Let the rain settle it.
Something is askew about Heavy Rain. Before you even see the title screen, it teaches you step by step how to fold the square piece of paper provided in the case into the now infamous origami shape on the cover. Maybe it’s a nice diversion while you wait for the game to install, or maybe it’s trying to get you into the mind of the Origami Killer. Then, you are given three options for difficulty labeled as whether you play games “regularly”, “very often”, or “occasionally”. Peculiar, it is, and obviously so.
[image1]By pairing minimalist controls with stunning graphics and what developers Quantic Dream call an “interactive drama”, Heavy Rain shines best as a conversation piece meant to challenge the tenets of hardcore mainstream gaming. Its vision makes it clear that marketing research (gladly) did not play a role in its production: There is no health bar, no action-oriented combat, no experience orbs, no inventory, no treasure chests, no explicit morality system, no sadistic or sexual seduction of any kind. [But there are "mature" boobs. ~Ed.] On paper, it probably sounds as interesting as stagnant water, but in practice, it’s nothing of the sort.
Before the story unfolds, the presentation will immediately catch your attention. Not only are the characters’ close-ups during the loading screens impressive, but every step taken on a staircase is animated and every object in an environment is meticulously modeled. Everything down to the milk cartons and potato chips in a small grocery store has been crafted in high-resolution detail. It’s nothing you’ll notice for more than a few seconds at a time, but these details go well beyond the call of duty. The thematic, orchestral soundtrack, which crescendos during action sequences, is equally as effective at pulling you in.
Weaving the lives of four strangers who are entangled in the murders of the Origami Killer, the story follows the path of a mystery thriller with the complexity of numerous branching paths. In order for the protagonists – an everyday father of two boys, a rough-‘n’-tumble private detective, an FBI profiler, and a female photojournalist – to identify and locate the killer, it’s your job to keep them alive. But if one of them dies – which is very possible during the climax – or doesn’t go through with a specific action, the game does not end, but simply continues to reflect the changes. Whether decisions are made through dialogue or action sequences, consequence prevails.
The script has more triumphs than letdowns, unlike that of its spiritual predecessor Indigo Prophecy. Scenes usually have enough tension to keep your interest and for you to watch your step. As for intensity, one scene with the father midway through literally made me drop the controller, walk away, and pace for about ten minutes to take in what just happened. Let’s just say that I appreciate the wholeness of my body much more now.
[image2]However, you aren’t really doing much detective work. All you do as the FBI profiler is gather clues and flip through them, Minority Report-style, enough times for him to figure out who the Origami Killer is. Also, the designers somehow forgot about umbrellas; some characters have them, most do not. You would think that the protagonists would have the bright idea to wear a raincoat or carry an umbrella by the second day – or perhaps the third or fourth – of constant rainfall. It just makes them seem depressed or lazy.
While the story might seem too intricate to suit everyone's tastes, the controls are approachable even from a casual standpoint. No complex motions are needed: simple button presses or holds, a Sixaxis twist, and analog stick movements (sometimes slowly) in a specific direction. Quick-time events comprise most of the action sequences, requiring you to watch the screen for cues. Other times, a time limit is set (usually with 24-styled split-screen shots) where you must frantically find a solution. If you fail an action during a quick-time event, the character usually doesn’t die outright, though the resulting cut-scenes will let you know that things aren’t going as well as they could be.
Calling Heavy Rain “one long-ass quick-time event” or “an over-complicated choose-your-own-adventure story” would be an exaggeration, but it isn’t too far off either. To create highs and lows in the plot, you will frequently perform actions that seem insignificant: picking up a glass, opening a shelf, closing the window blinds, turning on a light. These interactions can be interpreted as moments of artistic detail, but others will find them an inconsequential waste of time, unless you’re trying to collect Trophies.
Heavy Rain is most successful when the story and the controls come together seamlessly. Moving the analog stick slowly to prevent a bottle from falling to the floor, holding down a series of buttons to hold a character’s hand down, and pressing a button repeatedly to fight off an attack are cleverly immersive. Similarly, if a character is in a heightened emotional state, the dialogue options circling about the character’s head tremble.
[image3]On the other hand, some of the choices for controls are too odd. Having to hold down a button to walk is supposed to make your actions deliberate, but it’s archaic and makes turning around a hassle. One scene which involves a crawlspace is nearly unbearable, especially when coupled with the occasionally sudden camera angles. There’s also no option to run, which makes for awkward moments when characters complain about not having enough time and then walk.
The auto-save system effectively magnifies the weight of every decision, but the auto-save happens frequently and there’s only one save per story. Any careless mistake can be lethal if you don’t happen to quit to the main menu before the auto-save kicks in. Even though the story continues if you make a mistake, and there's not technically any way to "lose", beating this game for most players will mean getting the "best" ending, so an auto-saved mistake can be seen as a de facto game over. The only saving grace is that you can start the game over at any scene you’ve unlocked, though it comes with some decisions having already been pre-determined.
Also, the choice of a mystery thriller for a game that is about exploring different story branches is puzzling. Once the Origami Killer is revealed, after the story sends out enough red herrings to throw you off the trail, the incentive to see how scenes can change is a bit stifled. Thankfully, it only takes one long night to reach the ending, so any curiosity can be fed easily. That said, any person with an interest in modern story-based games won’t have any qualms replaying the game over and over again for each possible ending. [Originally inferred that there were four endings, but there are many more than that. ~Ed]
Heavy Rain is an inspiration board of editorials waiting to be written. It is entertaining without being “fun” and explores the assumptions players make as a spectator and a participant, the extent at which literary drama can interconnect with games, and the uncharted space far beyond mainstream gaming. For navigating through all of these waters and producing an experience that is stirringly unique, that comes as close as ever to a true "interactive story", it is to be commended. Even if you come to oppose everything it stands for – and understandably so – Heavy Rain needs to be played.