In these parts and others, there is often the discussion of video games as a storytelling medium, and how it fares compared to its brethren such as films, books and the like. More often than not, gamers expect video game stories to be an afterthought, a means to an end, with the “end” being a fun game with engaging gameplay. The story simply serves as the vehicle by which you move from Level 1 to Level 2, the reason you are shooting/whipping/jumping to your next goal.
Quantic Dreams’ flagship title, Heavy Rain, promises something different. On the heels of the well received Indigo Prophecy from 2005, the studio set out to top their original interactive storytelling with a tale more realistic, lifelike and ultimately emotionally engrossing. So, how does the PS3 exclusive fare in this regard? Does it change the way we experience a story in this medium with all of the weight of a towering thunderhead? Or is it simply, and I can’t resist this awful pun, a light drizzle? Ahem. Let’s move on.
For the uninitiated, Heavy Rain, at its core, is a mystery story. It follows the investigation of the “Origami Killer” from several different viewpoints: the father of the missing child (Ethan), the crack shot FBI detective (Jayden), an insomniac journalist (Madison) and a private investigator (Shelby). Their stories follow the path of the Origami Killer to determine an identity, and save Ethan’s son from a fairly horrific drowning. I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers in this review, so I apologize for any parts following this that are too vague.
First, we’ll start with how the game plays. Many will ridicule or write Heavy Rain off for being “nothing but quick time events” (which we will refer to as QTE from here on out), but I think those people are going to miss the fun and intensity that it offers. Yes, performing actions beyond simply walking around (like brushing your teeth or opening a door) require a series of screen prompts, while more complicated sequences (like escaping from a sinking car or chasing someone through a marketplace) are executed by way of QTEs.
These aren’t your dad’s QTEs, however. Imagine the sequences in this game like playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero with a controller instead of a guitar, inputting button pushes in a way that is dynamic and intense. Seriously, these things put God of War’s boss sequences to shame in terms of what they require from the player. Every time one started, I was on the edge of my seat, fearing for my character’s life as I tried (sometimes in vain) to issue the correct commands. Throughout the many action bits that will pit several of the characters against life-ending challenges, you will find yourself focused and frantically trying to succeed. Every time I caught myself lying on the couch playing, I immediately found myself sitting up when one of these started, unable to relax in the slightest.
For every minute you spend doing these ludicrous sequences, you will also be doing simpler, more mundane things. This is where Heavy Rain is going to draw a line in the sand for many gamers. While I don’t agree with the perception, I certainly understand that there will be people out there that simply do not want to fix dinner for Ethan’s son, or brush Ethan’s teeth, or undress Madison to take a shower… wait, scratch that last part.
To me, these moments really brought me into the character’s world, made me connect with who they were and the simple things that they experienced day in and day out. It’s also through these small sequences that you determine things about them and gasp, develop their characters. While most games handle character development through dialogue trees or good/evil morality choices, Heavy Rain does it through the small instances that make up our lives. Do you drink the whiskey while on the job? Do you make your son do his homework? What should you fix him for dinner? What kind of dad are you?
Like I said, a lot of people won’t get into this, but I found myself completely engrossed by these moments, especially when coupled with the game’s gloomy art style and haunting yet beautiful score. Where most games are hoping to garner sympathy from the player by making them sad that their character died, Heavy Rain managed to make me feel like a terrible father when I didn’t realize my son was supposed to be doing his homework and I ignored him to play basketball. That is a complicated emotion to pull out of a gamer, and one that I’ve never experienced from a story in a game before. In fact, there is one moment in one of Shelby’s chapters that has the player rocking a baby to sleep before gently placing it in its crib that had me completely connected to the world, and thinking, “this game is beautiful”. No lie.
Which now brings us to the narrative, the central part of Heavy Rain’s make up. This is where things get a little trickier to grade. The first portion of the story really sucked me in. As I said before, the art direction in this game is gloomy as all hell, and I totally bought into the atmosphere and the world presented. It also doesn’t hurt that it’s got some of the best graphics I’ve seen on a console to date at points. I enjoyed the mystery of it, and perusing the crime scenes with Jayden is great fun, particularly with the ARI virtual scanning device.
While things start off a tad slow, soon things speed up rapidly, throwing Ethan into the mix as a possible prime suspect as the Origami Killer, leading several characters chasing after him throughout the investigation. These situations lead you to some pretty horrific choices, some of which had me pausing the game and thinking for a few moments before I ultimately acted on it. Seriously, the first half of this tale is great fun, and had me thinking about this choose-your-own-adventure game nonstop for the first two days or so that I played it.
However, things eventually take a turn downhill. About halfway to three-fourths of the way through the story, the pacing changes dramatically. The storytelling starts to feel clunky. Dialogue seems a little forced. Things start to feel less believable, less tight than the first half of the narrative. Likewise, some cracks really start to show in the game’s control scheme, particularly when you are forced to get from point A to point B quickly. I failed one scenario horribly simply because the changing camera angle kept getting me turned around.
In addition, plot holes start to show up in the logic and thinking of the characters. Two of them hook up out of nowhere. One guy gets suspected of murder and dismissed within a few seconds. Stupid red herrings start flying out of the woodwork. The reveal of the Origami Killer is severely underwhelming, and surprising in the worst possible way due to the fact that it makes almost no sense.
It’s hard to talk about the game’s biggest fault without spoiling everything, but I will attempt to do so- the last act of the game is easily its weakest. While I can normally forgive stories the occasional plot hole, there is one stinking massive one that is left at the end of Heavy Rain, so bad that it is almost unforgivable as a fellow storyteller. To me, for a game focused on story, this is the equivalent to an FPS game having terrible shooting or bad multiplayer; it’s a fairly major grievance. Sadly, Heavy Rain stumbles majorly at the finish line, which is a shame because of how into it I really was. In fact, the first ending I got was so convoluted I worried that my ending had somehow missed out on explaining or clarifying a few issues I had. I loaded up an earlier save and made some different choices in order to get a fantastic ending, but one that still left too many things fuzzy and up in the air.
All in all, Heavy Rain is a hard game to review. I simply have not played anything like it in this generation, and for that I heartily recommend that anybody with access to a PS3 go play it. The story will draw you in, you will care about the characters, and the game will actually poke at your emotions, something so many games try and fail to do. However, there are some major issues in the story, where if they were present in a movie, I would leave the theater feeling a little flustered, angry, and a little underwhelmed by the end of the experience. As such, because creator David Cage insists that we treat this is an interactive movie, I feel like my score for the game should reflect as such. In short, go play the game, because it is lots of fun and intense. But expect it to run out of gas right when it really matters.
How many of you have played Heavy Rain? What did you think?
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