Heavy Rain PS3 Review
Heavy Rain has been causing quite a stir within the games industry since its announcement a couple of years ago. David Cage, head of Quantic Dream has been persistent in outlining Heavy Rain’s role as something more than a video game – intent on referring to it as an ‘interactive drama’. While it’s debateable that most plot-led video games could technically fall under this genre, Heavy Rain takes the far more literal approach to the term ‘drama’, providing an emotionally charged adult thriller with a maturity that is lacking from the majority of contemporary games.
Heavy Rain begins with Ethan Mars waking up in his IKEA-furnished home. As an introduction to the game’s context sensitive control scheme, Ethan is taken through his morning routine – beginning with a shower, cleaning his teeth, shaving and then getting dressed. Each action is performed following an on-screen prompt, be it a stroke of the right stick, the press of a button or the tilting and shaking of the controller itself. These three key actions are used throughout Heavy Rain, and depending on the situation bring with them varied results.
In order for Ethan to shave, the game requires a slow and steady movement of the right stick, whereas to dry Ethan once he’s exited the shower the controller must be shaken from side to side, mimicking his movement as he dries his back with a towel. In cases like these the system succeeds in providing the kind of feedback that puts you in the character’s place. Other actions however, like violently shaking the controller up and down in order to clean Ethan’s teeth, are a little too overzealous to be taken seriously.
Once he’s washed and dressed, Ethan is free to wander the house looking for things to keep him occupied until his wife and boys arrive home. It’s here that the game first provides the ability to make your own decisions, using the time to do some work in Ethan’s study, getting a cup of coffee and watching TV or just strolling around the garden, marvelling at the scenery. In most situations it’s possible to hold the left trigger in order to bring up the character’s thoughts. These provide an inner monologue, detailing potential courses of action or giving insight into the current situation, often fleshing out plot elements but occasionally acting merely as suggestions with regards to what to do next.
In the following scene, Ethan witnesses the death of his son Jason in a tragic turn of events which sets the tone for the rest of the game. A stark contrast to the blue skies and green grass of the game’s opening, from here on in it’s all run-down suburban plots, abandoned warehouses and industrial waste lands. And lots and lots of rain. Two years on from the accident and we’re playing once more as Ethan, picking his remaining son Shaun up from school.
If Quantic Dream has achieved anything with Heavy Rain it’s drawing complete empathy from its audience. Sat silently in the car, rain drumming on the windscreen, you feel completely helpless as Shaun sits staring from the window. At home you constantly search for things to do or talk about with your son, searching for some way to be part of his life. His cold, uninterested responses further the feelings of hopelessness, putting you right into the shoes of Ethan Mars.
It’s an incredible feat, but Heavy Rain manages to successfully project the mindset of the character with such strength, that in just three short scenes you already feel like you’ve experienced what it’s like to be a father, through both good times and bad. And while the intensity of the hunt for the titular Origami Killer has all the traits of a great thriller, for me it was the subtlety of the opening scenes which continued to resonate throughout.
The investigation into the Origami Killer is spread across four characters, with each story entwining at certain moments culminating in a variety of outcomes depending on what actions the player takes. Though the game is played using only two different control methods, be it the context sensitive gestures as described above, or a more traditional quick-time-event mechanic, its driven purely by the decisions made by the player, each having a consequence that can change the game drastically.
The interesting thing about this choice and consequence system is, while in some places failing or succeeding during a sequence of QTEs may result in the same or a very similar outcome, in other places it will result in a complete change to the way the game plays out. There are many situations in which if you fail to perform adequately enough, you will die; and in Heavy Rain, death is death.
There are no continues and no ‘game-over’s. A character’s death in Heavy Rain doesn’t stop the ball from rolling it simply changes its path. Though David Cage once professed his wish that players would only play through once and consider that to be ‘their story’, once a chapter is complete you have the opportunity to go back to it at any point and try out different things, rather than having to start all over again. Performing certain action with certain characters will lead to new opportunities for other characters later on, making replays far more interesting than in most other games.
It’s the character development that turns Heavy Rain into something a bit special. There are times in which the acting is a bit hammy – possibly a result of English actors putting on American accents, but for the most part it’s difficult not to get sucked in to the rapidly developing narrative. Though none of the other characters are quite as involved as Ethan Mars and the trials he must complete to find his son, each character has a distinct human feel to them; flawed, but highly likeable. It’s because of this that performing tasks incorrectly and making quick decisions become such an affecting aspect of Heavy Rain.
It’s a bit special then, but despite all the praise it still has it flaws. Though the narrative is as intense and as thrilling as all the trailers suggested it would be, there’s still the issue that – despite how much he wants to believe it – David Cage is not a Hollywood screenwriter. It’s nothing as inexcusable as Lucas Kane fighting the internet in Fahrenheit, but despite Heavy Rain’s emphasis on gritty realism there are times when its believability is highly questionable. Instead of focussing on making a story that flows smoothly, Cage has opted to leave plot-holes in order to achieve the game’s ‘clever’ twist.
The choice and consequence mechanic also makes for what can be a confusing experience. Key character traits, back-story and plot devices can be completely missed depending on how each scene is played. Though this is part of Heavy Rain’s draw, there are scenes when characters will be privy to details that are assumed to be known to the player, even though the player missed out on them because they failed to perform a certain task. It’s evident in a lot of scenarios that the game wasn’t built to recognise individual choices made in previous scenes rather working from larger, more impacting decisions.
The final gripe is a more superficial issue, but still a jarringly obvious one. Heavy Rain is probably the most realistic looking video game in existence. It slaps you bang in the middle of the uncanny valley and refuses to let you out. From the white washed dream-house at the beginning to the dilapidated motels and rain-soaked factories of the later chapters, there is rarely moment when the visual quality fails to impress. The character models (at least of the main cast) are so incredibly detailed and animated, that for the first time in a video game there are moments that look like live action. That is, until two characters kiss.
For a start the kissing is a bi-product of David Cage’s attempt to introduce Hollywood fluff into a game that really doesn’t need it, but more to the point it looks like two amputees having a fight using nothing but their mouths, immediately after an orthodontic operation. In scenes where emotional intensity is everything, we’re witness to a couple clashing their faces together, mouths agape. It is beyond hilarious.
Regardless, Heavy Rain is a fascinating project. It takes away much of the control featured in traditional video games, yet is no less engaging because of it. It strives to produce emotional involvement, and succeeds in so many different ways. There’s going to be a huge number of people who don’t like Heavy Rain, and many will write it off as an interactive movie. You should feel sorry for those people, because Heavy Rain is as intense, as exciting, as touching and as disturbing as anything yet to grace the Playstation 3. It may have its downfalls, but its ambition deserves your attention.