); regarding the PS4 version coming out as a digital download on March 1, keep your eye on the reviews when it is released. I would say you should only shell out the extra money for this version if some of the problems I’ve mentioned have been fixed, for example the creepy, talking doll-like expressions of the characters have been somehow smoothed over significantly. Even then, it is probably only worth paying more than about £10 for the experience if you’re the type of person who can force yourself to play the same story multiple times, or the branching element of the story is improved significantly with the transition to PS4. I would definitely not tell you it’s a terrible game unworthy of your time, but you should know what it is worth before you buy it, and don’t expect to be immersed i Heavy Rain for very long.