The problem is choice. Remember when The Matrix movies said that and it felt pretty deep in the theater, but then later you realized it mostly pretentious mumbo jumbo and you wished there was less talking and more upside down Kung Fu? It turns out that the mumbo jumbo part was mostly spot on, but choice is the core concept of Heavy Rain.
Heavy Rain calls itself an “interactive drama”. The game involves controlling one of four characters at a time using contextual controls, which is the first departure from tradition. There is no control scheme that you can memorize. The X button might be making you drink orange juice, put a car in gear, throw a punch, pull a trigger, or shoot a basketball. Heavy Rain also makes what is probably the most intuitive use of the PS3’s six-axis motion controls in the consoles lifespan thus far. Pushing open a window? Shove the controller forward. Swinging a two by four at somebody’s head? Quick left! While initially the entire control system can be confusing, by the time the action really starts rolling your comfortable enough to be able to handle it. The situation onscreen dictates how the controller will be used (or not used, in some cases) and changes in practically every scene of the game.
Scene becomes an apt choice of words because Heavy Rain is much more akin to a movie-going experience than a game playing one. The story, for mostly better and sometimes worse, is the driving force behind the game. Though you control the aforementioned four characters the “hero” of this adventure is one Ethan Mars, a father of two that really needs to work on his parenting skills. You will jump between characters frequently but all are involved in some way with Ethan’s story. The game does a great job of giving you a sense of how all these characters operate, in part because they are clearly not just sitting idly by while your not controlling them. Much like in movies or television, just because the character is off-screen does not mean they just stand around waiting for you to direct them.
Heavy Rain is best experienced with almost no prior knowledge of the story, so I hesitate to say anything more. Suffice it to say, the main plot revolves around Ethan trying to save his kids, a serial killer/kidnapper is involved, and by the end you could have a legitimate debate over who has had worse days in history: Jack Bauer or Ethan Mars.
Not to go all Agent Smith on you, but that brings us to choice. The most impressive thing about Heavy Rain is the weight of every decision you make. The game wisely starts with mundane choices (Do I work? Watch tv? Attempt to walk to a cabinet but kind of miss and instead walk up a flight of stairs BY ACCIDENT because your not used to the controls? Have you ever walked up a flight of stairs screaming “No this is wrong! go back! aagghh!!” but were unable to turn around until you reached the top in real life? …..me either.) that, while are not important in an overall story context, show you that there are many different outcomes to every situation. The consequences can lead to vastly different scenarios, including death(!).
Failure has always been a part of gaming, but rarely so effectively here. Any of the characters you control can die. This is not the normal press continue and try again dying. This is full on you will play the rest of the game a character down and f’ing deal with it dying. While it can be jarring to lose a character (and this is not limited to those your in direct control of, the supporting cast can also sleep with the fishes) it adds a element of tension to the already dire circumstances going on.
And make no mistake, this game is indeed dire. Heavy Rain was given an M for Mature rating and earns it. It contains a healthy amount of language, violence, and nudity, but none of it feels gratuitous. While it never reaches a Saw movie or God of War level of violence, it comes close on a couple of occasions. Also, given the realistic setting and bleak story, the darker subject matter has more weight to it than most games.
Heavy Rain does have some things working against it. If you’ve read Pecks thoughts on Final Fantasy 13 (and if the following analogy doesn’t make you at least curious on some level, you should probably just hit up a different website now) he compares the game to an obese man on roller skates at the top of a hill because it starts slow but picks up speed. Heavy Rain’s first hour is climbing UP the hill. The controls are unorthodox and the story has yet to go anywhere. The entire exercise is basically meant to familiarize yourself with the basic workings of the game and introduce the main character but it never explicitly calls itself a tutorial (I would love to see an explicit tutorial: “PRESS X…..BITCH). The slow start is not an indication of the rest of the game and is not as long as it can sometimes feel. Keep playing!
The story itself, while generally strong, has some plot holes that can be somewhat jarring. At one point your controlling Ethan to get him to a secret location that only he is supposed to know about. You do some of your business there and jump into the shoes of a second character. When the game jumps again to the third character, she’s shown up at the same place Ethan is. She never explains how she got there, he doesn’t seem surprised to see her and takes it all in stride, and I yell at my television. There aren’t many of these and most of the other ones are on a much smaller scale but it becomes clear that although the game feels like a movie at points, the writers are not up to A-level script status.
Its worth noting that the game has a vast amount of endings that can differ greatly in outcome. I have yet to see them all, but the handful I have seen all do an excellent job of tying up the story. To be honest, I have a real problem with part of the ending (a part that will remain consistent through all of them) that I cannot discuss without heavy spoilers. That discussion is better saved for a post other than this review. (Such as this one!)
The slow start and occasionally questionable writing should not deter anyone from trying out Heavy Rain. It’s a game that becomes hard to put down as it jumps from one scene to the next, much like pausing a movie in the middle to not come back until the next day is difficult. The generally fantastic visuals and strong dialogue contribute greatly to this, but if you want one reason why Heavy Rain is worth your time, that’s easy. It is unique. At the time of its release, there is no other game like Heavy Rain available. It is not perfect, but to see the ideas and mechanics it lays down makes me excited for future games made in the same vein. While this will probably not be the best “interactive drama” made in the next few years, it deserves a lot of credit for being first. An experience that all gamers should have.