I’m not sold on the whole “interactive storytelling” genre of video games. For one thing, they’re not really games, are they? I kind of like my games that are games, that’s probably one of the reasons I play a lot of old stuff. Yet there are a lot of people who feel that it’s the future of video games to supplant movies. I don’t really agree with that, mostly because I don’t want it to happen. I feel a world where fun isn’t the primary goal of a video game is a bleak one indeed. I’d much rather a game be stupid and mindless, than thought-provoking and boring. However, sometimes I am in the mood for a nice, story-driven game, and Heavy Rain certainly fills that niche.
Heavy Rain is a thriller story about Ethan Mars, whose son Shaun is allegedly kidnapped by a serial murderer who the media have dubbed the Origami Killer. The alias comes from the killer’s ritual of leaving origami figures in the hands of all their victims because… that’s not really explained. The game has you take control of four characters, each of which are trying to find the identity of the killer and save little Shaun. There’s Ethan himself, who is trying to complete five trials given by the killer, Scott Shelby, a private detective hired by families of the victims, Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler assisting the police with the investigation, and Madison Paige, who gets topless and owns a loft apartment that I’m totally jealous of.
Gameplay isn’t like your typical game. It’s divided into two general modes; investigation and action. In investigation, you interact with the environments and other characters to advance the plot. You can usually half-ass these sections, but it will have an effect on the overall storyline. The action sequences are in the form of quick time events. In these sequences, you must press button commands in time to make your character successfully perform pre-scripted actions. All of this may sound boring, but Heavy Rain makes the most of the controller. Many of the commands require precision or careful contortions of your fingers to get them right. This can be difficult when you’re under pressure, which really adds to the tension of the game.
The environments in Heavy Rain are absolutely gorgeous. I have never seen such believable locations in a game, ever. It’s not even their graphics, either. Everywhere is filled with people who seem to be going about their day. There’s a crowded mall, a bustling police station, and a somber graveyard. Even in places like homes of the characters, if you look outside you see cars passing by. It’s like you could walk out into a virtual world at any time. Of course, you can’t. There’s invisible barriers if you walk to far away, but man, it feels
like you could. Also, I couldn’t help but notice that the designers seem to have a thing for artsy dwellings. Throughout the course of the game, two separate loft apartments appear, as well as a postmodern home. I’m not saying this is good or bad, just peculiar is all.
To be honest, I found it to be a bit difficult to get into Heavy Rain initially, considering it gets off to a hideously slow start. Get this, at the beginning of the game you have to go through Ethan’s morning routine. I’m serious; you have to get up, have a shower, get dressed, drink orange juice straight out of the carton, and then waste time until your family gets home for lunch. Even after the appearance of a naked ass, it was hard to stay interested. It really takes some time for the plot to actually take off, but when it does, it at least makes it worthwhile. I wouldn’t go as far as saying Heavy Rain has an outstanding storyline, but it is at least a gripping one.
It wasn’t until I screwed up a QTE event that Heavy Rain finally managed to grab me. After a few missed buttons, one of my characters met a grisly demise. It came out of nowhere and was completely shocking. I kept expecting a game over screen to pop up so I could try again but instead the game just continued on without them. It was strange and affecting, I had just lost something completely intangible and, for the most part, completely meaningless, but it totally ruined my whole day. I kept wondering, what was going to happen without that character, what if I had’ve taken those stupid QTE events more seriously, why, oh why couldn’t I quickload!? After something like that happens, even with the games many eye-rolling moments, it’s hard to look at it and go, “pfft, whatever.”
Okay, so the story as a whole is thrilling, emotional, and intriguing, which, based on those merits alone, make it an extremely high-quality tale for a video game. However, the plot is so full of holes and unanswered questions that it ultimately gets weighed down. I’m not going to get too into them, so I don’t spoil the plot, but they’re hard to miss. One of the characters embarks on a sub-plot that, in retrospect, seems so out of place and meaningless. Many of the characters make extremely stupid and irrational decisions for no particular reason. The Origami Killer is somehow capable of the impossible, and has many unseen and unlikely skills that don’t fit the character at all. There’s one particular scene that really pissed me off when it was retconned right in front of my eyes. The list goes on and on. You’d think the reason behind the origami figures left on the crime scene would be explained, especially since the killer’s motives are explored in detail, but no, it’s just another unanswered question.
The killer’s identity seems to have been chosen close to the end of development and seems out of place, especially since their motivation seems totally tacked on. If that’s the case, it isn’t entirely wrong for the writer to not know who the killer in their own story is until the very end, I know of lots of writers who do it this way, but in Heavy Rain, it couldn’t have been done any sloppier. I can think of at least three other people from the story that would have made better killers than the one who it is revealed to be. In fact, now that I think about it, I don’t know why the killer’s identity isn’t decided by the player’s actions. Considering that many of the characters could have been given similar motivations, why have only one outcome? Hell, that’d be awesome, because every time you replay the game you’d still be guessing who the killer is. As it stands though, it’s always the same stupidly chosen person.
The non-QTE controls in Heavy Rain are absolutely horrible. Think Resident Evil, but worse. You don’t so much control the characters as much as you drive them exactly like cars. R2 is your gas pedal, exactly like it would be if you were playing a racing game, and then you just steer. I can’t tell you how many times I had to fight with the controls, just to get my character to face the object I needed them to interact with. Considering Heavy Rain actually requires immersion to function properly and how often it has you under a time limit, these poor controls are inexcusable.
Speaking of awkward movement, while the environments look astoundingly good, the characters can sometimes be a little unconvincing. It’s not so much the character animation is bad, it’s just inconsistent. The lip-syncing is a good example of this. There’s a lot of detail in character mouth movement, including a fully animated tongue, but in motion, lip movement seems exaggerated and weird. It’s peculiar since games with less reliance on character interaction, such as Half-Life 2 and Rock Band, did mouth animation much more convincingly. I also couldn’t help but notice that hand movement is a little underdone and robotic. What really completes the whole unconvincing package, though, is the often times poor voice-acting. This is the sort of thing that should be top priority in a game like this, but a lot of the performances come across half-hearted and wooden. It isn’t enough to wreck the game, but once again; really hard to ignore.
I pity anyone who has to play this game on a standard definition television. Even on the rather large, high definition display I was playing on, I had trouble making out the damned quick-time commands. It gets worse when a character is under stress, since it makes the buttons start shaking. The commands never really stay put in the first place, in fact, they are often found orbiting a character’s head, and depending on how far away from the screen they are, they can often appear pretty small. Then there are some that pulse to indicate that you’re supposed to mash the button, and others that have broken outlines to suggest that you do the command slowly, but I could never get the hang of them. In the fight scenes, you don’t have that much time to react in the first place, let alone the time to discern which commands are throbbing.
The Bottom Line
Before I went into Heavy Rain, a number of people told me that I wouldn’t like it, and I had to agree with them. It really seems like the type of game that is built against my mindset. Yet despite my predisposition, Heavy Rain still managed to win me over. Aside from a very slow start and a vast number of plot holes, it still presents a very intriguing and gripping story that will likely keep you entertained until the end. While the game may not have sold me on the interactive storytelling genre, it at least demonstrated to me that such a game can work, and it isn’t anything to be afraid of. Overall, Heavy Rain is a GOOD game that I suggest you try, especially if you liked Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit, depending on where you’re from). I can’t say that you’ll definitely enjoy it, but I can at least guarantee it won’t kill you.