The goal of every story is to form some degree of connection with its observer. Most often, this link is fleeting at best, but every now and then, a much deeper bond is formed. This bond is one in which the observer is less of a passive participant and more of an emotionally engaged accomplice. Though many video games (as well as most novels and movies) strive to be the latter, Heavy Rain is one of those few games that can claim to have truly achieved this lofty objective. A powerful interactive drama, Heavy Rain is an intensely absorbing experience that meticulously conveys the tension, urgency, surprise, and tragedy that its characters feel. Though the overall direction of the plot cannot be changed, the ongoing narrative adapts to your every action and cultivates a deeply personal journey that leaves everyone who undertakes it with something different.
How far are you prepared to go to save someone you love? This is the central question of Heavy Rain and one that the protagonist, Ethan Mars, is compelled to answer. After Ethan's son goes missing and is presumed to be the latest victim of the mysterious Origami Killer, he vows to do whatever it takes to rescue his boy. Besides Ethan, you also take control of three other seemingly unrelated individuals that have been drawn into the case: private investigator Scott Shelby, FBI criminal profiler Norman Jayden, and insomniac Madison Paige.
Though it takes a little while to pick up, Heavy Rain is an immersive interactive drama that sucks you in and doesn't let go. As you control each of the four characters, onscreen prompts have you press buttons in sequence, move the right analog stick in specific directions, shake the controller, and more to interact with the scenes. Each input is proportionally difficult to the task being performed, and when a character is scared or stressed, the floating prompts tremble accordingly. This unconventional control scheme does a fantastic job of grounding you to the characters and their emotional states. Your actions approximate theirs, and the often short amount of time you have to react to new situations mirrors their own reaction time. There is plenty of action to be found in the form of brutal and violent brawls, heart-pounding chases, and deadly gunfights, but even such mundane tasks as brushing your teeth or rocking a baby to sleep are surprisingly engaging, and help to strengthen your bond with the characters.
Unlike other games that make extensive use of quick-time events, Heavy Rain does not track your progress in terms of success and failure. There is no right or wrong way to play; thus, no matter what your outcome is, the game will move forward and adapt to the consequences of your actions or lack thereof. Though the overall narrative framework is unyielding, your performance throughout the game can have a variety of effects, ranging from subtle changes in how a scene plays out to much bigger adjustments. Entire events may not occur because your actions and choices caused the plot to branch in a different direction. It's even possible for key characters to die, thus eliminating any subsequent contributions to the story that they might have made. No matter what happens in your play-through, the adaptive plot of Heavy Rain becomes a deeply personal sum of your experiences.
Though Heavy Rain's involving story is its greatest strength, it is also somewhat of a weakness in terms of the game's replayability. Clocking in at an intensely satisfying eight to 10 hours, Heavy Rain is full of branching plot points and permutations, but it's hard to actually go back and play through the game differently once you've completed it. Your story--the one that you got so caught up and invested in--has already been told; thus, the characters you bonded so closely with won't be the same if you do things differently. A chapter-select screen allows you to smartly play through some of these "what if" scenarios if you like, but scenes are rarely as impactful the second time. Minor issues with replayability aside, Heavy Rain is not a flawless narrative experience--it suffers from some bigger problems as well.
Scene to scene, the game does a fantastic job of drawing you into the action and the minds of its characters. However, there are a number of plot holes and inconsistencies that work against this immersion. For example, there are several obvious leads and key pieces of evidence in the case of the Origami Killer, which the police department seems completely unaware of. And a major plot point that haunts Ethan throughout a number of early scenes is never explained in the slightest. Depending on how you play through the game, you may be left scratching your head wondering what happened or how characters that never seemed to meet know each other. The story also features a number of over-the-top or cliche villains that seem out of place in the realistic setting, including an overly-aggressive detective and a super-sleazy nightclub owner.
Heavy Rain's problems aren't strictly limited to the plot either--there are a number of other flaws as well. You move your character forward by pulling the R2 trigger and alter the direction he or she is facing by moving the left analog stick. On paper, this is a sound system, but in practice, it is clumsy and imprecise. The frame rate is inconsistent, screen tearing is frequent, and noticeable texture pop-in occurs almost every time something is closely examined. Rare immersion-breaking glitches can also occur, including audio that doesn’t match what’s happening onscreen, and textures failing to load and leaving you with either an all-black environment or a silhouetted character.
These technical issues are particularly unfortunate, because Heavy Rain is generally a beautiful and fantastic-looking game. The visual design of the various environments is outstanding, and whether you're visiting a dirty double-wide or an intensely creepy room filled with webcams streaming live video to nearby TVs, the painstaking amount of detail that went into constructing each locale is incredible. Character models are hyperrealistic--particularly in how they move and interact--and in many ways, they emote just as well as any real person. Occasionally, a stiff or awkward animation will crop up such as a robot-like march upstairs, but for the most part, characters move extremely well. Finally, an excellent orchestral score stirs up your emotions in just the right way, and the mostly great voice acting completes the human element to round out the experience.
Though it suffers from its share of plot and technical problems, Heavy Rain is nonetheless a bold and visionary step forward in the medium of interactive storytelling. Part adventure game and part psychological thriller, Heavy Rain is far from the quick-time-event-powered movie that it may appear to be at first glance. Every action you perform or decision you make--from the simple and mundane to the dark and disturbing--brings you closer to the flawed but realistic characters you manipulate. Their stories become your story, and their hardships become obstacles that you feel compelled to overcome with them. No matter how your adventure plays out, Heavy Rain is a profoundly personal experience that should not be missed.