First and foremost, is Heavy Rain a game? Yes. Despite director David Cage wanting a new classification for it, this is still very much a game. The overall concepts and certain interactions aren’t far enough removed from videogames to be considered anything else. This is by no means a derogatory comment at all and don’t expect to be hiding behind cover or gliding up the sides of buildings but do be prepared for one of the most heartwarming and crushingly tragic tales to date. Heavy Rain shows how mature videogames can be and tackles subject matter that may be painful to experience but you should fight back those tears and persevere to the very end – even if that end doesn’t quite live up to everything that came before. You may spend more time watching Heavy Rain than interacting with it but when you do, the smallest actions could have the biggest consequences.
Sunlight pours into a modern house, beginning the game and introducing us to Ethan Mars, an architect and loving father. He gets up, goes for a shower and dresses himself before inspecting each of the rooms on the top floor of his house. This is all controlled by the player simply flicking and swooping the right analog stick following the on-screen instructions. Occasionally there’ll be an option to shake the sixaxis or a quicktime event (QTE) involving the face buttons too. Holding L2 brings up a list of his thoughts, swirling around him giving hints on what to do next or simply what’s on his mind. Navigating is something else altogether though and it’s bad. Really bad. Holding R2 makes characters walk and moving the left analog stick steers by rotating their head. Fine for negotiating large areas but a struggle when in confined spaces which feature a lot in Heavy Rain. Too many times did I find myself gliding past my intended destination only to spin around numerous times before finally arriving. It felt old and broken whereas Interacting with the environment felt harmonious and believable. A real shame. On with the story however and soon Ethan’s wife Grace and their two kids Shaun and Jason, came home to prepare for Jason’s birthday party. Using the mix of great interaction and painful navigation, Ethan helped set the table and played with the boys before we all sat down to eat. But as if a reminder that life just isn’t that perfect, I had to console one of the boys after the family pet bird died. From here, Ethan’s world slowly but surely falls apart with three other controllable characters, Madison Paige, Norman Jayden and Scott Shelby getting caught up in the brilliant narrative. They’ll all controlled in the same manner as Ethan but Norman’s scenes are the most traditional in terms of gameplay thanks to his Added Reality Interface (ARI). A pair of ultra high tech glasses that makes evidence easily spottable, can be used to analyse clues, gather geographical data or watch security footage. To contrast this, one of Scott’s scenes is far from traditional but equally as fun. He finds himself the target of a wealthy businessman and must shoot his way out of it. QTEs once again take care of the action and this makes the scene so much more dramatic than an ordinary FPS that I couldn’t help but repeat the word “awesome” every few seconds.
Back to Ethan’s tale and after what turns out to be a disastrous shopping trip, Jason Mars is hit and killed by a car and aside from the dead pet, is the first of many touching moments that ripple through Heavy Rain. Two years on, Ethan is no longer married or living in a beautiful house but in a barely habitable abode and is momentarily looking after his remaining son Shaun. It soon becomes clear that Ethan’s life will continue to slide and before long, the Origami Killer kidnaps Shaun leaving Ethan five days to find and save him. The other characters do their bit for the retrieval of Shaun but aren’t necessarily on the side of Ethan. Some even consider him a suspect. Heavy Rain jumps between each character as they all work towards the common goal of saving the boy and finding the killer. You’ll definitely have a favourite but it doesn’t make the others’ scenes any less entertaining. Woven together like a patchwork of options, these scenes can have numerous outcomes depending on the choices you make. Be nice to someone and they may tell you what you want to know, opening up new avenues to explore. But if you screw up and do something ‘wrong’, you could easily lose one of the main characters early on. It isn’t obvious either as to how you should play the game and what choices to make, you really have to rely on your own ethics and morals to get through. I played it as if I was in that very situation and was forced to do things that fluctuated from the appalling to the deeply touching. Ethan is often thrown into predicaments better suited to the Saw movies – how far will he go to save his son? That’s up to you. Heavy Rain thrives on toying with your emotions and did so very well with me.
Lighting and sound work incredibly well together as a thick atmosphere of distrust, fear and compassion. A slight blurring of lamps and light sources focuses attention on what’s important in a scene. The musical score with its screeching strings and warning brass further absorbs you into the story. Voice acting varies from outstanding to great though every so often dips below with the actors true accents peeking out. But for a videogame, the acting and script is handled with the level and detail worthy of any movie fanatic’s attention. It’s quite brave of Quantic Dream to deal with the subject of children dying, not so much due to the unfortunate accident, but how the game’s antagonist is the Origami killer, a calculated child murderer. You may not watch the loss of a young boy’s life at the start of the game, but that’s not to say you necessarily won’t towards the end. What does come across as less respectable is the slightly gratuitous sexuality. Cage may have proclaimed Heavy Rain not to be pornographic and I don’t doubt that for a minute but did feel that some of the suggestive situations were a little unnecessary. For example, you don’t really need to watch Madison in the shower and her backside does sway rather a lot when walking.
Even with the high production values, Heavy Rain suffers from a few issues aside from the frustrating navigation. Some non-playable characters pass through each other as if auditioning for Ghostbusters 3 impairing the legitimacy of powerful moments. When Ethan’s ex-wife breaks down in a police station after Shaun is kidnapped, at least four cops glitched through her causing a smile rather than a tear. But the biggest downfall is the story’s conclusion. The staggering plot twist revealing the killer’s identity was just too unbelievable, it should have left me saying “of course! How didn’t I see that?” However, seven or so hours since I first pressed start, my only words were “why, how?” Lots of questions are left unanswered and the plausible story descended into confusion. I even figured it out earlier on but dismissed my hypothesis for being absurd. A steady flow of DLC looks to be headed for Heavy Rain – the first being bundled with the collectors edition, – and It’s possible that these could provide some answers but right now, it’s a little bewildering. Something that may initially worry some conservative players is how Heavy Rain auto-saves your progress for you with no other option available. All the choices are made that much more final when you know there’s no turning back. But of course, this is still a game and there’s nothing stopping you quitting to the main menu and reloading your single save file or indeed restarting from a previously completed chapter. But to get the best experience, I’d advise against it.
Throughout Heavy Rain I went back and forth between my final score. It should have been an A but sadly David Cage’s desire to be non-traditional by way of a frankly awkward character navigation soured my experience with what is otherwise truly breathtaking. It’s ironic that such a forward-thinking game can have such a dated and stubborn control scheme. Regardless of this unfortunate finding and the rather confused ending, I was still deeply moved by what I saw, shocked at how involved I became with the characters, feeling like I had to protect them and horrified at some of the choices I was forced to make. That is why Heavy Rain is unique for this generation and an experience that differs to suit – and test – the personality of the player. It’s so far beyond any other game out there in terms of story and emotional involvement, watching it unfold is so very entertaining.
A highly commendable game with some truly exceptional moments.