Five years ago, Quantic Dream unveiled a groundbreaking game called Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy). It was an ambitious concept, focusing almost exclusively on story, character, and freedom of player choice, trimming much of the actual gameplay to Simon-style sequences and button mashing. While the novelty was enthusiastically embraced, Fahrenheit was nevertheless a flawed first attempt at an “interactive drama”, falling short of its bold promises and abundant potential. This didn’t stop me from enjoying it completely, however, though most of my thoughts as I finished the game began with “This could have been incredible, if only they had…”.
After years of hype as a flagship PlayStation 3 exclusive, now Quantic has released Heavy Rain, a game that builds on its predecessor's achievements and addresses almost everything that went wrong. While the end result still isn’t perfect, it is easily one of the most fully realized interactive narrative experiences available. As long as you don’t mind the fact that you’ll do far more watching than playing, Heavy Rain is a beautiful example of just how emotionally involving games can be. It’s certainly not a traditional adventure by any means, and you may not control the story as much as you’d like, but that won’t stop you from becoming deeply attached to its characters and engrossed in their plights.
The opening story features Ethan, a down-on-his-luck architect whose son gets kidnapped by the Origami Killer, a sadistic psychopath who kidnaps young boys and drowns them in rainwater, leaving an ornate paper figure on the body as a calling card. The victims are kept alive for a few days before that, however, and Ethan receives a box of origami figures which, when unwrapped, provide an address he must visit to perform various “trials”, several of which seem to be inspired by the Saw movies. The mandate is clear: Ethan will learn where his son is being kept if he successfully performs the trials, but if he fails his son becomes the latest victim.
While Ethan desperately begins playing the killer’s game, Heavy Rain flips back and forth between three other characters as well, all of whom are following their own trails to finding the Origami Killer. Norman, the FBI profiler, uses a sci-fi pair of sunglasses to analyze clues at crime scenes. Scott, the private investigator, questions the families of previous victims to see if there’s anything the police missed. And Madison, the photojournalist, follows a few leads of her own. Their methods and personalities are radically different from one another, giving the same murder investigation a diverse feel. It might seem like the constant alternating would break the flow of the story somewhat, but the game cleverly chooses its moments to shift characters and the four narratives interlock nicely, even if the characters rarely interact at all with each other.
As different as the four scenarios are, they all control the same way. The left analog stick controls which way your character faces and the R2 button is pressed to walk. As you explore the various environments, icons will appear that prompt actions (which fans of Fahrenheit will immediately recognize), and the game does a good job of trying to keep the motion-based actions at least partially related to what you see on the screen. Stepping carefully at one point alternates between the R1 and L1 buttons, for example, and jerking the controller up quickly is used for anything from jumping over an obstacle to downing a shot of scotch. This simulated movement doesn't make you feel like you’re performing the actions yourself, of course, but it does make them a little more fun than hitting arbitrary buttons. Overall the controls are fairly intuitive, but having to constantly keep the R2 button pressed to walk seems a little clumsy and unnecessary, and more than a few times I found myself going the wrong way due to an abrupt or awkward camera angle.
Unlike more action-oriented games, this lack of precise control never puts your character in peril. Heavy Rain has some wonderfully tense moments of danger, but they’re all at very specific, scripted moments. Whether you’re fighting with an armed robber in a convenience store or fleeing from the police, the action unfolds in what can loosely be termed a Quick Time Event. A button or direction icon will appear on the screen, and you’ll have only a moment to perform the correct action before failing. While I find most Quick Time Events irritating, I really enjoyed Heavy Rain’s, in part because these actions also match what happens on screen. Tilting the right analog stick to the left in order to make your character dodge in that direction has a more tactile feel to it than just pressing the square button, after all. But it’s also because, while failing in most games ends in a Game Over, missing a prompt in Heavy Rain means the game simply takes a slightly different direction. These segments are very forgiving, and failing one or two almost never results in losing the whole scenario, though it’s fun to see how the action changes based on how well you’re doing. You may still win a fight without ducking that one time, but you could wind up visibly worse for wear because of it.
Other precision-based events happen occasionally as well, such as when Norman has to carefully climb his way up a slippery slope. In these cases, the game prompts you to press and hold certain buttons in a sequence, and sometimes tap one rapidly while keeping the others pressed. Both types of activity are fairly frequent, and most scenes in the game have at least one or two, giving your character’s explorations a more dynamic feel. Experienced action gamers should pass them all with only a little challenge, though the difficulty level can be set lower if they prove too frustrating.
The action sequences highlight the most debatable aspect of this unusual game: how much influence do you, the player, really have over the story? The back of the box raves that “your smallest decisions can change everything” and “every action you take has consequences.” This is only partly true. The story progresses much the same way for most of the game no matter what choices you make or which Quick Time Events you win or lose, as a lot of the actual game-changing options occur only towards the end. It is possible for Ethan to fail his trials, while other characters can find themselves unable to solve the case in time or even die before you’ve seen all the scenes they can appear in. Yet just because one fails doesn’t mean the others can’t succeed, so Heavy Rain simply continues on with whoever is left when that happens. Norman may die in the course of his investigation, for example, but that won’t necessarily stop Madison from solving the case, and each character has multiple possible endings, allowing one or more to have happy endings even if the others don’t.
There’s a lot of game before you get to these endings, however, or even to the critical points where you can affect the final outcome. The story is very flexible, and always seems to find a way to catch you up when necessary. Lose a fight early in the game, and all you really have to worry about are injuries. Fail to find a critical clue with Norman, and that clue will fall into his lap some other way. You may miss out on a Trophy achievement, but it ultimately has no bearing on the plot. So what’s the point of offering so much player control when so little of it is significant, you may ask? That depends on how much you enjoy the idea of directing your own story. In the prologue scene with Ethan, I grabbed some coffee, explored my house, and then lay on the grass in my backyard waiting for my wife to come home. On my second playthrough, I chose instead to go to my office and do some work on the building I was designing. Neither choice had any major effect on the game, but the two experiences were very different in their own right, and some dialogue changed when my wife asked if I had gotten any work done while she was gone.Continued on the next page...
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