I love adventure games. When most kids were growing up on Contra and Metroid, I was solving puzzles in Loom and Monkey Island. But a good adventure game is a difficult thing to make. I’m a sucker for stories. I’ve sat through droves of terrible titles just to find out what comes next in the story. At their root, adventure games oppose everything modern gaming has become. They’re long, plodding, confusing, esoteric jumbles of point and click puzzle solving. But they continue to draw me in with their unique narratives and engaging stories.
I write that because, despite its claim as “interactive drama,” Heavy Rain is an adventure game. However, it manages to do what no adventure game has yet – remove all the excess that interferes with the story. This stripped-to-basics style of Heavy Rain allows for its greatest asset, its story, to stand at the forefront. And the story does not disappoint. Despite a few nagging plot holes, Heavy Rain is easily David Cage’s strongest effort on paper and arguably one of the most captivating adventure stories gaming has seen.
Since Heavy Rain’s impetus is its story rather than its gameplay, it needs to immerse the player completely. Unfortunately, the voice acting and dialogue come out like a soap opera rather than a movie. Heavy Rain manages to mend that thread with incredible character models. Between scenes, close-ups of each protagonist’s face show off Heavy Rain’s stunning graphics engine. Every hair of stubble or pore on Ethan Mars’ face can be counted. In game, the models move in remarkably lifelike fashion thanks to superior motion capture efforts. But the believability can sometimes fade when a character interacts with another. In one scene, two characters kiss and look like plastic action figures being mashed together. While these moments tend to be the exception, they usually occur when believability is at an utmost importance.
Heavy Rain puts you in the seat of four protagonists, all with different personalities, quirks, and motives. They all have one unifying objective, to find the origami killer and prevent the death of his latest kidnapping victim, Shaun Mars. The way each character goes about this task brings the real spark to the game, with each person implementing unique methods. Norman Jayden, an FBI detective, uses field analysis to draw conclusions about the case. On the other hand, Madison Paige tends to go undercover, often finding herself in seedy situations she must talk her way out of.
As you progress through the story, especially in the later portions of the game, you’ll engage in increasingly dangerous and riveting activity. At times, a character can even die. Instead of game over, you continue playing the rest of the game without that character’s involvement. While that knowledge ratchets up the intensity a few hundred notches, I soon discovered that killing a character may be the hardest thing to accomplish in the game. Heavy Rain came with preconceived notions about what was and was not possible regarding the quick-time-event action scenes. But these preconceived notions are nothing but a veil to cover up that nearly every scene ends exactly the same regardless of what you do.
Once this veil is uncovered, the game reveals its biggest flaw. When every action seems to have meaning, very simple decisions can carry extreme weight. But when you realize that your actions have almost no meaning, each scene just goes through the necessary motions to reach the next. For example, one part of the game has a character stumble upon an attempted suicide. I played through the scene with a sense of urgency, trying to save the poor woman before she succumbed to her wounds. But the second time, as an experiment, I tried to see what would happen if I let her die. Unfortunately I discovered that’s not an option. Instead, I stood around aimlessly for 30 minutes waiting for her to bleed to death, but could only advance the story if I eventually helped her and did everything exactly as I had the first time.
While this problem exists in almost all adventure games, Heavy Rain claimed to have actions that affected the narrative. But the only affect comes through your perceptions. And rarely do you even have the option of choice, instead forced to sit through a preordained set of commands to reach the next set of commands. If you miss a key story element, it resolves itself later as if you never missed it to begin with. The only thing this can affect is the game’s final sequence, which only has six different iterations.
In the end, Heavy Rain feels like it could’ve been so much more. Had it lived up to a fraction of what it claimed to be, Heavy Rain could’ve been one of those few games that changed the way people think about programming. Instead it’s just another adventure game in an oversaturated market. Since it’s almost entirely story driven, Heavy Rain seems like it would be much better suited as a film, miniseries, or even an episodic downloadable series (like the game’s upcoming prequels). After one playthrough, it will find itself on the shelf gathering dust. Heavy Rain isn’t a bad game, just a very shallow one.