Game: Heavy Rain
Developer: Quantic Dream
Genre: Adventure / Interactive Movie
Back in 2005, Quantic Dream released Fahrenheit. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a great experiment in interactive storytelling, even if the plot went a bit off the rails by the end. It was quite a wait for their next game, but Heavy Rain finally appeared in 2010.
This time, the game portrays the story of a serial child murderer known as the Origami Killer due to his habit of leaving folded paper figures behind. You’ll follow (since control wouldn’t be the right word) four main characters throughout the course of the story. They are: Ethan Mars, a father whose son has been kidnapped by the killer; Scott Shelby, a private investigator looking into the case on behalf of the parents of previous victims; Norman Jayden, a drug addicted FBI agent investigating the case in a more official capacity; and Madison Paige, a woman who becomes caught up in the plot after an encounter with Ethan.
Heavy Rain does take some time to get going, which can initially be a bit off-putting. An hour into the game and I was slightly disappointed. By far the biggest culprit for this was the controls. Rather than simply moving around with the analogue stick like in most other games, here you have to hold down the right trigger button on the gamepad to make your character walk before you can control them with the left thumbstick. If not holding the button, the left stick simply makes your character look from side to side, which is very occasionally useful to distinguish between items that are close together but nothing to really justify such strange controls. Any cinematic qualities of the game were initially undermined by my character stumbling around in and out of doorways bumping into every wall and obstacle he came across.
The plot also takes a bit of time getting going. Where Fahrenheit threw you straight into the thick of things, for the first hour Heavy Rain feels more like a child care sim. Ethan plays with his children, Scott visits someone and helps look after their baby... it does take some time for things to fall into place.
It’s worth the wait though. Proving yet again that first impressions can be misleading, Heavy Rain has a thoroughly gripping plot that keeps you playing without ever wearing out its welcome. The initial problems soon fade away as you quickly become accustomed to the new controls, and the opening wasn’t really so bad other than general grumpiness caused by those movement controls. The gameplay, which not much different from Fahrenheit, is generally a bit more refined and keeps things moving, though it still sometimes feels like it’s trying to justify itself as a game in ways that it doesn’t really need to.
As with its predecessor, most of the game is controlled by making various stick movements and button presses to perform actions. Most of these during normal exploration involve moving the right analogue stick in the indicated direction. It’s an intuitive way of controlling events smoothly and allowing the characters to perform a wide variety of activities. Only on occasion does it become awkward. The action icons are placed around the actual picture and at times it can be hard to determine what action they actually control. In most cases it doesn’t cause any major issues, and I just ended up foolishly getting out of a car and having to get back in again or closing a cupboard again rather than picking up the contents. It only causes a major problem once when, unaware of which option did what, my character abandoned another, leaving them to their death, rather than trying to save them as I intended. This lead to having to quickly quit before it saved, since there’s no way to reload a save during gameplay. In some ways, this feels like a step backwards. In Fahrenheit, the actions needed were displayed beside little pictures illustrating what they did, eliminating any confusion. Here, they’re unclear and scattered around.
Action scenes, here mostly consisting of fight sequences, are once again controlled by Quick Time Events. It may surprise you to learn that they work quite well. (Yes, I have a general hatred of QTEs, but that’s mostly when they’re stuck randomly into games that don’t need them and they turn up unexpectedly, or when they’re just especially badly done. When they’re the core part of the gameplay, then it’s far more acceptable.) In this respect, it’s a notable improvement over the earlier game, with most of the problems being fixed. There, the constant button pressing with brightly coloured overlay was distracting, forcing the player to focus on which buttons to press rather than what was actually happening. Here, the key presses appear spaced out a bit more so it’s less about copying patterns and more about reacting quickly to the moments when you do have to do something. The buttons presses actually correlates to the action, representing attacks and dodges and their success or failure.
Completely to my surprise, these are some of the most tense action scenes I’ve experienced. It’s a combination of the fact that it’s incredibly well “filmed”, with a real sense of danger portrayed, and the fact that the characters really can die. The game really embraces its nature as an interactive story even more than its predecessor did. You’re allowed to make a few mistakes during a sequence, but if you make too many and end up failing and getting your character killed, then they die. There’s no game over, no forced reloading back to the last checkpoint, the story simply changes to accommodate the difference, heading down a different route where that character is no longer around. It’s perfectly possible to end the game having got everyone killed. Some endings are more satisfying than others of course, and to appreciate them you’d have to get out of the usual gaming mind-set of striving for the “good” ending. There’s also a difficulty setting which, when set on easy, makes everything much more manageable so that there shouldn’t be much of a problem if you just want to enjoy the game for the story without worrying too much about struggling with QTEs. It makes all the sequences simpler, needing less speedy reactions and for the bits where you have to hold down several buttons at once, far fewer actual buttons required.
Aside from the action scenes, the segments involving Jayden are the most game-like. Being with the FBI, he has a pair of sunglasses and an electronic glove that lets him control a sort of augmented reality system called ARI, short for Added Reality Interface. Just like every FBI agent does! (It might have made Nicole Bonnet a bit less useless in the Art of Murder games anyway.) Using this allows Jayden to scan the area immediately around him when at a crime scene, highlighting nearby clues which you can then investigate. Back in the office it allows you to review the evidence you have discovered to make deductions. In practice, it’s never really much more than going through each piece of evidence in turn and pressing a button, but it’s enjoyable.
Most of the rest of the game consists of loosely controlling the events of the main characters. Jayden and Shelby each investigate the case in their own way, the FBI agent with a volatile policeman in tow to deal with and the private detective eventually with Lauren, the mother of a previous victim, assisting. Ethan gets the worst of it as he faces a series of sadistic trials set by the killer to gain clues to find his son, either going through with them or avoiding them and risking the death of his son. Madison is underused at first, being relegated to a position of nurse to Ethan before finally getting to help in the investigation herself. And of course, being used for the obligatory and gratuitous sex scene. It’s a shame, since in many ways she’s one of the most likable characters.
Heavy Rain’s success is mostly based on its story, and that’s the reason the game works despite the flaws. There are some holes in the plot though, with some things which just don’t get explained. Deleted scenes I found on Youtube show that this wasn’t always the case, and all but one of the scenes that were cut seem like they would have improved the game if they’d been left alone, so it’s a bit disappointing. Despite that, and the occasional cliché, the game is most likely to win you over. The plot moved at a pace that prevented me from worrying about any of these things until the game was already over and I never felt bored at any point. It’s still not perfect, and I still feel Quantic Dream need to completely focus on creating a fully interactive story or to creating better gameplay, rather than settling in at this mid-way point that they’re in at the moment. But it’s still a exciting game that’s unlike anything else you can play, and is thoroughly recommended for all that.
There is one piece of DLC available for Heavy Rain. Called “Heavy Rain Chronicles: Episode One – The Taxidermist”, it could well take you longer to say the title than to actually play it. It’s a prequel involving Madison investigating, and I’m sure this will be a great surprise, a taxidermist. It has its own short, disturbing storyline and is reasonably entertaining. It feels like a chapter from the game. Just the one chapter. The whole thing is over in 15 minutes. So it’s enjoyable, but unnecessary to the plot of the main game and insubstantial as a game in its own right. It comes free as part of the Move Edition of Heavy Rain, so if you have that, it’s definitely worth playing. At an extra charge, it’s inessential, especially at the ridiculous £3.19 they’re charging for it.
It’s also the only piece of DLC there will be for the game. Quantic Dream abandoned making extra content for the game after being encouraged to make the Move Edition by Sony. Judging by this, we’re not actually missing out on much, but it’s still a shame they were diverted from actually making proper gaming content to focussing on implementing gimmicky motion controls. Thankfully they’ve already said they’re not going to bother with Move for their next game. The less work put into modern control scheme fads and gimmicks and the more put into quality game making the better.
Save System Review: Automatic saving as you go along, and nothing can give you a game over anyway. Only a problem when you do something you didn’t intend and have to quickly quit. There should have been a way to restart from last checkpoint within the game at least.
Graphics: Excellent graphics throughout, especially the characters.
Sound: The voice acting was mostly good apart from some of the kids. Soundtrack and effects were fine.
Bugs: Nothing that I encountered.
Gameplay: Works well enough, and some of the Quick Time Events actually do enhance the action scenes, but I really could do without the bits where you have to repeatedly hit a button as fast as possible. That was awful when I first encountered it 25 years ago and it still is.
Storyline: Very good, though with a few too many plot holes when you look back over it and the occasional rather strange moment.
Arbitrary Final Scores: Heavy Rain:
Heavy Rain Chronicles: Episode One - The Taxidermist:
If you like this, you might also like: Fahrenheit, The Walking Dead, LA Noire
Is the storytelling weighty enough or is the whole game just a bit wet? Comment in the forums!