Available on: PlayStation 3
I remember the hype surrounding the release of Heavy Rain. There was even an interview with the developers on the news. Despite the fact that Quantic Dream had already made similar games before (notably Fahrenheit, or Indigo Prophecy in the US), it was hailed as a groundbreaking achievement. I agree that it can be a gripping first-time experience. Apart from a sluggish prologue, which partly serves as a tutorial sequence, the plot generally does a good job of keeping the player involved. There’s quite a lot of action, demanding quick reflexes, which may not be to everyone’s taste. The music is appropriately dramatic or melancholy, as the scene requires. The main protagonists pull their weight quite honourably, enhanced by the realistic modelling that went into them (they’re all based on actual actors, who, with one exception, also voiced them), and, all in all, it’s quite fun. Until you start scrutinising the details. And that’s when things fall apart.
First things first: if quicktime events drive you up the wall…you might reconsider playing altogether, since the entire game is based on them. It unfolds like a semi-interactive film with several possible outcomes depending on the player’s choices. There are no menus, no stats, no save points (the game saves automatically at key points and between chapters) and very little in the way of fixed controls: R2 makes your character walk, and you then direct them with the left joystick, while L2 lets you listen in on their thoughts. Everything else is controlled by variable on-screen prompts: you could be asked to spin the right joystick to put on a bandage, sloooowly move it from side to side to rock a baby to sleep, shake the entire controller to escape strangulation, or hold down an improbable combination of buttons to wiggle through some live electric wires. Since some of these prompts mimic real movements, it certainly feels immersive. It also keeps the player on their toes. On your first time through, there’s no telling what exactly the game can ask you to do, especially in a time-sensitive context, and some of the combinations can be difficult to pull off. From this perspective, replaying the game can either be a good thing, since you know what to expect and are therefore less likely to mess up, or a bad thing, because it kills the suspense. But then, the nature of the plot inevitably kills the suspense anyway.
There is a serial killer on the loose, who likes to kidnap young boys and drown them in rainwater by locking them in an open-air tank. Once they’re dead, he dumps their bodies on a wasteland, leaving an orchid on their chests and an origami figure in their hands (and the game itself comes with a square of paper and instructions on how to reproduce the origami figure depicted on the case). Four characters find themselves involved, and the scenario is split more or less evenly between them, alternately putting you in control of each one. Each of them can die, by mistake or by choice, and two of them can end up in a relationship, for a total of 16 different epilogues across all characters. Before you ask, yes, there’s a trophy for seeing them all.
The first protagonist is a divorced father of two, Ethan Mars. He’s lost one son to a (very unrealistic) car accident, which has left him agoraphobic and depressed. And now, his second son gets kidnapped by the killer. For all intents and purposes, he’s the hero of the story: he gets the most screen time and the most emotional investment. You can play him as a caring–if a tad passive–dad, and you have to at least give him credit for perseverance. The killer decides to test his resolve with some Saw-like trials, rewarding him with clues as to his son’s whereabouts if he manages to complete them. Success or failure is up to you, but poor Ethan gets to go through hell (and maybe back), physically and psychologically, whatever you do: the game just goes balls to the wall on the melodrama with him, tugging at every possible heartstring it can get its grubby little mitts on. On a less serious note, he’s also infamous for his overly emphatic delivery when calling out for his sons (“JAAASOOON!” and “SHAAAUUUN!”). Also, a fair warning for sensitive eyes: he has a scripted shower scene at the beginning of the game. There is man bum (which is actually a surprising change of pace, as far as fanservice goes).
Second is Scott Shelby, a middle-aged, portly private eye who has been hired by the families of the previous victims to investigate the murders. This guy remains fairly low-key at the outset and somewhat tangential to the others, since he has his own plot arc, involving an unlikely sidekick in the form of the mother of one of the victims, a rich CEO and his cartoonishly depraved son. All this leaves him very little opportunity to interact with the rest of the cast, to the point where it sometimes feels like he’s in a different story altogether. Couple that with the fact that his chapters don’t really gather steam until the end of the game, and the fact that he doesn’t exactly have the flashiest personality, and you get a character who’s easy to overlook. So easy that I was actually surprised to realise that he gets the most fight scenes of the entire cast. Bit of a shame. Thankfully, though, no shower scene for him.
Third is Norman Jayden–or Nahman, as fans have affectionately dubbed him, due to his voice actor’s decidedly odd choice of accent–a young, shrewd (and cute) smartass of an FBI agent with a drug problem, who has been sent to help the local police investigate the murders. He is, hands down, my favourite of the four and the overall fan favourite as well. Not only could he be Fox Mulder’s cousin (loner FBI agent with unorthodox methods), but his chapters deal hands-on with the murder investigation and are probably the most successful ones of the lot, due in no small part to the fact that he thankfully has some brains to go with that cute mug of his.
Norman is the proud owner of an ARI (Augmented Reality Interface): a pair of sunglasses and a glove that create an interactive interface for scanning crime scenes and analysing clues. Think of a mix between Minority Report and CSI. And not only do you get to play super-sleuth with that snazzy toy, but you’re also confronted with Norman’s addiction issues, his antagonistic relationship with his cop colleagues and the decidedly spectacular fights he gets himself into. “I seem to spend most of my time getting the shit kicked out of me”, as he says himself. Poor Norm. No shower scene for him either (alas!).
Fourth is Madison Paige, a young journalist with an insomnia problem. She encounters a battered Ethan in a motel, where she has checked in because the impersonal environment helps her sleep. She then decides to ferret out his secrets. Depending on your decisions, she can also ferret her way into his pants. I raised an eyebrow when the semi-interactive hanky-panky popped up. Three years earlier, Mass Effect got all but burned at the stake for including a glimpse of a bare bum during a minute-long cutscene, and this got through without making any waves? It’s not that the content is shocking–it isn’t by a long shot–but the interactivity makes it feel very uncomfortable. Of course, I hadn’t played Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy yet at that point. Little did I know…
Madison is plucky and gutsy. Problem is, not only does she have a killer hip-swing when she walks (no normal woman would walk like that), which earns her some ogling, but she also features in a fight scene in underwear, a shower scene, a sexy dancing scene followed by a striptease, the aforementioned sex scene and an escape from a drill-wielding maniac, which looks like something straight out of Hostel. All of this is optional (except for the fight scene in underwear), and there’s even a trophy for avoiding the striptease, but I still felt that her status as the only female protagonist was just a tad overexploited. Sure, she’s a looker, but was that really her only contribution to the story? There wasn’t anything more substantial for her to do? Sheesh.
Even despite these flaws, the characters are the game’s best asset, and you can generally sympathise with their issues. It’s the storyline structure that doesn’t hold water (pun fully intended). First of all, an additional supernatural plotline was originally intended but dropped along the way, in a misguided (and thankfully aborted) attempt to recreate Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy more fully than the game already does. Traces of it still remain (Ethan’s blackouts), which is jarring and completely inconsistent with the rest of the storyline.
Secondly, there’s the identity of the killer. It’s always the same, so obviously, once you finish the game, the element of surprise is lost, although you can go for the “Perfect Crime” trophy (which, as you can guess, involves letting the killer get away) to mix things up. However, once you do know whodunit, it feels forced. In retrospect, in more than one instance, there’s an evident struggle to make the killer’s identity fit with the events as depicted. As if the writers had been trying too hard to be clever.
Thirdly, some of the epilogues were clearly written with a precise continuity of events in mind, but you can still obtain them by doing things differently. The resulting ending sequences feel distinctly sloppy (e.g. awkwardly fitting dialogue lines, or Ethan appearing clean shaven in one scene and bearded in the next one). Fourthly, there are plenty of minute inconsistencies riddling the game (e.g. Madison acting surprised upon hearing the killer’s name, even though she has no reason to be), but going into more detail would mean spoilers, so I shall refrain.
Finally, the ball was dropped in the DLC department. There was a whole string of additional episodes planned under the title of Heavy Rain Chronicles to explore each character’s past. However, only one episode was made, featuring Madison in yet another escape-from-maniac situation, which is both underwhelming and disappointing (can you tell I wanted more Jayden?).
Bottom line? Heavy Rain can be an intense, single-playthrough experience, if you’re not intrinsically predisposed against its cinematic pretensions. But there’s a strong likelihood that it’ll lose most, if not all of its charm once the credits roll, and you start chipping away at the shiny surface paint to uncover cracks in the walls.