It's not very often that a video game comes along that delivers something so unique, innovative and fresh that gamers can only help but take notice. French developer Quantic Dream's Heavy Rain is one such example. Written and directed by CEO David Cage, who has been at the forefront of lavishing as much attention to his game as possible, and rightfully so, the “interactive drama video game” is a tense and dramatic thriller with its footing in brand new territory in terms of interactive entertainment.
A highly unusual and original spin on a control scheme, Heavy Rain requires players to perform actions that are displayed on screen; through button prompts, controller motions and movements of the right thumb stick. Displayed through non-intrusive symbols integrated into the scene, such prompts guide you through the narrative in the way in which you wish to progress and ultimately, delivering on its uptake of the tag-line “How far would you go to save someone you love?”. Far more than a mere input device, the irregular control method is completely brilliant in the way it amps up the tension in scenes. At times making the player hold a hand-cramping combination of buttons, only reflecting the struggle on screen- it's a mechanic like no other that works on a number of levels. The way in which prompts shake and become indistinguishable from each other in moments of panic or anxiety on behalf of the character also renders an almost joint experience between the virtual experience and reality- such anxiety most likely resulting in a bad 'choice' through a misjudged button press, and is yet another example of the intelligent design philosophy that lies at the heart of the game's already impressive engine.
Yes, moral choices and key moments influence the eventual conclusion to the story. For example of such choices, one instance that occurs in the game involves a convenience store robbery- choosing to intervene is your choice and as such, will affect the way in which the story unfolds. Do you stand at the back of the store and wait for the crook to leave? Or do you sneak up on him and save the shopkeeper? Convince the robber to put the gun down slowly, or aggressively force him to? Of course, the choices which you will eventually come across are both meaningful and difficult, shaping the experience from the traditional narrative storytelling roots into something completely different and (mostly) unique to the player. In what Quantic Dream purports to be wholly open however, at times I was led to certain eventualities no matter what I did, which is understandable but does break the spell somewhat.
Built around the interweaving narrative threads of four characters (each played in short snippets of action) and the search for identity of the mysterious “Origami killer”, Heavy Rain is reminiscent stylistically of films of David Fincher (Zodiac, Se7en)- a world of gloomy motels, strange deaths, dark and dank apartments and corrupt cops. The film noire underbelly meanwhile, establishing its themes of love, betrayal, loss and torment in a just manner. The four main characters (father Ethan Mars, journalist Madison Page, FBI profiler Norman Jayden and private detective Scott Shelby) all adding a little something different to the overall experience and provide glimpses of the plot as a whole- of which it could otherwise become much less involving (many of the game's key scenes involve the contrasting motives of the intersecting characters). Brought to life through stunning motion capture technology and gorgeously realised character models (not that the “uncanny valley” ever disappears!), it's perhaps disappointing to hear the atrocious voice acting on display. In a game so enveloped in its expectation to deliver dramatic punches to the chest it's really quite odd that this isn't addressed, the voice work is often poor and lacklustre whilst the somewhat dodgy dialogue (“It's a pain killer, it'll help reduce the pain”) are awkward in what is otherwise a triple-A cinematic experience. Its top-notch cinematography, pacing and design flourishes (use of split-screens), along with the hugely impressive score, only further reinforcing its dramatic ambition.
In what feels like one long cut-scene with almost seamless revival of player interaction, Heavy Rain's abundance of graphical fidelity and fluid animation is somewhat elsewhere let down by its awkward character control (holding R2 to walk, left stick to control where the character is looking). The camera is also undeniably frustrating at times, with only two camera angles to choose from, it often makes searching around the scene unnecessarily irksome. On a more positive note, the decision to read the characters' thoughts through a hold of 'L2' is another ambitious design choice but one which is justifiably successful in reminding the player of key pieces of any key information/ objectives in a non-intrusive manner, delivered instead through voice-over.
On the whole, Heavy Rain is a tremendous success in the broadest of senses. It's given us a whole new control scheme with its game engine (of which I can't wait but see what comes of it) and a suitably engaging and thrilling story to boot. Packing emotional punches and drama aplenty, its moral choice design philosophy further instils the drama with even more resonance and weight. At times it is breathtaking, at others slightly irritating and disappointing, but in the end, I can't recommend it enough. You will have a unique and beautiful game experience, no question.