Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
You know how when you’re playing a game you sometimes get the feeling that your actions mean bugger all and the story is just unfolding itself inexorably to its pre-determined end? Heavy Rain doesn’t have that; or at least it does a damn good job of convincing you that it doesn’t. You see, most games unveil the plot by stages and throw in a twist here and there until it reaches its inevitable finale. The player may be aware their actions do nothing but allow the story to continue (i.e. they stay alive long enough to see the next bit) but it doesn’t matter because it’s about enjoying the journey. Even if the player is allowed to take a bifurcated path the ends will converge sooner or later and lead to the same result (or one of two) but again, that’s ok. At least one game revels and even thrives on this lack of player choice: Bioshock.
But this is about Heavy Rain and Heavy Rain is a game which provides a branching story path which could end with all the main characters living, dying or a combination. You (the player) could win the day, lose miserably or enjoy a so-so result and your decisions matter from the moment you pick up the controller. Usually this is where I would launch into a broad overview of the plot but in all honesty I can’t do that here. This is for two reasons; 1) the events truly do form a unique tapestry for each player and 2) because you don’t want to know anything that happens before you go into the game, trust me on that. Even the game itself tells you this by hiding damn near every single one of the trophies from prying eyes by marking them as secret.
Speaking of trophies, this is one aspect the game falls down on, albeit occasionally. One trophy in particular is very buggy and often fails to pop up when it should, forcing the player to go through that (rather long) section again. I personally had it appear after I had loaded another chapter then returned to my initial save which was... weird. Even though that one trophy has given players a bit of trouble the game is mostly bug free. Erm, at least it was for me and most others but there were a few unlucky people who encountered bugs with their sound and even had frequent crashes.
So, the story; without spoiling anything, the plot centres on a series of murders perpetrated by The Origami Killer who follows a distinct MO. There are four controllable characters who all have their own reasons for becoming involved in this situation, most of whom have nicely fleshed out backgrounds. Of course there are NPCs who feature heavily in the story and most of these characters are just as rounded as the others even though voice acting can feel a little flat at times (from all the characters).
Even though I just mentioned the bad side of the voice acting I would like to praise the majority of it and the sounds in general. Most of the time characters convey their emotions well and only fall into the trap of being slightly hammy at very emotional sections. Sound effects hold up very nicely; the world is full of the sounds of rainwater, fleeting conversations complaining about the weather and passing cars going through puddles. Really, if the title wasn’t the biggest clue ever, rainwater surrounds you like oxygen in this game.
The characters think so too; a nice touch is the ability to hold L2 and hear what the character thinks of various things. Rain often features as a standard moan of these people but the L2 function becomes useful when it gives the player clues as to what the hell to do next.
The graphics are extremely impressive. The title is exclusive to PS3 and the results shine through in their own murky way. Character models are detailed and even simple but relatively unused actions such as applying lipstick and crying look good even though they’re tricky to get right in games. Crying in particular is effective since the water effects in general are astonishing. The water is particularly nice when it’s running down walls but its inclusion anywhere is enough to remind the player of the game’s dark nature. Incidentally, the detailed character models are also a blessing when one of the characters nudes up to get in the shower; surprisingly, this game contains frontal female nudity and carries only a 15 certificate. An oversight or are the censors getting more liberal? You be the judge. Although the graphics are generally stunning I have spotted a couple of occasions where the textures take a second longer than the character models to load up but this is nowhere near as bad as the texture pop-up present in most Unreal based games.
Of course no review would be complete without mentioning gameplay and this is especially poignant in Heavy Rain which follows in the footsteps of Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy). The game is basically a series of quick time events where the required button pops up in the actual game space rather than overlaid as a HUD would be. For instance the button to punch will appear next to a character’s fist and the action to open a door will be next to the door’s handle. Types of controller actions are well illustrated which speeds up the process between seeing the icon, figuring out what it means and actually performing the action. Happily, the icons almost always match the action they are linked to in a common sense way. Some people may find this interface limiting but it actually frees the developers to program a range of results for each situation. If you miss one QTE you should be fine but if you miss three there may be wide reaching repercussions. You’ll never fail the game (I don’t even think it’s possible), but you may find the going harder than before.
The story, while I refuse to tell you about it, is engaging but Heavy Rain is not a long game. It can easily be completed within eight hours but its longevity comes from the repeated plays required to see everything that can happen. After the first try you’ll know the broad story but you won’t know what happens if you succeed where you previously failed and you won’t know how your success will affect the story several acts into the future. For players who quickly tire of games once they have been completed Heavy Rain won’t offer a lot of play but anyone who likes to find the ins and outs of any story the projected 22 endings should keep them going for a while.