My first experience with Quantic Dream was with their title Indigo Prophecy. After seeing a few trailers and playing through a unique and intense demo, I decided that this was the next game I was going to get excited about. It was a game that blended the concepts of a point-and-click adventure title with a more time sensitive element. If you had to clean up a crime scene, you only had so long to do it. Leaving evidence behind could mean disaster. In moments of intense action, you were prompted to press a sequence of buttons. Missing a press at a critical time could mean the difference between life and death. The story itself was a mixture of the occult and a crime thriller that was filled with memorable moments and characters that left a lingering impression on me.
Heavy Rain is the evolution of a lot of the ideas that was explored in that game. The developer has grounded their approach to create an experience meant to convey the idea of interactive drama, chasing a serial killer and throwing you into the lives that surround a series of horrible events. The game plays similarly to their previous work, giving you limited control of the series of events that happen throughout the game save for a sequences of button presses mimicking the actions available on screen. However, it takes the idea of choice in games and amplifies consequences for those actions more drastically but makes the decision making less subtle enough to keep you guessing as to what your actions will do for you.
You assume the role of four protagonists in the game. A father, a fashion photographer, a private detective and an FBI agent, all woven into the story of a notorious serial killer who kidnaps and murders young boys. Each character represents a complete story arc within the game, but do follow the same type of interactions. You will jump between the more mundane portions of the game that involve simple things like making lunch for a guest or taking your children to a mall, and be thrown into very intense scenes that require quick reactions and often hard choices as to how you will work your way out. What the game manages to do is actually make you feel the drama of each scenario, allowing you to connect to the characters and react to the danger that they are facing. It does this through well articulated narrative, allowing you sense as if the people in the game could be real and sympathetic, and also demonstrating the characters inner monologue at almost any point of the game and having great visual and aural clues as to when bad things are going to happen.
That connection can be broken some times through a series of limitations and faults brought on by the scale of what is available to you. For one, controlling the characters in the environments where you are allowed to explore is not intuitive and often will lead you spinning in circles trying to get your character to look or move a particular way. It is a big disconnect to go from well animated moments in to a clunky, tank-like controlled character whose head is almost on a swivel as they awkwardly navigate hallways.
As open as the game feels, it is a very guided experience, as well. There are a lot of moments of branching narratives, including the ability for each of the main characters to die before the logical conclusion is reached, but many of the scenes will only play out slightly differently should you make decisions one way or another. You will often end up in the same places, same rooms and have to press the same sequence of buttons to succeed. Each environment you are allowed to explore is small and has a very small amount of interactive objects. There is also no real way of knowing what will happen sometimes when you interact with objects. For instance, I noticed a small package on a dresser with a sweeping left-stick motion associated with interacting with it. I did not know what it was, so I thought I would look at it by doing the motion. It turns out it was a package of pills, which my characters proceeded to chug back without any further interaction. Obviously, I didn’t want to do this, but the game had made a decision for me.
While the game does generally treat the player like a rat in a maze, it is a very well constructed maze. Each motion that your character carries out is often associated with a sequence of button presses, ranging from rapidly tapping a button, slowly moving the left analog stick in a specific direction, quickly pressing a button or thrusting the whole controller up, down, left or right. It seems a bit overwhelming to describe, knowing that at almost any moment you could be tasked with having to react very quickly to any number of prompts on the screen, failing which could result in your untimely demise. And, to be fair, it is very overwhelming even for someone with a strong familiarity of the controls and game style.
Even on a lower difficulty, the game hardly holds you hand and anyone without a relatively strong familiarity with the controls will have significant trouble carrying out the actions they intend to. I was actually surprised to see how difficult the easiest setting was, thinking that the ideal solution for an interactive drama would be one where if you wanted someone to do something, they would. There obviously needs to be an element of challenge, but for a novice the problem is hardly the amount of buttons they need to press, but the amount of time they have to do so. Not much time is granted for those who may have to have a peek at the controller to know what they need to press.
Heavy Rain does accomplish something that few games have for me, though, and that was to put on the edge of my seat throughout most of the experience. Moments in the game left me in a scramble to survive, eyes focused on what was coming up and not knowing if the one or two slip-ups I incurred would cause me harm. I wanted to survive, not for any sense of accomplishment as much as wanting to allow the characters to live out their story. I wanted the happy ending, should it be possible. Save those in distress and catch the bad guy. It all had impact, and there were very few moments in the game – even making scrambled eggs – that didn’t have some sort of effect on how the game plays out in some way. Whether it is an offbeat comment about how you could have done better, or a bruise that remains throughout the entire experience because I missed pressing X in time to dodge a punch, you sense consequence and reward in the game.
It is also the first game I have played in recent memory that has encouraged me to lose. There were moments in the game where pressing the sequence of buttons intended to be pressed would have resulted in actions that went against my own moral compass for the character, so I chose to leave the controller alone and allow things to happen as they would. There are no points, no high scores and no bonuses to worry about in this regard, so those decisions flow naturally and based on how you would do things they will happen.
Story wise, the game actually keeps you compelled and guessing right up to the very end. It also handles the denouement in a way that so few games do. There is a long sequence of endings played out depending on your results that explain the fate of each character, allowing you to soak in all the fruits of your efforts and close off the story. I definitely do not agree with the ending of the story in some regards, as the reveal of the killer was a bit anti-climatic and completely nonsensical, but it worked well enough that it did not ruin the experience, and by the end the whodunit is so inconsequential to the actual story that it hardly matters. What your left with at the end is a personal experience, though you are essentially funneled into it based on your decisions, and doing poorly may not stop you from actually continuing with the story but may entice you to try it again and be a bit more sharp so you can see how the whole thing may play out next time.
So what I’m really trying to say is…
With a good story, interesting characters and a very dark experience Heavy Rain draws you into a game that is both visually impressive and technically sound. A game driven by throwing prompts onto the screen to depress buttons or twist the controller around may seem like a bit tasking, or even boring after a while, but the game manages to keep a great pace throughout and most of the actions that you carry out using this mechanic makes sense. The story is intriguing enough to push you through even if you aren’t completely familiar with the controller, and for those with a firm understanding of how the game works it puts up enough of a challenge to keep you on your toes. While it isn’t a great leap forward, it is a demonstration of a good idea executed very well and is one of the more powerful experiences I have had playing on the PS3.
Heavy Rain was developed by Quantic Dream and published by Sony. Game is now available and was purchased for $59.99 (CDN) and available for the Playstation 3. Game played for approximately 8 hours and beaten once on highest difficulty. Watched another play through once on the lowest.