A great deal of RPG fans play RPGs because they’re viewed as forms of digital drama: they have deep characters with intertwining stories, long and interesting plots, and they’re entirely engaging. The difference between an RPG and an adventure game tends to come down to the nuts and bolts of gameplay: RPGs tend to have statistics galore, equipment, a wide variety of battle systems, and massive amounts of exploration. Point-and-click adventure games slim these down; they still have the same focus on story and plot, but they limit gameplay elements to puzzles and inventory management. Enter Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain isn’t an RPG, and it isn’t an adventure game. It’s exactly what its developers posture it as: Interactive Drama. Heavy Rain is the style of game that Shenmue should have been, the distilled essence of story in digital form, where a player’s choices are the story. In that, Quantic Dream has succeeded beyond what I ever would have expected, even after the fantastic Indigo Prophecy. Quantic Dream has created a story that is beyond engaging, with characters that players care about, and all without hours of mindless dialogue with NPCs or spending time figuring out puzzles: this is a top-quality game.
That’s not to say that Heavy Rain is mindless or something that is watched instead of played – I would contest that I spent more time watching Xenosaga than I did Heavy Rain. Heavy Rain seamlessly blends gameplay and story better than any other title I’ve seen; unlike the average RPG or adventure game, there’s no line drawn in the sand between what the player is doing and what the player is watching. I’ve heard the name QTE (Quick Time Event, from Shenmue) applied to Heavy Rain’s core gameplay, but while there are timed button presses and analog stick movements, they are integrated and don’t seem out of place in the structure of the game. In fact, Quantic Dream’s choice to have the right analog stick perform most basic actions make it so that players are engrossed with the actions of the characters. As well, the options that players have to converse with others are on the face buttons, which is good compared to the awkward choices on the right analog stick from Indigo Prophecy. Further, during stressful situations, inputs can appear to be ‘shaky’ and fade in and out, making a stressful situation for the character into a stressful situation for the player, and that transfers incredibly well. That’s not to say that everything is perfect with the control scheme of Heavy Rain, however.
One of the plus sides to adventure games is that they are very easy to play for those who are unfamiliar with video games and controllers. Heavy Rain falls on the opposite end of this spectrum, and all of its difficulties are all directly related to the complexity of the control scheme. So in this sense, it fails as a title for the masses. For those playing on the most advanced setting, Heavy Rain can require strings of button inputs and holds for upwards of five buttons – even if you know where the buttons are, it can be quite difficult to get all of the buttons down. For those playing on the easiest setting, the number of inputs is reduced, but those unfamiliar with the PlayStation 3 controller will not be consoled by this change. Since these inputs are still timed, tapping the X button on the controller is still difficult for someone to do in a short amount of time if they don’t know where the X button is. For those who are experienced with the controller, this is not a problem at all – so the great majority of people reading this review will have no gripes with the basic control scheme. There are issues with the control scheme for even seasoned veterans, but it all comes in the movement of the characters, and not during action sequences.
Unlike most games, where movement is directly linked to the left analog stick, Heavy Rain tasks players to move forward by holding the R2 button and steering themselves with the left analog stick. It’s a bit strange and is more than a little reminiscent of Resident Evil. It feels archaic and I sometimes had characters running around in circles while I tried to find a singular input. I can see why Quantic Dream chose this control scheme, as it’s easier to keep a character in its place and look around for inputs, but it still feels awkward for the gaming veteran. I can’t call anything in the control scheme inherently bad, especially considering the segments during story work incredibly well, but it is certainly flawed.
Now, with all this talk about control schemes and digital drama as a genre and integration of gameplay and story, one might forget that all these things are completely worthless without the meat and potatoes of an adventure game or interactive drama: the plot, dialogue, and presentation. These are what take Heavy Rain out of the realm of the adventure genre and turn it into an interactive drama. With these, Heavy Rain succeeds, although it’s not without a few hiccups, certainly. The plot and dialogue are the strongest of these aspects, as Quantic Dream has done a fantastic job creating characters that are not only engaging and interesting, but realistic as well. Players take control of four different characters: Madison Paige, a journalist; Ethan Mars, architect and father of two; Scott Shelby, a private investigator; and Norman Jayden, FBI agent. These four characters all try to unravel the story of the Origami Killer, a murderer who takes young boys, drowns them in rainwater, and leaves them near train tracks days later. It’s not a happy story, but players can easily become attached to all four characters because of their fantastic dialogue. There are hiccups in the script, as there are some things that don’t necessarily add up, but as a whole, things are incredibly coherent. This is especially difficult to do, seeing as how players don’t have to do everything in the game.
Heavy Rain is all about choices, and it’s not specifically limited to simple dialogue. Most adventure games are linear in that there is one solution to the puzzle, one thread to the story, and one order to do things in. However, if you hand two different people Heavy Rain, they will have two completely different experiences. This isn’t just true in the BioWare sense, where players will hit all of the same missions but may face different choices, but there are entire chapters that I did not play that friends who had played the game experienced and vice versa. The most amazing part about this was that the game made sense either way. That is what makes Heavy Rain so brilliant in its storytelling, that despite players experience entirely different things based on choices, everything still makes sense. If only the aural aspect followed suit so strongly.
For those who don’t know, Quantic Dream is a French developer, previously having worked on Omikron: The Nomad Soul and Indigo Prophecy (Fahrenheit in regions outside North America). While some companies developing first party games are given outside talent for things such as voice acting, Quantic Dream recruited their own talent for Heavy Rain. This is both a positive and a negative: the characters themselves are modeled after the actors, and as such their mannerisms and models match the voice. On the downside, these actors are not all American despite all playing American characters, and sometimes the accents can drift. Specifically, Ethan Mars sounds decidedly Irish delivering a few of his lines, and it breaks the fourth wall a tiny bit, which damages everything that the game puts together so well. It’s not such a killer that it destroys the game – far from it – but it is certainly something that takes the realism out of the game. All of the sound effects and music match the game well, although I was so engrossed in the dialogue that there wasn’t a particular point at which I took note of either of these, but that’s a good thing for a game like this.
Graphically, things are superior to most PlayStation 3 games, Final Fantasy XIII and Uncharted 2 aside. You may remember the demo played at E3 2006, called “The Casting” that showcased Quantic Dream’s technology on the PlayStation 3. Watching that video again, I am struck at how the game looks superior to that, especially considering that actress Aurélie Bancilhon plays not only the woman from this demo reel, but also Lauren Winters in the final game. The facial animations are all realistic for the most part, but, again, nothing is perfect, and there are some segments where animations are far from perfect and seem unrealistic. The same goes for the animations of characters’ bodies. There are several times where they are very unrealistic. It doesn’t take away enough to make things unenjoyable, but it does remind me that we are in the “uncanny valley” of graphics. Environments look fantastic, and unlike many games, objects that characters interact with look the same as objects that are static, which is a nice change of pace.
All-in-all, Heavy Rain is worth playing for just about anyone who is reading this website. The game is far from perfect, but it does prove that there can be fluid, legitimate choices in a digital form and still have things make sense. Perhaps the RPG and adventure genres’ bent to keep particular elements static no matter what is a deterrent to the creation of a true interactive drama. All I know is that having finished Heavy Rain, I can’t wait to play it again and do things the “wrong” way or see the segments that I missed, and that is what makes Heavy Rain such a fantastic game for me: I have never had a desire to play an adventure game again without a remake, especially not so soon after its release. Bravo, Quantic Dream, your game may not be perfect, but you have succeeded at creating a piece of Interactive Drama.