Heavy Rain is something of an oddball game (or, perhaps, it would be if Fahrenheit hadn't be released a few years earlier). Like it's predecessor, Fahrenheit, it is essentially an interactive film. The focus of the game is on the story being told and the characters involved in it, rather than on fast-paced game-play. Because of this, it's a game that I think will only appeal to a fairly small group of people, at least out of the typical hardcore gaming crowd. It requires a certain attitude to enjoy, and a willingness to overlook its oddities or its silliness and become immersed in the game, taking it for what it is. And that's not something that everybody can – or wants – to do when then play a game.
Personally, I really like it, despite some niggling problems, and here's why.
Story, Setting and Characters
In a game like this, this is obviously the most important thing. And the game really shines in this department – for the most part anyway. I'll readily admit that the game's opening is extremely dull and can seem more than a little ridiculous depending on how you play it because of the way the game is designed. You might be familiar with “Press X to Jason” and there are some strange and hilarious things you can do with the way you control your character, and you probably will because at first, there is nothing going on.
After the opening, however, the game quickly becomes extremely involving as a result of very tense and sharp story-telling. I might be inclined to argue that the opening is the way it is to highlight a contrast between Ethan, our protagonist's, daily life and the events that make up the meat of the game. Whether or not that's a good thing in a product that is ostensibly meant to entertain is debatable, but I'm okay with it. I'm a proponent of games trying to be more artistic, and sometimes that means crafting an experience that isn't “fun” in a traditional sense, although still engaging in a certain fashion. And it's pretty clear that Heavy Rain wants to be taken as a serious work of art.
I'm not going to get into what actually happens in the story, but I will say that I thought it was excellent. It draws influence primarily from a combination of modern thrillers, such as Se7en or SAW, shows like The X-Files and Twin Peaks, and a hint of classic film noir style. It's engaging, thrilling, and sometimes pretty affecting, with a twist that I really wasn't expecting, which was nice for a change. It's all helped a long by a cast of characters that is diverse, well-developed, interesting, and highly likeable – a tool which is used to make the game more confronting.
The game has several different endings. The one I got my first time through wasn't the “best” possible ending, however, I actually preferred it to that ending (which I've also seen). My point being that, unlike most games with multiple endings, it's not a case of there being the one “good” ending and the rest leave you feeling unsatisfied. I can't speak for every possible ending, but the ones I saw were all very good.
My only other complaints (aside from the early game) would be some red herrings that are left annoyingly unexplained, and an event which I felt represented a real inconsistency in an otherwise very solid character. Again, it's hard to say whether this is a fault, as it does serve to make the story more engaging.
As for the setting, it's a fairly typical modern urban setting, with not much to distinguish it from any other metropolis. The game's environments are very detailed and generally feel very realistic, which gives the game more believability and helps to really draw you in. Aside from that, there isn't much to comment on regarding the setting.
In short, the game looks great. The graphics are beautiful, the animations are (normally) very lifelike (with some oddities and exceptions, but these are in relation to things that seem to be very hard to animate realistically) and, as I said earlier, the game's environments are wonderfully detailed. The visuals, again, are really good at drawing you into the game, with particular care having been spent on character's faces and expressions. It DOES dip into the uncanny valley at times, but generally it's not too bad on that count. Similarly, there are some pretty funnily poorly done facial animations, but this is infrequent.
The voice acting is of exceptionally high calibre for a video game and almost every line is delivered at the same standard you would expect from a big budget picture.
The sound design in the game is crisp, clear, and, again, very immersive. Everything sounds how it should and there's plenty of ambient noise to really build atmosphere. Similarly, the music complements the game's atmosphere wonderfully, building tension and strengthening the overall mood of the game.
There were a couple of things that hindered my experience of the game, however. I encountered a few odd bugs with characters getting stuck in walls or scripts and cut-scenes not executing properly. Most annoying, the console actually completely hung 5-6 times during my playthrough, requiring the system to be reset. These issues weren't gamebreakers, but they were very annoying when they did come up because they really broke the flow of the game, and the immersive atmosphere it creates. I had to download a HUGE patch when I first started up the game, and it really seems like glaring problems such as these should've been ironed out by now.
The actual gameplay is probably the least important part of the overall experience of Heavy Rain. Essentially, you explore environments looking for the next thing to advance the story, this being broken up by action sequences which occur as long quick-time events. This format will be familiar to anybody who did play Fahrenheit.
The quick-time events are as good as they can ever be, in that they're smooth, fairly natural, and genuinely exciting, especially since your successes or failures in these segments can determine the outcome of the story. As far as I could tell, there was a never a point in the game where you would fail something and then have to reload to an earlier point. You always have to deal with the consequences of whatever transpires. I didn't play through the game enough times to see how many different outcomes there could be for things, or all their effects, but I think the important thing was that, at the time, it always FELT urgent, and like my success or failure would have a strong impact.
I kind of wish that the game had more real puzzles. In some ways, it seems like part of Quantic Dream's agenda is to modernise the good old point-and-click adventure genre, and Heavy Rain does resemble those games in some way, however, the absence of any real puzzles hinders this feeling. There are KIND OF puzzles, but the idea that any of these was actually intended to be difficult or require much though would be an insult to one's intelligence.
It might seem like I'm saying the gameplay is inconsequential. That maybe Heavy Rain should've just been a movie. But the really great thing about this game is the fact that your involvement in it is actually heightened by the fact that it's interactive. Because it's you making the choices, or winning and losing the fights, the game has much more impact and you feel a much stronger connection with the characters and the game world. Essentially, the gameplay here is used as a tool to improve the player's experience of the really core aspect of the game – its plot.
Despite some technical issues, Heavy Rain is a really great game for what it is, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
What I can't tell you, though, is whether or not YOU'LL actually like it. If you're interested in a game that is essentially just an interactive narrative, if you have the patience for a story that takes a while to set up, and if you can overlook the technical flaws, it might be the game for you.
And if you'd rather play Call of Duty, that's fine too.