Review: Heavy Rain

To every person who has ever claimed that they are all about story over game play, be prepared to put your money where your mouth is. An ambitious title from start to finish, Heavy Rain will challenge you not only on your assertions, but possibly your morality and level of immersion as well. Whether you call it “interactive media,” a “story-driven game” or “Choose Your Own Adventure gone wrong,” Heavy Rain will intrigue you enough to play it and it will elicit a reaction whether it be for good or for ill.

The story is in the not-to-distant future of a city gripped in fear of a kidnapper / serial killer. With little hope of catching the killer, the hysteria mounts as another victim is taken. You play as each of four characters who are all looking for young Shaun Mars in a desperate race to save the missing child and bring a killer to justice. The game will test you as to how far you really are willing to go to save Shaun. Through this story and these characters, I experienced remorse, anger, helplessness, resolve and pity.

The immersion levels you can reach in this game are amazing. The night I finished my first play-through, I felt like I had seen a movie and was remembering the good parts. Those good parts included times where I hemmed and hawed over a decision or situation, or just went with my gut rather than deciding on what was best for the pixelated character I was playing. I even tried to make up for the wrongs I had committed in a prior scene. That is the beauty of this title. Decisions you make - by saying something or staying silent or by your action or inaction - impact how the story progresses. This level of engagement is present throughout the entire experience - though not always how you planned.

The pacing of the scenes and the story on the whole changes during the game. Sometimes, you have time to strategize and think your way through a situation and other times demand split-second reactions that, once made, require you to just hold on and take the ride. There is an excellent balance between building up to climaxes along the way and those adrenaline-pumping moments you talk about afterwards. A warning to the weary traveler expecting a 20-minute long Metal Gear Solid-like cut scene: putting down your controller could result in failure or even death. There were more than a couple times I exclaimed “Oh Shit!” after thinking I could relax my arms, only to find out I needed precise execution at that very moment.

The controls are said to be “context sensitive.” Translated, that means you will be prompted to push the indicated buttons or make movements with the controller at the proper time in order to successfully move forward in the game (read: Quick Time Events or QTEs). There may be some of you who have stopped reading at this point (for those of you who have a deep-seated hatred of QTEs). Well, this brings us to the first caveat of Heavy Rain: if you are looking for an action-oriented, skill-based, third-person experience, return the game immediately. That said, the actions are mapped to controller or stick movements that generally mimic what your character is doing. At the beginning, it feels cheesy to move the controller back and forth to brush your teeth, but by the end you consider these arm and finger movements to be a part of your arsenal. I will mention that many of you will hate the walking mechanic. Pressing R2 will make your character begin walking or running (depending on the situation) in a forward direction. This brings us to the second caveat: if you cannot deal with a mechanic like in Resident Evil 4 or 5 where you have to hold a button to do one action while it disables another, you should probably return this game. Remember: this is about the experience and not about being able to run and shoot (or knife someone) simultaneously.

Interactions between characters and between the character and you play a big role in Heavy Rain. Dialog trees are more than just Good, Evil or Neutral - sometimes choosing one verbal path over another leads to unwanted consequences. Your dialog choices will swim around your head and, depending on your mood and the volatility of the situation, they may be moving faster or slower, be written clearly or be frantically vibrating or have a long or short duration on the screen. If you feel stuck, there is a mechanic to listen to the character’s thoughts. However, I felt they misstepped on this one. At the beginning, you get to hear what those characters are thinking, but by the end I felt like I was telling the character what to think rather than hearing their thoughts. Perhaps that is meant to help players feel they are in the characters’ shoes, but I found it annoying and began distrusting the use of the mechanic. It’s not that I was being given wrong information, but clicking through all the thoughts revealed opposing opinions that did not make sense.

Graphically, this is one solid piece of work. The developers really attempted to make the animations feel smooth and solid. While they were not perfect by any means, they did an admirable job in this department and the amount of detail in the character models is fantastic. There were a few glitches I experienced here and there including one time I left one of my feet three steps up until my legs were at a 90-degree angle. I also experienced a huge frustration at the beginning when playing as Ethan trying to find his son Jason in the mall (not really a spoiler, it’s in the first 20 minutes). Jason is supposed to be ahead of you and out of sight, except for me where he was just standing there. So, I’m standing in front of him but the game would not allow me to interact with the son. I could only yell his name like I was looking for him. Needless to say, I was pissed because I thought I had completed the mission by finding Jason, who I apparently wasn't supposed to find there.

The sounds, voice acting and writing were acceptable. The story itself is phenomenal, but sometimes the verbal interactions felt stilted or cheesy. It did not take away from the experience or the immersion, but at times I wondered what soap opera I was watching. Another disappointment was the music - I wanted the soundtrack to reach out and take hold of me like these characters did. On the flip side, the sound effects really made this game pop and added to the ambiance. The aural clues were subtle, but unmistakable.

All these miscues pale in comparison to the experience I had save one. That one is the camera. Quantic Dream wanted this title to feel like a movie and in many ways, it does. Some scenes are so seamless and run so smoothly that you cannot help but being pulled into the drama that lies before you. That is, until the camera doesn't swing around and totally screws you. In one chapter, you find yourself in a tight space with very little light and little to no guidance. Since the space is limited, you find your third-person view cramped with you taking up a lot of real estate on the screen. Normally, the loose controls do not hinder you in an open space, but here, I found myself never turning down the path I wanted to take. It was so bad at one point that I ended up back at the beginning. I thought I was traveling in the right direction; apparently I was not. I totally failed the chapter and missed out on a silver trophy.

Though this will probably not apply to many of you, the third and final caveat is this: Heavy Rain was not meant to be played on a standard definition television. I have a 27” flat screen CRT and I literally had to sit up close to the television to read the squished, tiny writing. You don’t necessarily have to return the game, just be forewarned.

Heavy Rain is one of best experiences I have had yet on my PlayStation 3. While I cannot say this title is revolutionizing the industry, I will state that every progressive step this game made in terms of story, interactivity and immersion was absolutely in a positive direction. If you own a PS3, are looking for something that is outside your comfort zone and meet the three caveats, Heavy Rain is a must-purchase title even at $60.

Heavy Rain is exclusively on PlayStation 3. It was developed by Quantic Dream (Indigo Prophecy) and published by Sony. It is rated Mature for adult themes including, but not limited to: violence, suicide, nudity, sex, drug use and psychology. I purchased Heavy Rain and did not receive any considerations.