It takes a bold developer to try and do something a little different. Often these endeavours to push the envelope fall upon stony ground, with few appreciating the risks taken.
Sometimes, however, these attempts succeed, even if they often polarise the masses. Games like Sega’s Shenmue and classic Cyan adventure series Myst are prime examples. You either love them, or hate them, there’s rarely any in-between.
Quantic Dream is no stranger to this risky business of experimentation, and Heavy Rain is perhaps the developer’s most ambitious project yet, a project that’s had the PS3 community salivating for a very long time. Now that the bad weather is about to roll in, it’s time to see if the wait has been worth it.
I’ll say so now, just to be clear. Heavy Rain is all about the story. If there was ever any game that emphasised story above all else, then this is it. Don’t worry, though. I’m not going to divulge anything here, and I promise there won’t be a spoiler in sight. I wouldn’t do that to you.
By now, you’ll have most likely played the demo, and so you’ll have some idea of how the game itself plays. Many have already criticised the game, calling it nothing more than a prolonged QTE sequence, much like Quantic Dream’s previous title, Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in the US). After playing the game through to the end, more than once, I can’t argue with the suspected volume of QTE elements, but it’s also true that there’s a little more to things than simple button pressing.
QTE scenes do make up a large portion of the game, but you’ll also play through sections where you explore environments, converse with others and, as FBI agent Norman Jayden, examine crime scenes and gather evidence using his high-tech glasses.
These sections, always interspersed with various types of QTE events, are all woven together to keep things from getting dull. The actual QTE elements are varied too, which may be hard to believe, but it’s true. The usual ‘push X, push O, tap triangle rapidly’ elements are present, of course, but there are also cleverly thought out QTEs where you have to depress a sequence of buttons at once, or use the Sixaxis motion controls to input actions (like kicking through a door, or punching someone).
Other QTEs make use of the analogue control sensitivity, and see you gingerly moving the analogue stick to perform gentle acts, like carefully and silently closing a door. It’s all clever stuff, and while it’s certainly not going to convert those with little time for QTE-based games, it’s a novel and interesting approach to the formula. Still, it’s not a full, videogame experience, and so, will definitely anger those who want more control, and involved game mechanics.
And to be honest, that’s really all the gameplay summed up. Yep, Heavy Rain doesn’t try to cover up its basic gameplay, and there are no real surprises when it comes to switching things up. It’s basic exploration and constant, if oddly original, QTE all the way. So, with such basic actual gameplay, why would you want to play the game at all?
As I said earlier, Heavy Rain is all about the story, and what a story it is. Although I can already hear the stream of elitist movie critics scoffing at the thought of a game with a decent plot, Heavy Rain really does have one of the best plots I’ve ever seen in a game. The central story is simply excellent, and the direction and unfolding of the plot and the backgrounds of the various protagonists is great.
The plot revolves around the mysterious Origami killer, and tells the tale of a handful of individuals involved in one way or another with the serial murderer. Be warned though, this isn’t a contrived and typically cheesy videogame plot. It’s a dark, often shocking story, and one that really should be applauded.
The sense of cinematic style and direction is ever present, and David Cage, who undeniably dropped the ball, big time, with the god-awful latter half of Fahrenheit, deserves a lot of credit. The story here, aside from Jayden’s sci-fi glasses, is always believable and seamless, flowing well to its gripping conclusion, save a couple of minor hitches which I’ll come to later.
During the game, you take control of several main characters, and you’ll witness the story from each perspective, with the inevitable crossovers as you proceed.
As you play through the game, your actions will actively change the story, and can have drastic effects on the events to come. Fail a sequence and you may change the following events, missing out whole sections of the story or changing future confrontations. Choose a certain path, and this too will shape your story, with some of the choices you’re forced to make being more than a little harrowing.
The game has several alternate timelines woven together, and seeing them all will require multiple playthroughs. However, there’s no game over, as such, either. The actions you take, or situations you botch up, have to be lived with, and the story continues regardless. This is one of the game’s most impressive features, and it generates a real feeling of woe should you fail a sequence that will clearly affect upcoming events in an unfortunate manner. As you can’t simply replay a section, you feel the actual weight of your actions, or inaction, whichever the case may be. This lends a certain gravitas to the proceedings, and really helps to get you involved in the plot more than any passive movie. The gameplay may be basic, but Heavy Rain still pulls you in, which is a major feat.
The visual element of Heavy Rain also helps to bolster the whole experience, and this is a very nice looking title, indeed. The level of detail in the environments is excellent, and while the locomotive animations of the characters are often awkward and clunky, the facial animations and gestures are brilliant, and lifelike. It’s no Avatar, certainly, but this is still impressive stuff. Likewise, the audio direction is spot on, too. The music borrows from many Hollywood crime dramas like Seven and The Silence Of The Lambs, and the voice work is of a very high quality.
Despite the masses of polish in most areas of the game, however, Heavy Rain does have a few warts on its otherwise shiny exterior. The controls for walking and exploring are pretty dire, with the unnatural need to hold R2 to walk forward, while moving the right analogue stick to change direction. The camera also causes glitches in this system, leaving you to walk in the wrong direction. Characters can also be difficult to turn around on the spot, and looking at specific objects can be tricky. This is a shame, and could have been avoided with some more tinkering and a little careful planning but, sadly, it wasn’t to be. It’s still playable, but it’s a large blemish that should have been avoided.
Perhaps more damaging is the sometimes disjointed story. Heavy Rain is designed to react to your own actions, and as you play through the game you may bypass certain sections or radically change future events. To make this system work, the story is modular, with certain chunks of the story being cut out, and others being included, depending on how you proceed. On my playthroughs, however, I encountered a couple of situations that didn’t quite make sense, as if I was missing a scene, or some important information. Granted, these hiccups were always minor, but it’s a definite problem, and I hope Quantic Dream can address any continuity errors.
As someone who usually finds QTE events to be a sign of sloppy and lazy development, I was prepared to be disappointed with Heavy Rain, and I had almost written it off before ever playing it, making the decision to give it a miss. Thankfully, I didn’t succumb to my preconceptions and, after playing through the absorbing and brilliantly paced story, I’m pleased to say I was wrong.
Heavy Rain isn’t really a game, per se, but more of an experience. True, as an actual playable game Heavy Rain is laughable, with little but a string of button pushes and controller manipulations to its name, but as an engaging narrative that’s hard to put down, it’s a winner. Yes, you can easily complete it in a couple of sittings, but with several endings and the chance to go back and see scenes you may have bypassed, there’s enough here to warrant a purchase.
There’ll be flame wars in forums across the Internet debating Heavy Rain‘s quality, and like some of the best risk taking titles, many will simply ignore or berate it as a waste of time, but, if you’re looking for a truly impressive and absorbing interactive work of fiction, Heavy Rain is a must have.
Heavy Rain will be released on February 26 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.