Review by Mat C
Developer Quantic Dream
Released February 23, 2010
“Anticipated as much for its storytelling narrative as it has been criticised for offering little but a string of elaborate Quick Time Events (QTEs), the arrival of Heavy Rain has not been a quiet one. Sony have even gone so far as to actually market it with an advertising campaign; praise in itself from a company that has received criticism in the past for selling its major franchises short. Having had mixed experiences with the pre-release demo myself, I picked up a copy on launch day and decided to go into the game with a fresh and relatively open mind.
Such a decision has already been rewarded twice over.”
For this review however, we’re going to start with the bad and work towards the good. For all of Heavy Rain’s charms and looking at the overall experience in context, this could be one of the most flawed “AAA” games you play this year.
It all starts with the control scheme. Simple movement is handled by holding R2 whilst flicking the left analogue stick in the direction you wish to walk in. In theory this shouldn’t pose any problems, but the reality is an ugly, fiddly and cumbersome control scheme that lends few favors to the immersing feel the game is attempting to portray. Quick and unexpected changes of camera angle can throw you off course completely and navigating around cluttered rooms can become a nightmare. The game occasionally loosens its shackles in larger, more expansive areas, but these are few and far between. For tighter spaces, it can often feel like a constant struggle against the character’s movement. Fans of becoming stuck on protruding bits of furniture should rejoice.
Heavy Rain is also fraught with technical issues. Whereas screen tearing can be an annoyance at the best of times, here it reaches levels of genuine distraction. At its worst, the screen will threaten to tear in half completely and can even throw some of the animation out of sync. Although this happens on only a handful of occasions, it’s no less notable when it does occur. One simple encounter around two thirds of the way through the story fell apart almost entirely, despite featuring little more than two police offers having a heated conversation. FBI profiler Norman Jayden was literally sliced in half at one point, whilst lip syncing fell a second or two behind its usual high standards. Although such a drastic technical collapse occurred only once during my initial play-through, and during a short sequence of dialogue at that, it came as a shock even compared to the rest of the game’s flickering, tearing lines.
There are also significant problems with voice acting. Concessions here do have to be made to the fact that only a handful of the main voice actors speak English in their native tongue, with French developer Quantic Dream choosing to stay closer to home, but this does raise questions. There are an abundance of English-speaking video game voice actors constantly looking for work – even before the now obligatory recruitment of Nolan North. Considering Heavy Rain is set in America, to try and pass off emulating the accent with only a limited degree of success can at times cheapen the experience. It almost feels harsh of me to pick up on this issue, especially given how much better their English is than my French, but there are just too many occasions when simple pitch, tone and emotion are literally lost in translation. For a game so heavily concentrated on story and reliant on building a connection with the characters, such issues become ever more apparent.
All of that said however, taking into account technical issues, a clumsy control mechanic and some suspect voice acting; Heavy Rain is an incredibly easy game to fall in love with.
Taking obvious inspiration from films including Se7en and SAW, Heavy Rain tells a gritty and at times harrowing story of lost love, lost hope, and lost life. This is a genuinely intriguing and raw crime thriller, one that will truly hook you into its plot and have you second guessing the identity of the Origami Killer right up until the end. Recalling a certain moment from The Simpsons, I often found myself so engrossed and gripped by tension that I felt as if I was sat upright in front of the sofa, not just on the edge of it.
Heavy Rain puts you in control of 4 different characters. Ethan Mars, model father and architect, private detective Scott Shelby, FBI profiler Norman Jayden and a photojournalist named Madison Paige. Naturally, you’ll warm to some of the characters more than others, although by the time I’d finished my first play through of Heavy Rain I genuinely felt a connection with all of the characters; satisfied that each had an integral roll to play as events unfolded. Although Heavy Rain generally handles its characters, themes and story in an adult and mature way, Quantic Dream can’t help but remind everybody this is still very much a video game, particularly with some of their handling of Madison Paige. There’s more unnecessary ass shots here than of Megan Fox in a Michael Bay film.
I won’t be giving much away in terms of plot, spoiler fans, but my particular favorite story arc involved Ethan Mars. Living a particularly nauseating version of the American Dream at the game’s outset, playing host to a tutorial prologue section in the process, Ethan’s slip into a desperate and personal hell is a sadistically satisfying tale; featuring some of the most memorably unsettling set pieces you’ll come across in video gaming. Particularly with Ethan more than the other cast, the way in which Heavy Rain builds up your connection with the character, only to then set out to destroy him, is brilliantly engaging yet disturbing in equal measure.
As with many aspects of Heavy Rain, how much misery you place at the feet of poor old Ethan and the supporting cast will largely be down to you. Although primarily a linear experience, there are narrative-affecting choices scattered throughout Heavy Rain. Many of these remain inconsequential, such as deciding whether or not to drink some water out of a fridge, and some will attempt to have an impact on you as the player even if not directly influencing the direction of the narrative. Try finding out your son has taken a grilling at school for not doing his homework: homework that you should have been helping him with, had you not been stood outside shooting hoops in the rain or – far more likely – got stuck on some more furniture upstairs.
At first the level of decision making can feel a little loose, leading you to question how much impact on events you are really having, but there is a real depth to Heavy Rain’s narrative that cannot be fully explored until having completed a second play through. Although the end result is largely pre-determined, who gets there, how they get there and how the final scenes play out can be influenced in a variety of different ways. Crucially, lead characters can even die prematurely as a result of the decisions you make, but with no right or wrong way in which to play Heavy Rain, the story will simply continue without those who perish. As opposed to punishing failure with “Game Over” screens, Quantic Dream have instead opted to close access to branches of the story should any of your characters die, and in many ways this is a far more telling way in which to handle a player’s shortcomings.
So – to the burning issue – QTEs or not QTEs?
For me, the answer is a firm but helplessly inconclusive “Yes and No”. As the player, you will interact with the game world by following subtle on-screen prompts that appear next to objects as you approach them. Varying in difficulty, actions will range from simply flicking the right analogue stick in a designated direction to waving the controller around or holding down multiple buttons. But are they QTEs? In the main, I would argue no. For the majority of mundane tasks, interacting with the game world requires neither speed nor timing, which surely defeats the point of a “Quick Time Event”. However, during action sequences, it would be impossible to argue against such claims. Having to respond to prompts quickly during fights and other action sequences reduces the game’s prompts system to being no less a series of QTEs than unpopular sections God of War or Resident Evil 5. At this point I would however argue that the use of QTEs is largely kept in context and relevance to what’s going on on screen. Dodging a fist in a brawl or evading oncoming traffic in a car are actions that require speed and timing, and naturally this is reflected by Heavy Rain’s use of QTEs.
Regardless, Heavy Rain is very much a hands-off experience, one that you’ll spend more time watching than getting physically involved with. My main issue with the game’s input method is that the use of prompts on the environments leaves more questions unanswered than solved. Your ability to interact with some objects but have nothing to do with others leaves a rather thin – perhaps somewhat deceitful – veil over the real level of choice and depth, and it can prove frustrating. To help keep your ambitions and the direction of the story in check however, the player can hold L2 at any point to pull up a number of the character’s thoughts. Seen by some as a glorified hints system but just an extension of the character’s emotions and narrative by others, listening to these thoughts will often offer clues as to where to go and what to do next. You are of course free to ignore this mechanic completely, or choose not to follow your character’s inclinations even if you do listen to them, but sceptics may see this is as another cheap way of keeping further reins on the gameplay.
Still, the thoughts system stands well alongside the facial animations in terms of offering a real insight into the characters. Although graphically Heavy Rain is bogged down with flat and dull textures, some of the attention to detail afforded to the characters is worth the compromises elsewhere. Some of the more subtle twinges and expressions can be missed in the blink of an eye, but catch them and they’ll lend even more weight to the compelling narrative and your relationship with the characters. Particularly on a second play through, you’ll notice and appreciate subtle aspects of Heavy Rain’s character design that might have slipped your attention the first time around.
As an overall experience, Heavy Rain is amongst the most engaging and fascinating I have ever had within video gaming. To pick apart the numerous technical decencies of Quantic Dream’s work would be easy, and it’s because of the hands-off approach, ham fisted controls and at times terrible voice acting why many will be put off. I certainly will have few qualms with those that take issue, for one of Heavy Rain’s greatest strengths is it’s capacity to draw such diverse opinion about what it achieves; both positively and negatively.
In my opinion however, to place too much concentration on the negatives would be to miss out on the greater good. Heavy Rain tells a gripping and harrowing murder mystery story in an adult and thoroughly engaging way, heaping rewards on the player at every opportunity. It’s a story driven by emotion, building a sense of connection with the characters that will pull you into their plight. You’ll care about the characters, you’ll care about catching the Origami Killer, and on the rare occasions that you’ll get the chance to pull a trigger, you’ll care about the outcome. In that regard alone, Heavy Rain stands as one of the most unique and captivating games I’ve ever played.
Heavy Rain might well be one of the most flawed games you play this year, but as an overall package, it might also be one of the most unique and rewarding.