"Heavy Rain is one of those games everyone should try playing."
The Shawshank Redemption was released in 1994 to a tepid box office reception, but later ended up being hailed as a truly monumental film. Not because of any excitement or flair on the part of the storyline or production values, but because of the very human performances given by the actors, which showed that even in the darkest of places, one could find humanity and hope. Music, paintings, and films have all been acclaimed due to their ability to resonate with people on an emotional level. Hoping to evoke a similar response to that of films, Quantic Dream created Heavy Rain, an ambitious game that sells itself not on the quality of its gameplay, but that of its story. Billed as an interactive drama rather than a game, it seeks to elevate gaming as a storytelling medium.
Heavy Rain begins with the idyllic life of Ethan Mars, architect and proud father of two, celebrating the tenth birthday of his older son Jason. It is here that the player familiarizes himself with Ethan Mars and the closeness he has with his family. Unfortunately, his idyllic family life is torn from him when he loses track of Jason in a crowded mall, after which Jason perishes in a traffic accident. After this happens, Ethan begins experiencing blackouts and psychological issues due to the trauma, and two years later, he is separated from his wife and maintains a strained relationship with his second son, Shaun, whose melancholic demeanor estranges him further and further from his father. During one of his blackouts, Ethan loses track of Shaun, who is then kidnapped by the Origami Killer, a murderer who kills children by drowning them in rainwater. After their deaths, he leaves them in deserted fields with an orchid on their chest and an origami figure in one hand.
The narrative is compelling so far as Ethan Mars' story is concerned; this tale of a father's loss of his first son and his willingness to do anything to save his second is likely the most emotionally engaging story I've experienced in my tenure as a gaming enthusiast. As someone in his mid-20s on the cusp of starting my own family, Ethan Mars' struggle with the trials necessary to save someone he loves dearly resonated me on a very personal level, and in that respect, the game is unquestionably successful. Unfortunately, it's the other facets of the story where the narrative falls apart.
In 1946, when the noir film The Big Sleep was in production, the directors and screenwriters were at a loss as to how the chauffeur, Owen Taylor, died, due to the complexity of the story. They asked the writer of the original novel, who eventually admitted that he himself had no idea. Heavy Rain suffers a similar flaw, except that its visibility is much more pronounced due to the game's much less complicated story. Unlikely events, such as a single, unarmed character escaping a police raid, are commonplace. Characters make absurd and laughable leaps of logic that would exasperate even regular viewers of CSI and Castle. There are even scenes that purposely mislead the player just to make the final plot twist a shocker. Certain romantic undertones are also undercooked and poorly developed, with their culminations leaving me scratching my head at the sheer absurdity of it all. Major plot elements are dropped halfway through the story, which ends up giving players a mix of misdirection and random red herrings. It's as if the writers wrote themselves into a corner as to who the killer should ultimately be, and strung together some obtuse logic to force the game into a conclusion. As a game that is purely plot-driven, the shoddy quality of the overarching story is unforgivable; it's impossible that these plot holes and inconsistencies went unnoticed by the writers, which makes it all the more damning.
These problems are sometimes compounded by the voicework, which is hit-or-miss. It should be noted that Quantic Dream is a French developer, and that their voice talents are people hired from Europe. This makes the voicework an inconsistent affair, due to the actors having to affect an American accent while attempting to give a convincing performance, the results of which range from acceptable to laughably bad. Watching the smart and by the book FBI agent struggle to pronounce his own name gets somewhat comical, while hearing the term 'origami' mispronounced constantly grates on the nerves; it's only the main antagonist's nickname – the opinion that it should be pronounced correctly is not unreasonable.
Graphically, Heavy Rain is excellent. The environments are meticulous in detail, and the character models are realistic for the most part. I say 'for the most part' because the game still hits the uncanny valley at times, with bizarre facial expressions and unnatural body animations pulling the player out of the experience every so often. It's nothing that affects the game significantly, but it's enough to be distracting when it occurs.
The gameplay – if you can call it that – is basically a string of QTEs. Every facet of the controller is used, with each chain of events requiring specific button presses, holding down a certain combination of buttons, or swinging the controller a certain way. On higher difficulty settings, how hard the player presses the buttons or analog sticks can also have an effect on the game. The button cues are excellently placed, and it is incredible that the developers could evoke such a response from simple button presses. Do you win the pretend sword fight with your son, or play the role of the good father and lose to him on purpose? When you're facing an adversary who tried to murder you, do you press R1 and aim the gun at his head? Having done this, do you take the extra step, and press R1 again to pull the trigger, staining your hands? It places the weight of the player's actions directly into his or her hands. Compared to other games, perhaps Heavy Rain's gameplay seems simplistic. However, the gameplay is a means to an end rather than the cornerstone of the experience, and it is thus unique in that it can't be graded as compared to other games, even ones in a similar genre. If I am allowed one complaint, though, it is that walking requires holding down R2, and movement therefore becomes a rather tedious affair, especially when trying to navigate around objects.
The game has multiple endings and branching paths, such that no two players will have the same experience. While one player may end up having all characters alive and well by the finale, another may end up having the killer get away with his crimes, unpunished by the law or otherwise. This makes the game very replayable, and I urge anyone who plays it to not restart chapters if they 'mess up,' because there is no right or wrong way to play the game – the storyline adjusts itself depending on the actions taken, which is something that is truly commendable. Because of the nature of the game, I am hard-pressed to give it a gameplay score. On the one hand, it is very simplistic and can barely be called a game in the strictest sense, on the other it is an interactive medium that changes and evolves the story as the player takes actions within the confines of the game. Heavy Rain's gameplay is something that must be experienced to be properly understood, and words do it no justice, for better or worse.
Heavy Rain is one of those games everyone should try playing. As a medium that evokes an emotional response, Heavy Rain is an unqualified success. However, its shoddy story full of plot holes and poorly utilized plot devices, combined with a spotty performance by the voice actors, leaves Heavy Rain's overall story with much to be desired. Heavy Rain succeeds in many ways, but also falters in just as many. Quantic Dream would be wise to learn from their mistakes for future releases; there are only so many times an audience is willing to test their suspension of disbelief before it snaps.