Though it's only 10 hours long, it has amazing replay value. An "art house" title meant for the 30+ crowd.
Oh sure, Games like Bioshock, Deus Ex and Planescape have managed to break the barrier between gaming and novel-worthy story telling, but plot lines of that magnitude are an aberration rather than the norm. Instead, no matter how hard the industry tries, story lines remain a cold afterthought to game design. While a challenge-seeking power gamer like myself doesn't mind this, it still bothered me that classic, old-school adventure gaming, which was the perfect genre to do this in, was no longer in vogue.
That time may be at an end.
Quantic Dream, the makers of Heavy Rain, are no strangers to "interactive novels". Their two previous releases, Indigo Prophecy and Omikron-The Nomad Soul were similar to this game in design. They focused on narrative and your character's relations with others instead of taking the extreme approach that, say, Myst did by limiting interaction and reducing the game world to a static image. Partly due to their lofty goals, the games never caught on with the mainstream the way they should have. However, with these two experimental games behind them, French developer Quantic Dream put everything they had learned to use in their third game Heavy Rain. Technology had finally caught up to where they needed it to be, and founder David Cage hoped to make his third try the charm.
Before continuing, I think I should bring attention to something David Cage said during Heavy Rain's release. In an interview, he stated that "The Wiimote has reduced gaming to that of being nothing more than a bunch of 'toys'" and that it limits true interactivity. I for one, couldn't agree more.
One of the biggest problems I have with the Wii is that it started this ugly trend of "removing the controller" from gaming. Its unwarranted success has caused every developer to subscribe to the foolish belief that to make a game more interactive and create a stronger link between the characters on the screen and the players controlling them you must remove as many buttons or control devices as possible. Sony's Arc and Microsoft's Natal are perfect examples of this. While I applaud innovation, I've always felt that getting rid of the controller was not how we go about innovating. Why throw away something so beautifully complex? In my opinion, the controller is under-used and improperly taken advantage of. With so many buttons and so much space, why do we use so little of it in modern games? Most games simply use the analog sticks and the right trigger. Rarely does a game take full advantage of the controller. Even worse, the Six-axis controls of the PS3 pad are unfairly criticized and since the backlash against "Lair", forgotten entirely. Heck, even Uncharted 2 dropped the first game's six-axis "Balance" control when walking over logs. It's as if the controller has become the scapegoat in the great war for gamer interactivity.
Quantic Dream's David Cage just proved them all wrong.
Heavy Rain uses all of the buttons, all of the time. It cleverly asks the player to perform feverish feats of finger flexibility in order to accomplish each of their avatar's movements. Like a Dragon's Lair sequel on steroids, Heavy Rain even has you fighting assailants in long, drawn-out "quick time events" that are so expertly choreographed and controlled that for the first time ever in a game I didn't feel "disconnected" during a QTE. What's so clever about the controls is that they so beautifully sync up with the motions you are suppose to be making on screen with them. Imagine having to quickly skip down a muddy hill to avoid falling, then the game asks to you quickly (but not TOO quickly) tap the two "leg buttons" which are designated circle and Square. When you have to squeeze through electrically charged wires like some sick game of Twister, you are asked to press down five different buttons with both of your hands and firmly hold them while you worm your way through. Or the time you have to rub ointment on a burn and you are asked to gently rotate the analog stick. Unlike other Quick Time event games I've played (Jericho, I'm looking at you) Heavy Rain makes your controller movements feel very much like the movements your character is performing on screen. It's hard to describe, but a brief play through of the demo should give you an idea of what I'm talking about.
Fights are where the game's control scheme truly shines though. Even though you aren't hitting X to punch or the shoulder buttons to block, you'll probably never grow to care. Button presses are combined with thrusts of the controller to create a very real connection between the onscreen action and your own body. Imagine me hanging off of my seat, thrusting the controller forward to tackle a guy in the midsection or quickly throwing it down to kick him in the shins. It seems funny, and probably looks a little weird to anyone watching, but it feels so natural and fluid that I began looking forward to getting into fights. Thankfully, there are quite a few.
However, Heavy Rain isn't about fighting or "Dragon's Lair" style gameplay. It's about story.
When asked about the catalyst for Heavy Rain's plot line, David Cage said that is was the feeling of fear he felt after losing his son in a shopping mall. Though he found him five minutes later, the feeling of dread and uncertainty stuck with him, and he used this to create the story for Heavy Rain. I tend to believe this, since the game's powerful narrative and emotional, sometimes depressing turns would make for a great suspense novel.
The game starts you off as architect Ethan Mars, who is the proud father of two young boys. While shopping with his wife, he loses track of his boy Jason and ends up having to dive in front of onrushing traffic to save him. Needless to say, he doesn't rescue the child and even puts himself into a temporary coma. Upon waking, he finds himself in a horrible depression, fighting not only for his remaining son's love and forgiveness, but for his sanity as well.
This all comes to a head when his only living child, Sean, is kidnapped by a savage serial killer who specializes in murdering children.
In a somewhat unique take on the classic adventure game, you actually play four different characters that attempt to track down this killer and free Ethan's child...and any of them can die depending on your actions. With a completely non linear path to the end, Heavy Rain allows your decisions, or even lack of decisiveness, to decide where the story goes. Each of your four "heroes" (A private investigator, an FBI agent, a mysterious woman and Ethan himself) must unravel the clues left behind by the killer and eventually confront them in the game's climax. Save all four, as I did in my first play-through, and the epic four-way confrontation at the end is more than worth the trouble needed to get there.
The four "Heroes" that you play are all voiced well, considering the cast is made up entirely of french folks trying to do their best American accents. Of the four, the only character I thought could have used a bit of work was Jayden, the FBI agent. I imagine his voice actor was trying to sound Bostonian, but instead came off a bit odd. It's a minor thing, especially since he ended up being my favorite character, but it is worthy of mentioning.
With the best facial texturing I've seen since Crysis Warhead, and even better "Teardrop effects" than Mass Effect 2, the game's characters do an excellent job of eliciting an emotional response from players. I found myself screaming, yelling, praying, and even crying during certain parts of the story...and by the end I felt like I knew everyone I played as. It was a feeling I normally expect to get from hardcore CRPGs such as Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age, not a game full of quick time events and cut scenes.
It's hard to really pin down what makes Heavy rain so engaging, but if I had to put it into a single word it would be "Surreal". The game feels so real that it's like playing a movie. Borrowing elements from Saw, Se7en and Twin Peaks, Heavy Rain makes a very solid case for best storyline of this console generation. Like the love child of David Lynch and Dean Koontz, Heavy Rain straddles that fine line between implausibility and believability, so expertly staying in the middle that it's impossible to turn the game off until you're finished.
Which brings me to one of the few drawbacks to this game, the first being that it's very short.
I finished my first trip through the game in roughly 10 hours of play, finishing up in the early morning after having bought it early that afternoon. While I will probably go through the game again and try for a worse ending, I doubt many will. Like D's Diner for the Sega Saturn, it's an amazing game with a captivating story that may not feel that "fresh" the second time you go through it. Unlike that game, however, the non-linearity helps it a bit...but many hardcore gamers may not feel that way. Already, forum topics have sprout up about people wanting to trade it in or return it, even though they thoroughly enjoyed the game. While that may not be the best choice due to the large amount of DLC Quantic Dream has planned for the game in the coming months, the main game itself is so short that I can hardly blame them.
The other drawback is the weird way you move in the game. I found that having to hold R2 to walk was both cumbersome and counter-intuitive. While it didn't affect my rate of success, it did create a lot of instances where I had trouble navigating around furniture and became unsure of which way I was moving. Combine that with the manually controlled "resident Evil-esque" camera system and you have yourself a recipe for disaster.
In the end, Heavy Rain is a game for adult players that enjoy a good "Experience" rather than a 50 hour gun-slinging bullet fest. It's one of those games that sticks in your memory and lives inside of you, causing you to think about the story long after you've finished it. While I've heard jaded youth pass Heavy Rain off as "That game that makes you shave and brush your teeth to complete a level", it's so much more than that. Heavy Rain is the one game that I can look at and call a work of art. Even though I despise those who confuse games as art and I feel that it's unfair to group them together, I have to admit that Heavy Rain is so close to watching a movie or reading a book that the differences between them are basically inconsequential.
The bottom line is, will you enjoy it? I think if you grew up playing infocom's old 1980's text adventures or you fondly remember the years of your life lost to Myst, then you'll more than likely fall in love with Heavy Rain. Even more so if you are a David Lynch or Dean Koontz fan.
If, however, you have very little patience for "quick time events", demand long play times from your games and are more interested in complex gameplay and leveling up, you'll probably find Heavy Rain to be rather bland and more than a bit boring. It speaks to the older 30+ generation, and makes little room in its gameplay for twitch gamers seeking another insurmountable challenge.
Heavy Rain is an experience. Like a good book or a high budget Hollywood movie, it's something that cannot truly be called a game and instead is more like a modern work of art.
Yes, I said it. Heavy Rain is that one game that the "Games = Art" folks can hold up to prove their point. Looks like that argument is finally over.