This PS3 exclusive is the long-awaited ‘interactive drama’ from Quantic Dream. For months we’ve been wowed by the stunning character models and promises of a unique experience. Of course we’ve also been worried that the whole thing may descend into a never-ending line of Quick-Time-Events (QTEs). Read on for the full verdict.
Think of Heavy Rain as a chilling murder-mystery crossing the relentless search for missing persons, a serial killer hunt and horrific trials set by a lunatic. The Silence of the Lambs and the cruel trials of Saw (but less gory here) are amongst the key influences on the plot, but not in a lazy rip-off way.
You might also draw comparisons with the old multi-path adventure books. You know…’turn to page 96 to enter the demon’s dark cave’ or ‘turn to page 53 to go through the field to the fair.’ The developers should have let you hold L2 to let you recreate the moments of: ‘Oh crap I died, but my finger is still on the other page so I can go back.’
The Origami killer has been killing children for years and now another has gone missing. Needless to say it’s full of twists and surprises. You’ve probably heard the first hours’ worth of them already if you’ve been following the game. I’m not going to go into any revealing details though, just go and enjoy it.
Finding the killer is the central obsession of the four main characters you control. Ethan Mars is the emotionally distraught father and one of the game’s most interesting characters. Madison Paige is a photo-journalist who has garnered most of the game’s attention so far for getting naked (oh no!). Norman Jayden’s a Federal Agent on the trail of the Origami Killer. Scott Shelby is a classic noir-style Private Investigator, hard-assed but heart of gold for the dames and owner of a quality 50’s car. The story has you swapping between their narratives with the possibility of them crossing paths based on your decisions.
Controlling the Action
Movement is controlled by ‘accelerating’ with R2 and turning by pointing your head in the desired direction with the left analogue stick. It feels a bit cumbersome but does get better over time. Whichever way you look at it though, PlayStation pad newb or seasoned gamer, just using the left stick for full movement would have been a lot easier and also allowed the same control over speed. Most areas have two available camera angels you can swap between, but a chance to nip into a first-person view to look at something on a wall or on a desk would have been much appreciated.
The main meat of the game consists of a variety of QTEs. The simplest ones are used in conversation where face button prompts are linked to a specific answer or question. Holding L1 will sometimes bring up a similar list of your current character’s thoughts to let you know what they’re thinking. The responses you can pick will be often be too small to read, moving and shaking around you on-screen, making them difficult to pick out. You might find this matches the confused state of the character or it might drive you nuts.
Then there are the exploring / interacting QTEs. These generally involve sweeps and flicks of the right analogue stick to open doors, rummage in pockets, stand up, have a shave and so on. The game begins with Ethan Mars’ morning routine as an introduction to these mechanics to get you started. They do a remarkable job of matching the movements on-screen, often varying depending on how hard you move the stick. Have a play with seeing how slow or fast you can make them stand from sitting. You can even make them have a few failed attempts like they can’t quite gather the willpower to get up. Some actions can’t be repeated. It’s particularly annoying if you didn’t get a proper look or you didn’t hear something properly.
There’s a clever way of replicating awkward moves and balance with you having to hold multiple buttons at the same time. This starts off easy enough, but eventually turns your pad into a Twister mat for your fingers and in one case the embarrassing use of a nose too. You’ll know what I mean when you get to the ‘electricity’ part.
The final QTEs are the ones you’re probably already very familiar with if you played games like God of War, Shenmue or The Bourne Conspiracy. These action QTEs are where you try to match the on-screen prompt as soon as it appears to activate a punch, kick, block or dodge move. They vary from single taps, button-bashing, holding and swings of the pad itself. Familiar yes, but they totally nail the action for the fight scenes.
Just as the pace of the game started to slide a little, it hurtled into action again by throwing in a terrific car scene, driving the wrong way against traffic on a freeway, dodging with button presses, analogue stick flicks and some perfectly-fitting wild swings of the pad itself to mimic the actions of the steering wheel. It’s just what the game needed if you were starting to think QTEs can’t be that fun.
The difficulty is adaptable at the start and via the pause menu with the game asking how familiar with the pad you are. The easiest option will give you more time to hit prompts and less buttons to hold at once. I know a DualShock layout better than my own face, but I knew the setting saying as much would basically be a cruel test of reaction speed rather than knowing where the buttons where, so medium was a fair challenge. This is a good way to make sure even casual players can have a fair chance at finishing it.
If you do die, the story will carry on without you in the shoes of any remaining characters. Numerous playthroughs will see how it impacts on the story differently. Such dramatic implications make you really become attached to your characters and will influence many careful decisions. Or if you’re desperate to carry on with that character you can always quit out as soon as you die to start again at the previous checkpoint.
You actions will often affect who lives and dies which can dramatically change the story, some of these key moments are more obvious than others and should encourage you to play through multiple times and experiment. It’ll be much more enjoyable than waiting to find out how to get all the endings on Gamefaqs.
Blooper Reel Moments
Even great films can have their dull parts or bits that rub you the wrong way. Heavy Rain has a few faults, but nothing terminal. When you’re let outside don’t be thinking you can wander off where you like, go the wrong way and your character will suddenly turn around and walk back, like the game has taken the pad out of your hands and said: ‘It’s this way you moron’ before shoving it back into your hands with a disgusted grunt. We can forgive the game needing to maintain some linearity but it could at least have the character saying something to justify it like ‘I should really get back to my car.’
There’s one gameplay element that feels out of place and that’s the Agent’s high-tech glasses that help him to spot evidence. Even worse is the (admittedly very pretty) Minority Report-style menu he has for his filing. It’s just so out of place with the rest of the game. Fortunately his character is quite likeable, well, depending on what you make him do.
Also, some of the required QTE commands just feel like ‘busywork’ to keep you involved and are occasionally a bit bare-bones for the exploring parts. Importantly though, you are given a wider range of control for important parts of the game that involve action or plot-changing points.
Quantic Dream has done an incredible job of making Heavy Rain feel like a movie. The facial and body language animations are top notch and provide more than enough emotional feedback to match the fine job from the voice cast too. The whole game uses the same graphics engine for everything and it holds up well, with even minor characters getting star treatment on the visuals front, the odd repeating crowd member being a slight criticism. There are also some minor frame-rate issues at times, displaying a horizontal shimmering effect rather than full-on screen-tearing.
The constant rainy weather, which is integral to the urgency of the plot, looks fantastic falling through the air, soaking everyone, in puddles and getting splashed at the side of the road. It really adds to the almost relentlessly bleak atmosphere.
As does the music, generally consisting of an orchestral score that aims to constantly keep everyone’s morale crushingly low in their desperate search for the killer. At times it might remind you of Silence of the Lambs (again) or even the more recent Lost.
The script is surprisingly tight considering all the different routes the story can take. I expected it to have continuity errors and plot holes but in all honesty it can’t be faulted. There’s about eight hours play for one playthrough and I went through the last three or four in one go, absolutely gripped in the same way a film might demand viewing.
So Heavy Rain is a success and has grown into something so much more than a glorified tech demo or one long QTE. It also raises possibilities of how traditional game genres may incorporate elements seen here into their own games. It might not be to everyone’s tastes because of the nature of the gameplay, but everyone owes it to themselves to at least try it.
So much of this games enjoyment comes from its filmic elements which make you feel much more involved than the ‘simple’ button presses ought to be able do. It’s got one of the finest stories in years and the technology behind the believability of the characters and the emotional strengths and vulnerability displayed is rarely, if ever seen in games. Heavy Rain is the permission slip to give interactive drama the go-ahead for this generation of gamers.