Heavy Rain is Quantic Dream’s latest attempt to blend traditional gaming and cinematic conventions, and also delivers one of the best experiences you’ll find this generation. It’s unlike anything else on the market today, and the only game that comes anywhere close to its QTE/context-based control and movie-esque art direction is their previous effort, Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit outside North America). However, even that last-gen highlight didn’t come close to matching this film noir thriller.
HR begins with a slow-moving prologue that may bore some, but is there to acclimate you to the controls and not only introduce you to the main character Ethan Mars, but also his driving force - his family. His wife and their two sons are his world. Tragedy befalls them as one son is killed, sending his life into a downward spiral that includes a separation from his wife and his surviving son being so distant that it makes him even more depressed. When his surviving son is kidnapped, he’s driven further to the brink of insanity, and forced to undergo a variety of physical and psychological torture tests from the Origami Killer in order to track him down and save his son.
While Ethan is the most prominent playable character, others are used to show the search from a variety of perspectives. You’ll search for evidence as FBI agent Norman Jayden looks for clues and evidence with sophisticated equipment that no one else has, while Scott Shelby conducts an investigation on the killer on behalf of the previous victims’ families, and chronic insomniac Madison Paige finds herself in the thick of things due to a chance meeting with Ethan. Each character has far more to them than meets the eye that helps make them more fully-realized characters, and relatable, than the ones found in most games. Norman is a drug addict who struggles to hide his addiction from others while also trying to keep the investigation civil in a department full of hotheads who prefer force to obtain information.
Heavy Rain is one of the few games that made me care about the characters. Part of that is due to the prologue that shows you how important family is to Ethan, who you’ll be using more than any other character. Everything is played straight here, and because the game takes itself seriously and doesn’t devolve into sci-fi wackiness that is presented in such a way that it takes you right out of the game (ala Indigo Prophecy), it sucks players in and makes this one of the most addictive games I’ve played this generation - and easily the most atmospheric since Shenmue. As far as the gameplay and story go, Heavy Rain knocks Shenmue on its ass by delivering a similarly movie-esque game, but with a far superior plot, better characters and better acting, a more robust and easier to use QTE system, and a far more realistic, if also more limited, world to explore.
Anytime I just sat down to play it for a half hour, I wound up spending two on it because, while I’d hit a checkpoint, I couldn’t stop playing - I had to see what Heavy Rain had in store for me in the next scene. I also love that no two players will play the game the same way - there are too many possibilities with each character for that to happen, and while the game may have been developed with the idea of a single playthrough being ideal, it is also structured in such a way that you are rewarded for more playthroughs with a deeper understanding of the characters.
Unfortunately, some of the ways the story progresses can be quite annoying - like the floating thought balloons that pop up with a corresponding button command for each one. When they’re shown straight ahead of you, they’re easy to read and respond to, but when they’re shown in awkward angles, or with distortion being used to show some kind of psychological issue, and they get all wavy, it becomes impossible to see them clearly. Sure, that works at relaying the character’s mental decline to the player, but it also makes it harder than it should be to actually play the game.
Other than that problem though, Heavy Rain controls very smoothly. R2 acts as your walk button, while the right stick’s movements perform other actions like opening a door or grabbing an item, and QTEs pop up during intense fights or important story points. Beyond just having to hit a button at the right time, you’ll also have to move the right stick in the proper direction quickly, or hold one button down before moving onto another one, then another without ever letting go. The integration of Sixaxis tilting is excellent as well. While directional right clicks are used for smaller actions, like opening a door, controller tilting is used for bigger ones - like breaking down a door, or to steer a car against oncoming traffic. Heavy Rain controls really well, but its gaming/movie blend is hindered by its fixed camera angles. While you can switch to one of two angles at any time, sometimes the restrictions placed on you by them can get in the way of you being able to see where you need to go at times. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, you‘ll be wishing for a fully rotating camera.
Despite that issue, Heavy Rain is a feast for the eyes, and easily the most beautiful PS3 game I’ve ever seen. Quantic Dream did a fantastic job with the art direction, resulting in environments and camera angles that nailed the film noir feel they were going for with the visuals. The character models are mostly fantastic, although the realistic facial features only tend to look really good for older characters or those that have some flaws to them. The rest kind of look like dolls, which makes the world seem a little too perfect at times. Fortunately, the eyes are actually fully-detailed, and lack the emotionless look that often plagues CGI films. The motion-captured animation is excellent, and helps given each character their own sense of weight - the slim characters move faster, generally, unless they’re injured, while the bulky Scott Shelby moves slower but clearly has more power because of how his opponents react when getting hit compared to the others. The animation isn’t quite perfect, as things like finger movements and sometimes facial movements are jerky, but for the overwhelming majority of the time, the animation is stellar.
With the exception of some dodgy voice acting, Heavy Rain’s audio is fantastic. The soundtrack is straight out of a classic thriller flick, and does an outstanding job at building up tension, excitement, and even eleciting sympathy for the characters. While its graphics and voice acting wouldn’t quite be good enough for a big-budget blockbuster, its soundtrack is. Oh, the voice acting - what a mixed bag it is. Most of the time, it is well-done, but when it isn’t, you’re left with some ‘60s Batman-esque stilted dialogue. Fortunately, it never reaches Shenmue-levels of absurdity, and most of it comes from the younger characters who, while important to the overall story, aren’t really heard much.
While a few flaws keep it from being a higher-rated game, the overall experience in Heavy Rain makes it one that you absolutely must play. It’s one of the most unique and well-crafted games this generation with an incredible story and some of the most realistic, sympathetic characters ever seen in a video game. If you’ve enjoyed past blends of gaming and movies, like Indigo Prophecy or Shenmue, you’ll love Heavy Rain - it takes that sub-genre to a whole new level of immersion with the in-game world and your interaction with it using an innovative control scheme that takes very little time to get used to and makes great use of the PS3‘s button layout and Sixaxis motion controls. Despite some rough edges, Heavy Rain is an unforgettable experience.