The ability of video games to elicit strong emotion from its audience has long been discussed since Final Fantasy VII started tugging the heartstrings of gamers everywhere. Heavy Rain seeks to do the same with its brand of “interactive cinema”, which hopes to change how we play games. This change Heavy Rain is aiming for isn’t limited to the way the story unfurls; developer Quantic Dream has also devised a novel control scheme to complement its unique dramatic thriller.
Because of its ambition, Heavy Rain faces several difficult and exceptional challenges: Does it succeed in engaging its audience emotionally? Does Heavy Rain avoid being a mere story-driven, quick time event-type of game and instead provide compelling and substantial gameplay?
An Engaging Story
Heavy Rain’s primary strength is its gripping plot, which is shown through the eyes of four different characters. What’s different about Heavy Rain is that any of the four could stumble and/or perish as the story progresses, resulting in significantly different possible outcomes. Getting to these outcomes is quite a ride. Heavy Rain starts out slow with several the Mars household’s mundane tasks taking center stage, but as the story progresses, the pace picks up and the controller becomes increasingly difficult to put down. In retrospect, the everyday tasks served valuable purposes: strengthening the player’s emotional bond with the main characters; and characterization of the protagonists.
A critique on Heavy Rain wouldn’t be complete without mentioning its intricate graphics. Heavy Rain looks so good that practically any of its scenes could rival other games’ pre-rendered cinematics. This believability can be credited to the sophistication of the character designs. Their looks alone are astoundingly detailed: When viewed up-close, you’ll see the character’s pores, freckles, wrinkles and scars—all those little imperfections not usually seen in video games. The eye candy doesn’t stop there: The ways characters move and interact with each other are convincing, their emotions seem mostly real and heartfelt.
Key Acting Performances
Of course, these emotions wouldn’t be felt without the voice acting that goes with it. While the overall voice work in Heavy Rain isn’t topnotch (parts of it are quite distracting), a couple of key performances raised the entire effort’s quality. First is British actor Pascal Langdale, who played Ethan Mars splendidly. Throughout the game, Ethan/Pascal shows an impressive range of acting chops; he’s caring, distraught, depressed, defiant and petrified. Also noteworthy is private detective Scott Shelby, portrayed by actor Sam Douglas. Shelby is endearingly selfless, sensitive and complex.
During FBI profiler Norman Jayden’s sections, you’ll be doing some virtual sleuthing to solve the case of the Origami Killer. This involves looking for fingerprints, bloodstains or any other forensic clues using a pair of fancy sunglasses, which Norman calls “ARI” or the Added Reality Interface. The most satisfying part of these investigations is when Norman puts on his glasses in a crime scene and searches for evidence in every corner of the environment. When Norman is in his office, each clue can be “analyzed” by ARI, but the actual detection is out of your hands.
The Unusual Controls
Quantic Dream calls Heavy Rain “interactive cinema”, and with good reason—for the duration of certain scenes, you have limited control over what happens. As action sequences occur, your input merely determines success or failure but it doesn’t dictate what your character actually does. Despite this restriction, however, Heavy Rain uses an unusual control scheme that provides a good degree of interaction better than any interactive movie could muster. Throughout the game, you’ll be moving characters by pressing a trigger button; going through quick time events using a combination of gestures and varying button presses; and using the PlayStation 3 controller’s right analog stick to subtly set off specific actions like opening a door, feeding an infant or swinging a golf club. These subtle analog movements provide a welcome contrast to the frantic gesturing and occasional button mashing.
The Occasionally Frustrating Controls
Heavy Rain’s control layout is pretty consistent, considering that many of the commands are context-sensitive, which means they change depending on the situation. However, the controls can be occasionally annoying, especially when looking for visual cues required for interacting with specific parts of the environment. You sometimes have to move the character around several times to look for the sweet spot, and it can be frustrating because sometimes, the cues refuse to show up.
Taking its cue from the old Resident Evil games, Heavy Rain comes with a disorienting camera that causes problems when the view switches while a character is walking. In addition to pressing a trigger button, moving a character requires you to point at a direction with the analog stick; when the angle suddenly switches, the direction suddenly changes, causing the character to move around erroneously. If you like snooping around every nook and cranny repeatedly for clues (which is a common practice in adventure games like Heavy Rain), then expect to be disoriented over and over again.
Limited Replay Value
Despite the numerous possible outcomes in each scenario, Heavy Rain isn’t really worth several attempts. You may choose to play each scene a second or third time, but only to see the differences in what you previously experienced. The differences in detail may be trivial (i.e. Shaun’s dinner) or significant (i.e. A major character perishes), but the plot’s foundation stays pretty much the same. This means the Origami Killer’s identity would never change and Shaun Mars still needs to be rescued. No matter happens in your subsequent efforts, your first encounter with Heavy Rain is your defining experience of the game.
So should you spend money for Heavy Rain? While the game is quite an adventure, it’s good only for a rental. Because of its glitches and limited replay value, we can’t recommend giving it a permanent spot in your shelf, even if you find one on sale.