Game Review: Heavy Rain (PS3)

February 2, 2011 in Best Of, Game Reviews by pacejmiller

In a nutshell, Heavy Rain is a ‘choose your own adventure’ cinematic experience squeezed into a PS3 game.  It’s a unique and important game, one that relies on a well-written plot, interesting characters, touching drama, moody atmosphere, and plenty of suspenseful action.  While it does have its fair share of faults, Heavy Rain is one of the most immersive and addictive games I’ve played in a long time.

[To read on, click on ‘more’…]

The game is presented in the style of, and looks very much like, a slick ‘noir’ crime thriller you might catch at the movies.  The graphics are amazing and the intricate details of the characters and the environments are truly magnificent.  Even the camera angles and movements mimic those from Hollywood films.  And dare I say, the acting was excellent for a video game.

One of the environments you'll visit in Heavy Rain

The story is somewhat cliched but sufficiently engrossing and executed so expertly for a video game that you’ll barely notice.

You play four different characters, all on the trail of the ‘Origami Killer’, a disturbed psychopath who drowns young children and leaves origami figures and orchids on the bodies of his victims.

The first is Ethan Mars, a grieving father whose son Shaun has become the latest victim.  The second is Scott Shelby, a private detective hired by the families of the victims.  The third is Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler with a drug addiction and a pair of very cool ‘Added Reality Interface’ (or ARI) glasses that allow him to analyse and store crime scene evidence.  And the last is Madison Paige, an insomniac journalist that gets caught up in the whole mess.  You play the four protagonists in turn through various stages or ‘scenes’.  In this sense the game unfolds exactly like a movie, with the characters picking up clues indpendently before piecing them all together to discover the identity of the killer.

The four characters you get to use

However, the gameplay of Heavy Rain is not like say Grand Theft Auto, where it is an open world free for you to roam about and do whatever you want.  Each ‘scene’ is limited in scope (for instance a house, a warehouse, a police station, or a crime scene) and you can only wander around the restricted environment until you complete the scene’s purpose (or fail to complete it) and move on to the next one.

When you are allowed to interact with an object, a small action prompt will appear on the screen, and you have to complete the action (usually a certain movement of the right analogue stick or a series of button presses or tilting or shaking the entire controller) in order to interact with the object.

When interacting with other people, the game usually gives you a number of choices on what to say and how to say it (calmly, aggressively, etc), and these also appear on the screen as button prompts.

But the best part, and the most exciting part of the game are the ‘action sequences’, which run like cinematic cut scenes from other video games — except here, you have the opportunity to affect the outcome.  These action sequences (coupled with suspenseful music) usually involve having to perform ‘quick time events’ (QTEs) you may have seen in other games such as Resident Evil 5 — ie pressing the right combination of buttons (or stick movements) within a limited time.  These QTEs come at you (especially on the higher difficulty settings) fast and furious, and can be lengthy and relentless.  When you are in the moment, it can provide a real adrenaline rush.

What is also impressive about the gameplay is that the stick movements and the buttons you have to press are not random and tend to reflect how you would move in real life.  So for example, if you have to duck, chances are you have to shift the right stick down.  If you have to jump, you might have to jerk your entire controller in an upward motion.  If you have to hold an object with your left arm and push another object with your right, you might have to hold L1 and continuously press R1, and so forth.  Some of these combinations can get very tricky because you might run out of fingers!

Of course, with the PS3 Move in operation, there is now a ‘Move Edition’ of Heavy Rain sold separately, though owners of the original version can download the Move capabilities as a free patch.  I tried this out and it adds a whole new dimension to the game as you have to wave your arms about now — though unfortunately the rip-off artists at Sony require you to use both a Motion Controller and a Navigation Controller (the latter I don’t have and costs 50 bucks) to play the game optimally, so I quickly reverted back to the old-style gameplay.

Also worth mentioning is that Heavy Rain is an ‘adult’ game that should be played by adults or at least with adult supervision.  There is strong violence and some dark themes, and a few of the things the characters are required to do are quite macabre.  And for the geeks out there, yes, there is nudity (both male and female, but no genitalia) and (potentially) sex — but this is a game, and none of it is particularly gratuitous, so don’t spray your shorts.

Take it easy...she's not real

Accordingly, as an experience, Heavy Rain ranks right up there as one of the best I’ve had on the PS3 (or on any console for that matter).  Because the story unfolds so well, at the right pace, and with the right amount of unpredictability, I was desperate to keep playing to see what would happen next, and how my decisions would affect the outcome.  And when I finally finished the game, I was eager to go back and redo some things differently to see if the result would be any different.  There are also various ‘Trophies’ to be earned depending on how you play the game, and you must replay some scenes to get all the trophies.  As such, Heavy Rain has pretty decent replay value.  The unlockable bonus features (such as sketches and ‘the making of’ videos) are also fascinating to see, especially the audition tapes of the real life actors.

That said, Heavy Rain is far from perfect.  I understand most reviewers have heaped praise on the game as it stormed towards various 2010 ‘Game of the Year’ honours, but apparently the game has no shortage of critics either.

The back cover says ‘Your smallest decisions can change everything’ — and that is certainly how the game is presented — it makes you think that if you do something wrong, miss a clue, fail to complete a task or a QTE, you’re stuffed and you’ll end up with a crappy ending.  Not true.  For the most part, the statement on the back cover is merely an illusion.

In fact, for the vast majority of scenes in the game, it doesn’t really matter what you do.  You can even fail all the QTEs and the result will still be the same — it’s only the sequence of events that leads to the conclusion might be different.  It’s really only a small handful of scenes where a couple of wrong moves or decisions can kill a character or alter the ending you’ll end up with.  Most of the time, the game will find a way to help you keep going and get back on track.

In the same vein, there are certain actions that must be completed in order for the game to proceed.  You might think if you fail the action something bad will happen, but it won’t — it’ll just keep allowing you to try it until you get it done.

That’s why I say Heavy Rain is like a ‘choose your own adventure book’, which I used to read a lot as a kid.  You may think you are really choosing your ‘own’ adventure when you are in fact being safely guided towards a limited number of predetermined outcomes no matter what choices you make.

And as is often the case with such games, most players will gravitate towards the same types of endings — in order to get all the endings, you’ll have to replay the game and will probably have to do some pretty crazy things and/or fail QTEs on purpose.

One of the creepy minor characters

Ultimately, your enjoyment of Heavy Rain depends on what you look for in a video game and what you were expecting.  If you like to have absolute control over your characters and/or just want to shoot people or blow stuff up, you might find yourself frustrated with Heavy Rain‘s restrictive gameplay and environments.

As an avid film buff, I was impressed by how cinematic the game was and how well it was put together.  At times it almost feels like you are in a movie, or at least directing a very good one.  The story, despite its flaws, is very compelling, and occasionally I found it to be genuinely moving.  Kudos to Quantic Dream and writer/director David Cage for creating such an immersive and engaging gaming experience.  No wonder a film adaptation is already in the works.

9 out of 10!

Pros:

  • Immersive, interactive, cinematic gaming experience
  • Compelling plot and engaging characters
  • Fantastic visuals, music and sound
  • Incredibly suspenseful action sequences and moving dramatic scenes
  • Numerous alternate endings depending on how you play
  • Excellent motion capture and voice actors
  • Does not shy away from ‘adult’ themes or footage
  • Decent replay value
  • PS3 Move compatible

Cons:

  • Restrictive gameplay and environments
  • Decisions and QTEs not as influential as they appear to be
  • Right stick controls sometimes not responsive enough
  • Beginning is rather slow
  • Long load times between scenes
  • A couple of camera issues/glitches
  • Overindulges in cinematic cliches (at times)
  • Interestingly no fat people the entire game except for one of the main characters

[PS: I remember I really wanted to get the PS3 exclusive game Heavy Rain when it was released to widespread critical acclaim, but I had too many other games I hadn’t yet played, and eventually forgot all about it.  Last week, a friend of mine let me the game and I’ve been playing it religiously — and last night I finally achieved all the possible endings.  Yay!]