An interesting concept, but the story really has issues
Debate about the polarizing "Heavy Rain" often focuses upon whether a game composed largely of quick time events can even be considered a game. Reviewers are so busy either defending or condemning the game's mechanics that few people have had a chance to point out the game's biggest problem – mediocre story and writing. An adventure game like Heavy Rain ultimately flies as high as its fiction. In this case, it's – eh – not all that high. The story isn't the emotionally stirring masterpiece experience that so many overinflated reviews have credited it with being. With that said, it's not all bad. It at least makes you care about the characters in it. On top of that, the game is wholly unique in how it guides you through the story and it shows a lot of courage when it comes to choices and consequences. Heavy Rain is an interesting take on the concept of video games. The game at least offers enough novelty value to make it worth renting.
The centerpiece in Heavy Rain is the CSI-style serial killer mystery. You play through the story from the viewpoint of four different characters. Each of them is trying to solve the mystery in their way, each of them with their own motivations. The game constantly jumps around from character to character, and it gives them some lines that are so corny or sappy that you will be wincing with embarrassment when you hear them. Despite those issues though, the game also develops each one, allowing you to develop an attachment to all of them. They behave realistically for the most part, and they are voice-acted very well. In particular, the FBI agent and the private detective are superb, and they make for more interesting characters because of it.
The game's supporting cast isn't quite as good. There is a hooker with a heart of gold, an angry bad cop, a sleazy motel owner, and a couple of not so adorable kids. The little problems with the writing are somewhat typical of foreign-made games that take place in America and are clearly inspired by Hollywood. Often times, exposure to lots of American movies hasn't given developers a true understanding of American culture. Instead, it has provided a bank of stereotypes and clichés to draw from and that is reflected in games. The best (or shall I say, the worst) example of this problem in Heavy Rain is a thuggish black man that the FBI agent encounters during his investigation. He angrily greets the FBI agent with the line "WHATCHU WANT, CRACKA?" For a game that relies so heavily upon its story and a sense of realism, some poorly written characters or bad lines can really bring it down.
The quality of a murder mystery or a serial killer story ultimately depends on the payoff when you finally find out who the killer is and why. A great murder story has a believable killer with believable motivations and it wraps up its plot nicely. This area is where Heavy Rain falters badly. The answer to "whodunit?" is – not satisfying. It is badly inconsistent with events that happen in the game, and it leaves numerous threads unresolved. The game throws out lots of red herrings, but it never explains lots of them. I cannot write much more than this without spoiling the game for you, but suffice it to say, I wasn't all that thrilled with the conclusion. The story has other problems as well. There are some plot holes so big that you could drive a Mack truck through them. For example, the families of the killer's victims are complete morons. They have all been keeping important of evidence from the police for years, which they promptly turn over to the private investigator -- evidence like letters and bits of origami sent by the killer. Speaking of the police, they are all complete buffoons and the bad cop and FBI agent are constantly yelling at each other for little reason. In addition, the killer's schemes (obviously inspired by the Saw movies) are too intricate and perfectly executed to be believable. Perhaps this review is too harsh, but when a game is sold so heavily on being an interactive story instead of a traditional game, then that story deserves extra scrutiny.
It is too bad, because with a better script, Heavy Rain would be a great experience. The game, for the most part, delivers as advertised when it comes to providing an interactive story. It has been somewhat incorrectly characterized as an endless string of quick time events. There are some quick time action scenes, but there are nuances to them that make them different from the quick time events in other games. They do a great job of simulating how the task in front of you would feel, as opposed to just throwing up a series of button presses. Some actions require a lot of finesse, and as a result, what you do with the controller requires a lot of finesse. For example, in one scene, you have to navigate a field of electrically charged wires without touching them. Each time you step over or through them, the game requires you to hold down two, three, or even four buttons while tapping another one. Some challenges require you to make quick jerking motions with the Sixaxis controller to represent a sudden strong movement on the screen. One scene has you put on makeup by making circular movements with the analog sticks (If you screw up these scenes do you smear mascara on your face? I wonder). Pretty much every action in every scene has been crafted in this way. It is this crafting that allows the game to get by without much of what is traditionally considered to be gameplay. I don't want other games to imitate this type of gameplay, but I did enjoy it here. One criticism of the actions scenes though is that they usually last too long. In particular, there are fight scenes that are reminiscent of the absurd fight scene in "They Live".
Heavy Rain is made much more interesting by its heavy, almost brutal, focus on choices and consequences. The story is largely linear, but there are some major events that you can affect. At least one of the main four characters (and maybe more) can die in the middle of the game if you fail an action sequence badly. If so, the story continues without them. Other secondary characters can live or die, based upon your actions. Even if everyone survives, the ending vignette for each character can be dramatically different, based upon what you have done during the game. Most games are afraid to enforce choice and consequences because they don't want you to miss a major chunk of the content. Heavy Rain, on the other hand, tells you "you made a choice, now live with it". Sometimes the game gives you little time to make a choice, which means that you can quickly do something that you regret later. The developers for this game said publicly that they want people to play straight through without retrying anything and without replaying the game to see how things can turn out differently. With a 10-hour game experience, Heavy Rain captures an aspect of real life. Mainly, that you only get one shot at it, you can't go back and change events that you regret, and you don't necessarily know how it could have turned out differently.
When you are not in an interactive cut scene, sometimes you are exploring an area on foot. Heavy Rain also runs into some problems here. The game works a lot like an old survival horror game from the 1990s, presenting a static camera angle and then suddenly changing it when you cross an invisible barrier to the next room. Instead of simply walking in one direction with stick and controlling the camera with the other stick, you pivot with one stick and use the right trigger to walk forward. It is an awkward control scheme that will make you wish for a more traditional two-stick control setup.
Heavy Rain has received a lot of its attention for its graphics. It deserves its accolades. The game does a good job of showing off the power of the Playstation 3 with highly detailed, realistic environments and some excellent looking characters. The game is heavily inspired by Saw, and as such lots of the environments are dirty and grungy. Some of the characters look a little weird close up, but for the most part the visuals are great. Most of the voice acting is really good, and so is the moody soundtrack. The music isn't usually acknowledged as one of the strengths of Heavy Rain, but it should be.
For a long time, we have waited to see how Heavy Rain would turn out. Would it be a disastrous experiment, or the growth of gaming into a new art form? As it turns out, Heavy Rain was a good concept, and in the future we might see some great games out of this developer. Where the game fails is in its fiction. There are better stories to be found in games, and better adult writing as well. My recommendation to you is to rent it, relax on the couch, and play it with tempered expectations. You will not find the "evolved art form" that the game has been billed to be, but you should at least find an experience that compels you to play it through to the end.