Heavy Rain is one of the best games I have ever had the pleasure of playing. Did you notice that I called it a game? Interactive Movie? Collection of Quick-time Events? Giant Cut-scene? Nope, game. Divisive it certainly is, brilliant it certainly is. For everyone, probably not, but what game is? It is however, inarguably excellent.
That was a lot of rhetorical questions, we’ll get to that later. Insert the disc and you’ll get an install screen with instructions on how to make the Origami figure from the cover using the insert you get with the limited edition, I passed, I’ll do a photocopy another time. Then you’ll see a title screen, a very, very pretty title screen, all rendered in the in-game engine, and that’s just a taste of things to come. Graphics are a very important factor in any game that tries to create atmosphere through visual aesthetics. Character models are gorgeous and detailed, (all over for a change too), in fact this is one of the few games I’ve seen that have self-shadows actually looking good. Environments are decadently detailed, even to the point of a scene which is completely optional and has no bearing on the results of a play-through having inside it a brief flash view of an object that’s fully detailed and beautifully rendered. The lengths the art team have gone to results in opulently stunning visuals, and the game is not afraid to use colour, the opening scenes of the game are a lush veneer of vibrancy, brightly matching the theme and mood of the opening of the game, vividly demonstrating the oft-neglected realisation that the world outside actually has colour and isn’t a grey-brown mush. Unless of course, it’s overcast and raining. Even then, they manage to desaturate the world to a reasonable level, when I’m sad and it’s raining, the world does not become greyscale, after-all. Nor is it afraid of graphical limitations. At many points, they could have easily hidden some things that graphics engines don’t handle well, like clothing being removed and put on, but Heavy Rain places it right there in front of you. It doesn’t look great, but it’s a bloody good attempt, and rather than break you from the game, it just helps to create intimacy with the characters by letting you see things other games are afraid to. There are some downsides however, you’re likely to experience a few glitches when you play through it, most of them quite minor things like characters occasionally walking through another character or through your display. Since the presentation is so exceptionally well done, these minor irritations are instantly forgiven.
Since the game relies so heavily on atmosphere you’d expect the music score to match, and Heavy Rain certainly doesn’t disappoint, having a full orchestra in a recording studio may be expensive, but has definite advantages over electronica. The sheer dynamic range of the music is a wonder to behold. The music does very well at evoking exactly the right emotion, in exactly the right moment, at no point did I experience an inappropriate score when triggering an ill-placed event. It really belies the game’s status as a labour of love and pays off wonderfully. One or two occasional sound-cutting-out problems, don’t mar the surprisingly good sound score. The only criticism I have for sound if that characters can interrupt themselves rather than pausing and finishing off a thought first.
Like any good story, it tries to do what most books manage easily, but games, seemingly, have a hard time doing, multiple lead characters. This is a game where you can’t really say, “You play as Ethan, architect”, since you actually control five characters over the course of the gameplay, and not in a passing the pole sort of way, but in a genuinely multiple perspectives in the same story kind of way. No mean feat in a game with so many alternate ways to complete a scene, ‘though sometimes it falls foul of an out of place bit of dialogue that probably wasn’t mean to be there.
Interactive drama is the phrase that Quantic Dream’s Dave Cage used to describe the game, and whilst it may sound a little pretentious, the game is good enough, and the phrase is accurate enough that it isn’t. As a game, it is fantastic, but it really is interactive drama, and has everything; a healthy fowl sense of humour, extremely tense action sequences, grief, love, betrayal, perversity. Those are just the main themes. The game poses the question “How far would you go for love?” and the game’s characters answer that question in different contexts and different ways, it’s a requiem of subtlety, a magnum opus of storytelling, a flowery phrase of … awesomeness. More importantly, it’s not only tremendous fun, but is an emotional, nerve-racking roller-coaster of gaming bliss. It can get away with it. It’s a breath of fresh air from the usual oh-look-an-explosion story.
However, this is where some may not enjoy the game, as good as it is. The same way some people simply won’t enjoy a film, or the subject of a film. I know many people who find horror singularly un-watchable because they get no positive thrill from being scared. Heavy Rain isn’t really horror of course, but it does have situations in it that some people would have difficulty empathising with in a similar way. The story of Heavy Rain for example would have been far less poignant to me before I became a parent, and whilst the game is suitable for play at 15+, that doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it as much at that age, although I have known some surprisingly mature fifteen-year-olds who would. After-all, to identify with these characters you’ll have to know something about what they’re thinking, and some parts will have most certainly been lost on me, and even more so the less you can see yourself in a given character’s shoes. Then there are those that don’t really believe that any of this sort of stuff belongs in a video game at all, and would prefer games to be short pick up and play bouts of fun. Recommending a character-based and story-driven game to them would be, understandably, a hard sell. So I’m not going to try, there’s nothing wrong with it not being your proverbial cup of tea. If you are even remotely interested in the themes or story, or just anything character based on a games console, you will love this game.
The game opens idyllically and colourfully and manages to do what most games sadly don’t bother with. Character attachment. We instantly bond with the characters and situations within the opening because they’re so human with all the idiosyncrasy we love in the people we surround ourselves with. Basically, it’s ‘perfect’ without being vomit-inducing (unlike, say, Final Fantasy VIII, which just made me hate Rinoa). Characters are properly introduced, and we can say so much about them from just a brief period of time purely by reading the context and, hell, the body-language of the characters. That’s great acting for you, don’t let anyone fool you by saying the acting is bad, there is such a thing as good acting and bad acting, and good acting portrays a character believably. This game has good acting in oodles, and this really isn’t an exercise in opinion. There have also been complaints about the voices being thinly-veiled French, I’m not even sure how people can say this with a straight face since this only applies to one character, who is probably French by design. Most voice actors in it are British, so be very wary of people who make this complaint. Of course, that’s not to say that the accents aren’t suitably quirky, the FBI agent has a curious way of pronouncing ‘o’, but it just makes him more likeable, and the story works so well because of the characters. For example, the way I felt real terror via empathy right near the start of the game was only possible because I could immediately identify with the characters and situation the game shows you, even though it was predictable, and necessarily so, otherwise the game wouldn’t be. It was only possible because the game didn’t tell me what was happening, but showed me exactly what was happening, but better than any film, because I had to do it myself. The palpable sense of overwhelming grief is only doable if you have good actors giving human reactions.
You’ll also feel rather more than that, there are some just plain upsetting parts in the game, and some very nasty moments, luckily these moments aren’t revelled in at all, merely presented for what they are, unpleasant moments that make you feel uncomfortable, because they are uncomfortable. Or the sections that make you so tense that it’s only when the scene ends that you realise your whole upper-body is tensed up. Wonderful.
Despite being so down to earth and human, this doesn’t mean you can’t have some fun sci-fi element in the game, although Heavy Rain is extremely light in this regard, it is worth talking about. The ARI system is a means of examining and analysing your environment utilising a vast database of information and is one of the little things one of the characters in the game is able to do, but in augmented reality, and complements one or two ‘insanity effect’ type moments in the game, what you see on the screen is, albeit very rarely, not what may actually be happening to the people in the story. The sci-fi sleuthing element is a cool, effective, and much needed break in the emotionally exhausting ups and downs of the game.
Gameplay-wise, you interact with the game with a quite interesting fluid control system which changes and modifies itself in context with where you are, what you’re doing, and the stress levels you are under. For example, the quarter-circle on the right-stick motion is used for things like opening doors, or getting something from your pocket, the game prompts where you can use these (although there is at least one action you can use that doesn’t prompt you) as a flat icon embedded in the 3D world. During a different sequence it might be to shift your arm up to another hand-hold, but because you’re stressed out it will shake and jitter becoming less clear. Some buttons are pretty fixed in function, L2 is usually for thinking where a character will give their thought monologue and R2 is normally for forward movement, thinking and forward movement are never any other button, so when there’s no prompt, that’s what they do. R2 for walk is just so you don’t suddenly change direction due to the camera, it does take a lot to get used to, to not constantly have the left stick pointing in the direction of where you want to go. There are also quite a lot of quick-time events so if, like many gamers, you have an irrational hate erection for timed button presses then you should probably stop gaming since pretty much every game you’ve played has a timed button sequence somewhere (even incredibly sophisticated control schemes like Modern Warfare 2’s, press ‘A’ to shoot man). I mean, you may want to avoid Heavy Rain. Really though, there’s nothing wrong with QTEs, especially when they lend themselves to the action. They don’t do most of the things that people hate about them, for example, missing one does not make you fail, nor does it make you do the entire sequence again. Also the first few sequences of keys are generally unimportant if you’re given no warning, so generally, you either know when they’re coming or it won’t change a huge portion of the story if you miss the first couple. You may however get a little more beaten up. There are some minor problems with the control scheme however, sometimes it’s a little difficult to differentiate betwixt square and circle and you’ll miss the one you want, not intentionally like when you’re stressed, but purely because you’ve picked the wrong camera angle and it’s quite small, I’d have also liked to have seen colour in the on-screen button displays to match the colours on the controller, these could have met the saturation level on the screen to not spoil the atmosphere. They could have inverted the text when you need to hold rather than press a button and this would have made it instantly obvious what you do, rather than have a small triangle at the top of the button. One thing the control system does help get rid of is any sort of HUD, leaving our view-port into the world that much clearer. Everything tends to lend itself to the atmosphere since it’s such a large portion of the game’s charm. It’s also quite nice to not have to directly micromanage aspects of what the characters do in regards to controls, they’ll do things on their own. On the other hand, some of the things they don’t do on their own is sometimes a little confusing. For example, you get to do quite mundane things like shave and put pants on. The first time through this isn’t so bad, it does help immerse you in the story, but feels a bit pointless at times.
A lot of the sequences in the game are wonderfully non-linear, but others can be relatively dull where you’re given pretty explicit direction and not much in the way of extraneous stuff you can accomplish, luckily this is for small sections of the whole. Generally there are so many options that you won’t discover them all for several play-throughs, possibly not even until someone just tells you the things they did and you realise you’d never even thought of trying it. Personally, I love it just for that, it’ll drive me pleasantly crazy trying to get all the little extra actions acted and thoughts thunk. The story can be twung very far in several directions all at once, so you never have to worry if you’re somehow going to break the game, and you get lots of chances to re-do vast arrays of actions in different orders and at different times, with just enough last-minute dodges to keep you on your toes and really enjoying yourself.
It’s also nice to see a game not just use the extra space on a blu-ray to have higher quality pre-rendered cut-scenes. Heavy Rain has exactly zero. When your in-game engine looks this good, frankly, you don’t need to, better off using the extra space for more art and general content. So a lot of the extras are just concept art stills, but they give you a look into how they thought the game out (very well!), and there are some short making-of type movies which are very well done and answer all the questions you’d have about making the game. They all open up once they no longer spoil the game. I can only hope more DLC comes out in the form of Chronicles added to the game as one of the flaws of Heavy Rain is that it isn’t as compelling the second time around even if you do things differently, the feature allowing you to restart the story from a chapter helps, but it would have also helped to allow players to skip speech they’d already heard, a small concession to make it more of a gamer’s game.
This is a must-play gaming experience.
Games are rarely this special.