I suppose I shouldn’t complain about the cut scene length in Final Fantasy XIII if this is what they’re going to do to me. Now I feel sheepish for already using the “it’s a movie in disguise” gag. So what can I say about Heavy Rain that Roger Ebert couldn’t say better? I suppose I could say that Roger Ebert gives it two thumbs-up, because that’s something he’d certainly never say about the experience.
If you’re a mainstream gamer, Heavy Rain is going to seem a bit odd to you. The game is an interactive murder mystery wherein you control most of the major characters at differing times and manage their day to day activities with tedious and unneeded gameplay controls that move the characters around the screen in a manner not dissimilar to using a cattle prod for the same purpose. You also manage their stressful nerve wracking activities, like getting murdered, with quick time events, a game mechanic I’ve found to be only slightly more enjoyable than actually getting murdered.
I dove for the power button but it was too late… my save was overwritten.
To its credit, Heavy Rain didn’t take its position on a pedestal of originality and media hype to ignore all elements that make a game good. Despite every button press being explicitly told to you by the game, it still remembers simple things like tutorials, difficulty curves and pacing. For example, early on you are taught about moving slowly and carefully by shaving and about timing and accuracy by playing games with your character’s children. Sections of tedium are broken up by action sequences whose pacing is clearly more akin to game design than movie design. However, the game developers seem to have forgotten that there are some distinct differences between playing basketball and fighting for your life against a drug addict with a tire iron, which is why most games have the good sense to use distinct controls for different scenarios. Heavy Rain’s approach seems to be to figure out when you are most entertained by the action going on onscreen and choose exactly those pivotal moments to interrupt your enjoyment with a game of Simon Says.
Heavy Rain’s major selling point is its branching story line. Your action or inaction at certain points changes not only how a scene unfolds but how the entire story can progress from that point forward. It’s entirely possible that the killer is never caught, or any of the characters are killed throughout the story, resulting in wildly different endings. But don’t take that to mean you have a choice in the matter; if you think you’ve figured out who the killer is and decide to have that character get caught by the police, the game will find a way to shove you back out of the criminal justice system in order to fulfill the rest of its plotline. The actual choices given to the player are, therefore, mostly unimportant, and all the big game changers are the consequences for failing at particular tasks.
For example, when I’m controlling a detective and a gun is being waved at my partner, I can respond with deadly force, or try to talk the psychopath in question down. This may change how my character acts and how others react to him, but it will ultimately have little impact on the story. If, however, I get into a gunfight, miss a few quick time events, and my character dies, it will likely butterfly effect into a series of horrible consequences. When this happens, the game’s favorite thing to do is save over your file as quickly as it can. At one point, I made the decision to shoot a drug dealer, but when I went to pull the trigger, the game decided the button I should have hit was X to put him on his knees, resulting in my character hesitating and getting shot at by my victim’s concealed shotgun till I ran away. I hit the start button to reload the save when the game went to a loading screen to stop me. I dove for the power button but it was too late… my save was overwritten.
But Heavy Rain doesn’t want to be judged on its frustrating gameplay mechanics because, at its core, it doesn’t really want to be judged as a game. From a writing standpoint, it’s a work of art. You’re kept guessing as to the identity of the killer, while at the same time sympathizing with all of the characters so much that you find yourself saying “I don’t want it to be who I think it is,” every time you’ve made up your mind. Although a couple of times it throws some pretty gimmicky curve balls at you just to say “ha, I tricked you,” later.
Each of the characters is genuinely likable and serves distinct purposes to the story. There’s the private investigator who gives you a glimpse into the lives of the victim’s of the Origami Killer, the FBI profiler who’s become dependent on medicinal narcotics as a clear allusion to Sherlock Holmes, or Dr. House if you prefer, and the Origami Killer’s latest victim; a father being put through hell to save his son. The game even, theoretically, takes place in familiar locales of downtown Seattle in 2011. Though by the character’s accents and mispronunciation of colloquialisms, I’m going to have to assume that somewhere between 2010 and 2011, Seattle was invaded by French-Canadians who promptly surrendered and integrated themselves with the locals.
Heavy Rain’s second major selling point falls more than a little flat; replay value. There are over 20 different endings, based on surviving characters, amount of evidence uncovered and your success and failure of various tasks. But the first two or three hours of the game are prolonged introductions to the characters’ troubled lives, which may be emotional the first time but are just monotonous on the second play through. The suspense and emotional depth is further robbed from the rest of the game when you already know who the killer is. Also, the game is rather predictable with its consequences: if I ask myself “what would the ending be if I let character X die?” the answer is pretty much “well then that character would be dead.” So between personal postulating and looking things up on youtube you can negate any value this game has beyond the rental period.
A great game, if you’re into the type of gameplay it has to offer, and an extremely worthy story, but ultimately hoisted on its own petard. Strangely, I think this might have been done better on the Wii.