Heavy Rain won't be the kind of game many gamers have played before - its blend of intense, top-notch Hollywood thriller storytelling, character immersion, and the quick time events that constitute the majority of its traditional gameplay are a new creature - while interactive drama has been attempted before, never has such polish and quality gone into the effort. To call Heavy Rain a tremendous success may be a bit misleading, because not every gamer will be ready - or wants to be ready - for this experience. That said, Heavy Rain's achievements make it accessible to even the most dismissive gamer, given the right setting. The fact that it's the best-looking game for the PS3 to date doesn't hurt, either.
This is a game to be played with the lights off, alone - or at least with a friend who's willing to keep his or her trap shut. Quantic Dream's interactive drama is at its best when you follow it into the unexplored space between dramatic games and compelling drama - I've summarized the game to friends (by no means a perfect analogy) by saying something like this: 'Imagine you're actually in one of the Saw movies, only it's a good movie, and you're playing all the major parts, and instead of watching Cary Elwes decide whether or not to cut off his foot, you are Cary Elwes, and if you do decide to cut off your foot, not only do you have to actually do it, but you have to figure out how.'
So while the demo available on PSN might have given gamers the wrong taste of the game - the mechanics of asthma inhalers never having made for great gameplay or drama - when playing the game proper, the story quickly pulls you in and imparts genuine urgency to your control over the literal, sometimes mundane actions of the four playable characters. Buying a balloon for your kid at the mall before the opening credits may not sound intense, but chasing him through the crowd with the balloon as your only marker certainly can be. Especially while knowing, with that foreboding sixth sense that all good movie-watchers have, that losing sight of your kid in a crowded mall is never a sign of good things to come. Instead of watching helplessly, as you would in a Hollywood thriller, you're now acting, and you never know whether the situation is helpless or not. That bumps up the suspense tenfold.
I had tears in my eyes before the opening credits ever rolled, and that set the tone for the rest of the game: in almost every scene, there's a palpable sense of responsibility. I am not going to let Thing X happen to Prostitute Y. I am not going to disappoint my son. I am going to make him laugh. I am going to make it out of Creepy Place Z alive - not because I want to win the game or beat the level, but because Person B is counting on me. With apologies to Shenmue, it's new stuff - Heavy Rain is not a game you beat, it's a game you live through. Or... don't, depending on the choices you make.
The Origami Killer is terrorizing an unnamed North American city, kidnapping children who turn up several days later, drowned in rainwater - the game, which takes place during the very, very rainy season, is measured by inches of rain fallen. You'll take on the roles of four people connected to the killings: Ethan Mars, father of the latest missing boy; private investigator Scott Shelby; FBI criminal profiler and wielder of cool HUD technology Norman Jayden; and the sexy lady of the bunch, an insomniac named Madison Paige.
The controls are reminiscent of the old Resident Evil games - holding down R2 to walk and using the left thumbstick to steer. It's not the most intuitive movement control, but neither is it terribly awkward - especially since you'll be doing some serious finger-acrobatics later if you want to survive certain fight scenes or other fast-paced challenges. Besides walking, the controls flow pretty easily - manipulating Norman's virtual environment of FBI case stuff, for instance, is a blast and an unexpected bit of scifi fun in an otherwise hyper-realistic world.
The quick time events range from simple to dastardly, and on higher difficulty settings there's no doubt that the game will provide a definite challenge to even the most dexterous (and ambidextrous) gamer. Kratos never had to time his buttons this tightly.
The quick time events also make physical sense, for the most part. Dodging blows left and right usually matches up with, lo and behold, a pipe swinging at your left and then at your right. Certain QTEs involve holding down multiple buttons for a duration, adding a new button to the queue while dropping the one you've been holding down the longest - these can be the most challenging, but also the most realistic. Picture rocking a baby while holding its bottle upright or starting a car with your foot on the brake.
Almost every decision you make can have consequences, large or small, in how the game plays out. Will you take a drink from the bottle in your drawer? Will you go back to the apartment you just left when you see a thug knock on the door? Again and again you'll answer the question the game so often poses: how far will you go to save someone you love? Will you risk your safety, risk the safety of strangers? Unlike films or other thriller games, the answer isn't necessarily 'yes.'
A chapter menu lets you go back to replay old scenes, either as a lark or to rewrite history - although for the most part it's more rewarding to let the game play out. Here's one game where winning a fight is definitely not always the most rewarding option. Another reason for going back is to see Ethan's full-rear nude shower scene. Nice ass, fella. (For a NSFW glimpse, click here.)
The plot is complex enough to compel without being too bizarre, despite some snags - like a police department that seems determined not to look for evidence and a whole slew of victims who, apparently, decided to keep key evidence to themselves for reasons that are plausible but never explained. Similarly, the video and audio - while generally amazing, do suffer from the occasional glitch that impairs the immersion that's so crucial to the game. Texture pops and frame tears are numerous and frequent - and on the audio side, the voicework can be spotty. The acting is terrific, but a lot of these North American characters speak with French accents - the female and child voice actors especially - and that can break the mood pretty quickly. (Is this conflicted low-income mother secretly a European fashion model, and why does my kid sound like Amelie?) Quantic Dream is a French studio, so some of the European touches understandably weren't altered for localization - doorknobs in the middle of the door, toilets with flush buttons on the top of the tank, and so forth - but the fact that nobody can agree on how to pronounce 'origami' is just plain weird.
For a game that lasts maybe 10 hours, Heavy Rain gives you an enormous amount of quality and intensity, and the length of the game feels generous considering that almost every moment is tightly-scripted and loaded with urgency. Quantic Dream knows the risk they've taken with this game, and it pays off in unexpected and deeply touching ways. The developers acknowledge as much - the first automatically-earned trophy is "Thank you for supporting Interactive Drama." While it's short enough to rent, Heavy Rain deserves a permanent place on any PS3 owner's shelf.
9 out of 10