Can video games be a valid art form or cultural entertainment? Or more simply put, can they evoke an emotion in a player the same way a feature film or book can? While gamers and journalists alike know the answer to those questions, too often critics and so-called judges outside the industry have always answered with a resounding – NO. While I can admit a lot of games out there have a storyline that reads like the side of a can of SPAM, there are some noteworthy titles that truly capture the imagination.
I won’t get into semantics, but the question remains: Can video games stand amongst some of Hollywood’s greatest and be received as classics based on their story and experiences? Is Heavy Rain the title to break the barrier, or does it feed into the overall assumption of the industry?
I know what most are wondering about the following review – can I read it and the particulars of the game not be spoiled? Absolutely. I’ve kept this review spoiler-free so the story can truly be experienced by everyone who plays it. Simply put, Heavy Rain is, by far, one of the best written stories I have ever had the privilege of reading, watching, or playing. Having said that, it is important to point out Heavy Rain pulls no punches with its story. This alone reaches a new level for the industry and one that should not go unnoticed.
The importance of the story is further conveyed to the players, since you don’t really have the pass/fail scenario we have grown accustomed to when playing games with quick-time events (QTEs). Heavy Rain has a narrative that grows from the way you handle the QTEs. Instead of feeling like you are being controlled by the game, you will more often feel like you are the one telling the game what to do. Let me explain. In Heavy Rain it really feels like you are in the driver’s seat throughout the game. This is your epic; you are the director and this is how it is all going to play out after you have made your editing choices. The QTEs in Heavy Rain never feel out of place. Even in the smaller instances, like pouring yourself a drink, they flow as they would in your everyday life.
Since more recent games have found ways to include the QTE mechanic, in order to make players more involved with the cutscenes, it is refreshing to see a game grasp onto it and deliver something that is both traditional and refreshing all in the same breath. At first glance it is easy to say Heavy Rain is just a title with QTE and long cutscenes. However, this is part of the magic of the title. To say you will be using your controller in some of the most interesting ways to date would be a bit of an understatement. Don’t let that scare you, though. You will need to give yourself a little bit of time to adjust to the controls. I don’t say that as a criticism of the game. Instead, in order to enjoy the game from beginning to end, you will need to grow accustomed to using the controller in unique, different ways.
At times you will find yourself in the more traditional events like a boss battle. Where you have to be quick on your toes, or thumbs as the case may be, and hit the corresponding buttons. There are more than enough brawls to keep those that enjoy a good eye-button coordination test. Again, the magic here is not how well you do, but how much can change depending on the decisions you make. For example, you can execute the inputs perfectly, thus defeating your rival in the most pristine fashion. If you are slow or decide to react slower than you “should” have, you can prolong a fight so your character gets beaten up, thus slightly changing how things might play out later. In other events you could be doing something as trivial as getting out of a car or shaving. These events have to be played out but how they are is another aspect of how you control the pacing of the game.
I won’t say the decisions you make in something so trivial as to whether or not you have a glass of orange juice or mess up a plating arrangement will have a critical effect on the overall story. I can say, however, you will create ripples constantly in the game. You may not notice them, they may never come to fruition the way you’d expect, but the ripples are always there. The ripple-effect is perhaps my favorite aspect of the game. Quantic Dream knew people would find this intriguing, so they included an option to go to previous chapters in the game to play through them again in order to see what would have happened if you did things differently. Just make sure you always use the provided option to save before you dive into earlier, possibly game-changing events.
Aside from the quick-time events scattered throughout the gameplay, there’s another way for players to break the routine: looking for clues as you play as one of the characters. You will use special glasses that allow you to search crime scenes for possible clues. You also will have an opportunity to look at the evidence you find in a kind of virtual world. This gameplay aspect is so enjoyable, I found myself looking forward to these little sessions more and more because it is another example of how you are in control of how the title’s story moves forward.
Heavy Rain is a stellar experience. Unfortunately, the opening of the game can distract and ultimately turn gamers away from the title. The pacing is slow and gameplay is mundane at times. The main reason for this is to act as a tutorial for the controls. It does take a while to get to the meat of the story, where things turn into an edge of your seat thriller. Some have said the slowness detracts from the overall experience of the game, and while I can acknowledge this is true to a certain degree, I have to admit I actually found myself getting upset with people around me that have played because they had their character get up to get a cup of coffee in a location I didn’t. I think these are humanizing QTEs that have you grow more attached to these characters and their story.
Unfortunately, you may find yourself sucked right out of the immersion with a few misspoken words of dialogue or a character not responding in the way you’d expect. Mishap voice-overs, on occasion, take away from the meaning at the time. However, these happen in a way you can forgive, and they don’t completely ruin the overall narrative of the story, nor do they come into question when the scene needs to move you in any emotional direction. The score, on the other hand, doesn’t fall into the same category as the voice acting. Instead, the music belongs in the same league as blockbuster films with a dramatic overtone.
Graphically, Heavy Rain has already been considered the new wave of technological marvel in the industry, but there are a few unpleasantries that have to be pointed out. The most notable things are the way the animations, at times, look stiff. The hand motions aren’t quite right or the fingers don’t move the way they should. Some background items don’t pop out the way they should, either. These flaws are easier to point out though mainly due to the outstanding facials in the game. Too often I found myself question the realism of the scenes onscreen due to the facial expressions. Does Heavy rain explode a new graphical standard? I don’t think so. However, I think Heavy Rain accomplishes realism in the gritty sense of a noir film and easily finds its place amongst an artistic interpretation of real life with its dark and edgy storyline.
Heavy Rain blurs the line between film and gameplay gloriously. Some will not like the game, due to the conditioning this generation of games has built into players. However, if you are in need of experiencing something that is not like the norm but draws you into an immersive story unlike anything before, Heavy Rain is definitely worth your attempt. Just be prepared go back repeatedly for the various experiences from each play-through. Believe me; you will care enough about these characters to want to see just how things play out differently each time. Heavy Rain potentially marks the beginning of something new in the industry and I hope the rain continues to fall.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.7 Graphics
Top-notch graphics. The noir setting let’s you see the grit and grime of the world in superb quality. 4.6 Control
The controls are solid and at times magical. It is up to you how enjoyable the control system can be. 4.4 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
The score sets the mood of the game perfectly. Voice acting can at times feel forced but it is nailed where it counts most, time after time. 4.6 Play Value
With a storyline that warps and takes different routes depending on your actions, this game will keep you locked in for hours upon hours. 4.6 Overall Rating – Must Buy
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.