In Depth Review: Heavy Rain [PS3]
What unfolds in the opening scenes creates an anchor between player and game that is so difficult to come by with other titles. It’s the reality of fatherhood, the innocence of childhood and the nurturing that binds the two, tied to the sensation that you and your thumbs are completely responsible for executing on all the things that happen within the microcosm that is the Mars family. By the time you’re introduced to the meat of the story and the three other protagonists whom you will control, you’ll be completely emotionally invested in what Heavy Rain has to offer.
You start the game as the father of the family, Ethan, waking from slumber in… um… your undies. It’s your son Jason’s birthday, and you’ve got to help your wife get the house in order and fix lunch for the birthday boy and your other son, Shaun. A shave, a shower, even a little tinkle—you play through all of these normal actions with analog stick movements prompted to you on-screen. The movements are meant to simulate the sensation of actually performing these actions in real life: Shaving requires you to gingerly tug on the analog stick; pulling the fridge door open requires a down-and-out motion; shaking an orange juice carton requires that you actually shake the controller.
In my game, Ethan drank straight out of the carton—a practice in which I, myself, don’t ever engage. Maybe you’ll have Ethan reach into the cupboard for a glass first. One of the other tricks Heavy Rain employs to link you to your characters is giving you a convincing illusion of choice. These choices range from as simple as making your son do his homework on schedule versus letting him watch TV just a bit longer, to as harrowing as inflicting egregious pain on someone else—or yourself—to achieve an end. They exist to help you better embrace the world and its characters, and to give you a shot of adrenaline when you’re forced to make some of the more difficult choices with only seconds to do so.
You’ll also get that adrenaline boost when you come across one of the game’s many action sequences, which will have you watching the screen intently for button-press and analog-stick prompts. Frankly, I’m not one to enjoy quick-time event-style gameplay, but what had me riveted was the way in which developer Quantic Dream executed on those prompts. In fights, the prompts mostly appear—and follow—where the intended action is supposed to happen. A punch will have the icon pop up, quivering, on your character’s fist. In chase sequences, arrow presses will appear where your character will end up running. Naturally difficult actions—such as trying to climb up a muddy, slippery hill—demand that you press and hold several buttons on the controller, in sequence, even if it means (and it usually does) contorting your hand into a pretzel.
Again, all of these controller inputs serve to mimic your characters’ experiences, to make you feel what your characters are feeling. This is wholly different from the authoritative experience most action games offer, where you dictate what your characters do and how they do it, where you feel completely in command. Where you fail, and a character may die as a result, there’s no Game Over screen: The game will truck on as if that’s simply part of the story, because it IS one possible storyline. Heavy Rain is trying to string you along, in effect trying to control you as much as you’re trying to control it, and that’s the beauty of the game.
It’s also an illusion that’s easily broken if allowed to. It’s not always easy to see your button prompts, so sometimes your failure to act is less a function of your reaction time and more about the command being obscured—outside of the moments where the prompts are intentionally obscured for effect. The simple act of walking is inexcusably more cumbersome than it needs to be. On a grander scale, if you’re the type of player who needs to be in complete control of your character to feel a part of his or her world, Heavy Rain will fail to convince you: You’ll likely be pestered by the nagging sensation that you’re just along for the ride and really have very little you need to do.
Of course, that’s not truly the case. Spiritually, Heavy Rain is an adventure game through and through, and there are things you have to deduce on your own in order to advance the plot. These aren’t necessarily gamey puzzles, per se; they’re logical conclusions you need to make based on the people to whom you’ve spoken, and clues you’ve observed at crime scenes. As such, you have to look and listen intently to the environment and the dialogue that comes your way. Not that this is at all an arduous task: Heavy Rain looks absolutely stunning, with a combination of hard and soft lighting techniques; uncanny motion-captured animations; and superb attention to detail paid to character models and texturing. People have PORES for heaven’s sake.
Yet even aesthetically, the game breaks a bit. You’ll see the odd door knob or coffee cup that looks way too angular to be real. Shaun’s bed sports a comforter which seems to lack any texture and lighting at all. These seemingly small missteps end up being a nasty wart on otherwise pristine skin. The voice acting slips a bit too in spots, though some of its flaws may have been exaggerated a little. From appearances, you wouldn’t be blamed for assuming that the game takes place in an American town, yet some of the voiceover betrays some of the actors’ French background. One of the protagonists, FBI agent Norman Jayden, has some insane blender mix of French, New England and Midwestern accents that is both curious and hilarious. I just told myself that either the game takes place in French Canada, or that it’s the 21st century and that the much of the world isn’t such an incredibly homogeneous place. (Still, it might bug you to hear Agent Jayden’s pronunciation of “fourteen” and “been.”)
With just slightly tighter execution of the aesthetics, Heavy Rain could envelope you like no other game before. Even with its bumps and bruises, it manages to do so to a fascinating degree. Of course, this isn’t a game for everyone—it isn’t a game for a lot of people, especially those who don’t play for empathy. I was very much intrigued and entertained by the experience it offered, but in fact I had to be in the absolute right mindset to feel as such. To that end, I had to make sure I sat and finished it in a short amount of time, lest my mood for it dissipated over time. Whatever you have to do to enjoy it, though, do it—it’s really an important direction for adventure games to take in the name of exploring interactive storytelling. Heavy Rain isn’t an example of how the medium should be advancing, but it’s certainly a way in which it should be expanding.