on September 23, 2010
French developer Quantic Dream, the mind behind the unique and innovative Indigo Prophecy, seems to have finally nail down its formula with Heavy Rain, the highly anticipated "interactive drama", which manages to mesh powerful story-telling and atmosphere with engrossing and immersive gameplay.
Heavy Rain's narrative focuses on four protagonists separate protagonists - architect Ethan Mars, journalist Madison Paige, private detective Scott Shelby, and FBI agent Norman Jayden - whose lives interweave with one another. Without giving too much away, the game's unifying "antagonist" is a serial killer given the moniker "Origami Killer" thanks to the small origami art found atop all of the victims, who police have been unable to locate while the death count increases.
Staying true to the "interactive drama" genre, Heavy Rain is entirely narrative-driven, as the characters wrestle with internal and external conflict, yet transcends its own newly created genre thanks to an accessibility that grants it wider appeal than Quantic Dream's last outing. It's also an unabashedly dark, mature game, with hints of the film noir genre, as it focuses on its overwhelmingly grounded characters thrust into extraordinary, exigent circumstances, also flirting heavily with the question of the tagline, "How far would you go to save someone you love?" It probes the depths of human nature, among other things, far more than almost all games before it.
In terms of actual gameplay, Heavy Rain employs an untraditional control scheme, mostly through commands mandated by certain button presses, that strives to add to the immersion by making movements and actions feel precise and deliberate. General maneuvering will likely be hit or miss among players - I found it to be particularly intuitive, though sharp changes in direction while walking rarely offered me some trouble, likely because I didn't feel the need to stop before changing directions. More action-oriented scenes - and the game is filled to the brim with them, each more intense than the last - are handled with more familiar series of button presses that resemble quick-time-events seen in other titles, though they generally keep in line with the intuitiveness of the control scheme and offer a lot of depth.
One other notable aspect to the gameplay is its malleable nature. While narrative driven, Heavy Rain isn't driven by a single narrative, meaning the players' actions have direct implications to the story, and to such an extreme degree that the main protagonists can actually die at various points within the confines of the story. This sense of permanence lends itself greatly to Heavy Rain's gripping nature, while the malleability of the story results in seven different possible outcomes (as well as replayability for those who would like to see all of the different choices afforded to the player and the outcomes they yield).
The script is intelligently penned, in terms of both dialogue and plot vehicles. The characters are incredibly believable and multidimensional, which allows you to develop a deep connection with them (Ethan, in particular) and the characters themselves fully develop as the game progresses. The main storyline itself is also particularly clever and bound to leave most people guessing until the end and thoroughly engrossed.
The script is also rife with thrilling, intense moments, which juxtapose beautifully with the theme of subtlety and nuance prevalent throughout the experience. In fact, Heavy Rain features some of the most intense scenes video games have ever seen, due in great part to the connection to characters that the strong storytelling and atmosphere breed. Many people might have been put off by fears of "slow" gameplay that's been going around, but the game veraciously and unapologetically dispels that notion; the parts that are "slow" cleverly presented, expertly crafted scenes that draw you further into the world, get you further invested in the characters and all so the game can forcibly shake you down to your very core with powerful, captivating moments.
One reason behind the game's success with creating compelling characters, outside of the writing, is the technology. The game as a whole, is a graphical powerhouse; the graphics are unbelievable, and certainly the most realistic to date. The extensive motion capture and attention to detail, augmented by the powerful hardware of the PS3, lend themselves to the most believable, personable facial animation the gaming industry has ever seen, which in turn grants a higher level of connection to the characters, who feel incredibly real. The most subtle nuances - muscle twitches in the face - or blemishes on a character's skin add one more layer to the already multilayered characters, as well as unprecedented believability.
Character models have been meticulously crafted to reflect genuineness in the characters, just as the mostly-urban environments have been to reflect an authenticity of the game world. The atmosphere is chilling when it needs to be, while maintaining sincerity consistently. The drama works thanks to subtlety and attention to detail - the most miniscule object haphazardly laying about in a room, for example, gives the room an air of authenticity, as if someone is truly living there. Equally considered is the sound work, which seamlessly blends with scenes, completely amplifying the emotional resonance; the musical score is poignant and artfully composed, while sound effects help further immersion into the setting.
The voice acting, however, isn't without its flaws. While the majority of it ranges from good to top-notch there are a few poor accents in the game, which are simply jarring because of how noticeable they can be when juxtaposed with setting (which isn't France, mind you) and other characters; it really leads to wonder as to why they didn't consider hiring any North American voice talent - perhaps even approaching some notable actors - considering the focus on narrative.
There also occasional subtle issues with animation (such as an item not entirely being in a character's grip) which, despite their brevity, are noticeable. Of course, this is also a testament to the game's technological prowess overall, because the things that do stand out as flaws are so unbelievably inconsequential that they'd hardly be noticed in just about any other game.
The list of complaints about Heavy Rain are slim, but it remains true that it may not be a game for everyone. That being said, there isn't a gamer out there that shouldn't at least give the game a chance - a chance to be captivated, enveloped, and engrossed. It's somewhat hard to do the title full justice without giving away any of the scenes in the game in an exciting manner that hooks you in, but they're better left - each and every one - to experience, not know beforehand, even if it's something exponentially small.
All that needs to be said is that Heavy Rain is an incredibly polished, unique title with its emphasis on delivering a mature, compelling story - and, that the game succeeds in all aspects, thanks to incredibly realistic technology, a stirring musical score, excellent writing, intuitive gameplay, and, perhaps most of all, absolutely brilliant directing by David Cage who manipulates scenes - from camera angles to lighting to character performance - with a rarely seen mastery. Heavy Rain is an experience that will stay with you long after you finish its story.