Developer: Quantic Dream
Platform: Windows; PS3; PS4
It’s been a long time since I played a game and, immediately after credits roll, began talking to all my friends who had played it. I had also done so with Quantic Dream’s previous adventure game, Fahrenheit. And Heavy Rain makes that game look amateurish.
Ethan Mars, an architect with an architecturally designed happy life, watches his whole life fall apart. He loses his oldest son at the mall, and despite frantic efforts to save him, can only watch as he runs in front of a car, losing his life. Fast forward a few years, and we watch his crushed spirit do its best to care for his other son–on the days he has him. At the same time, the Origami Killer is making headlines, as young boys are being found dead around the city. In addition to playing as Ethan, you will also spend a lot of time with three other characters: Scott Shelby, a private detective investigating the murders on behalf of the families; Norman Jayden, an FBI agent in town helping the local police; and Madison Paige, a woman who crosses path with Ethan and takes pity on him.
Gameplay is similar to Fahrenheit. There are few puzzles, just conversations and quick time events to advance the story, with decisions you make affecting the story’s outcome. Conversations are multiple choice; sometimes the choice is a direct response, and sometimes the choice is an approach (e.g. aggressive, patient, empathetic). And each choice is time limited (2-5 seconds) so as to keep the pace. If you don’t make a choice, generally the most passive option is the one you will see occur. In Fahrenheit, the quick time events were akin to the children’s game Simon. Here, they are simply following joystick and button patterns. Blissfully, the difficulty level can be adjusted to fit your hand-eye coordination skill, and there is no punishment or change of story if you choose an easier skill level. I went with moderate difficulty and was able to do what I wanted in most scenes without having to replay them.
That’s another cool feature they kept. If you’re unhappy with how a scene played out, whether that be failing a fight, derailing a conversation, or something as basic as forgetting to have your son do his homework, you can start over. Alternatively, you can continue playing and then choose other paths in future playthroughs. Even if one of the character dies, you can continue and the story will soldier on without them.
Fahrenheit did a fantastic job at creating Matrix-like, awe-inspiring fight scenes. But it had difficulty connecting with the characters on an emotional level. Heavy Rain succeeds brilliantly. I genuinely found myself caring very much about all four characters. While the plot is complex, it feels organic and realistic, digging deep into themes of grief, regret, parenthood, poverty, and even police brutality. Combine that with the physical intensity that comes during many of the scenes (with an option for vibrating controls), I was as emotionally charged as I can remember while playing a video game.
The only disappointment is that afterwards, I found myself with little desire to replay any parts of the game. One of the designers commented on how the game is only meant to be played once, with whatever story the player chooses along the way. While this does sound preposterous given the nearly 20 endings and multiple paths, I can see their point. I couldn’t get invested in an alternate version of events; I loved the one I made.
I did go to YouTube and watched all the scene variations and possible endings. I’m glad I did, as it just further impressed me how such a complex story could go so many ways depending on the player. Though it also felt like deflating the balloon of emotions I had with my story. I would recommend not doing this right after playing, and just let the game sit with you for a while before peeking behind the curtain.
One feature I rarely used was the option to bring up the character’s thoughts at any given moment. They’re never necessary, though sometimes provide hints at what to do next if you’re feeling lost. Though I found they mostly just state the obvious emotions the character would be feeling at that moment and do more to distract from the mood than enhance it.
The soundtrack, composed at Abbey Road, complements each scene wonderfully. Tense moments are not overplayed, and calmer moments are allowed to breath as you take in the ambient sounds of real life. The cinematic graphics still hold up today. Characters move around realistically, and other than the troublesome horse teeth, facial features are distinct and not distracting.
Telling a mature, complex story with heavy doses of action and player choice is a rarity. Heavy Rain succeeds in every way and is one of the best games I’ve ever played.