Interactive Fiction has come a long way. Our older readers may remember battling warlocks atop Firetop Mountain in days long gone, but those memories of turning pages with one thumb kept in the margin, sudden deaths brought on without warning and thinly developed characters that were difficult to engage with aren’t lost to the wind for good – Heavy Rain has brought them all back with a thud, but sadly not always for entirely pleasurable reasons.
Of course, with the game saving constantly you’d be foolish to try to flick back your mistakes, metaphorically or not, because although Quantic Dream’s ‘indescribable’ title is happy enough to occasionally crash your PS3, only a brave man would attempt to revert back to a previous save when he makes the wrong choice – your decisions are final. The truth is that Heavy Rain isn’t that difficult to pigeon hole: it’s Interactive Fiction, and if you don’t understand that before buying you’ll be disappointed.
David Cage’s latest ambitious project should have realised this fact a lot sooner into development. So-called ‘IF’ lives or dies on its story and the choices it offers to its readers – Heavy Rain might portray the illusion of choice but with the game’s plot funneled so closely and paced so rapidly it’s not easy to feel either elation nor remorse for any of the four main protagonists as they hurtle towards their seemingly predetermined fates – aside from some occasionally tender moments I cared little for their plights.
This isn’t helped by a tardy set-up that seems utterly misplaced as the game’s opening. Sure, it introduces you to the myriad of control connotations but lingers far too long and is ultimately irrelevant, interjected by the arrival of other characters that barely even attempt to mesh with the one you’re still clumsily banging into walls and walking on the spot. Fumbling with the buttons as you’re asked a question isn’t the best way to introduce your opus: the first hour of Heavy Rain is comparatively poor and misjudged.
That hour is, at first at least, centred around Ethan Mars. A father of two, the married man’s abode a showcase for flat packed furniture and Quantic Dream’s frequently startling lighting effects but otherwise far too vacant a personality for anyone to initially feel responsible for. When the worst starts to happen it’s clear that this is the game reaching a time-based timeline marker no matter what you did previously – the only difference being the ping or the absence of a Trophy for your completeness.
And this is the issue – the story is set in stone, the only difference is that along the way you’ll be charged with keeping a few people alive and performing rudimentary (and often slightly embarrassing) tasks that serve as micro-sized subplots. Your accomplishments mean little to Heavy Rain’s eventual conclusion other than whether you either ‘complete’ the game, or you don’t – how many people arrive at the same destination determines the colour of your Trophy and, we’ll wager, if you get the Silver you might not go for Bronze.
It’s jarring to find such linearity on something powered by a Dual Shock 3, and whilst the visuals can be spectacular the very fact that this isn’t a game will do much to turn some PS3 owners away. The few segments where the player is allowed a certain degree of freedom tend to be utterly stunning visually, but empty and vacuous to play – it’s like Quantic Dream have developed the ultimate in smoke and mirrors with hundred-strong crowds and the tension-building score, but it’s often just that – an illusion.
But, thankfully Heavy Rain rolls on. Through a quartet of avatars, each approaching the same overarching story from various angles, the player is slowly but surely drawn into the plot. It’s fair to say that the first 50% of the game is one big set-up, establishing characters through repetition rather than exposition – we know nothing of the backgrounds of most of them but are forced to occupy their bodies as we join them in this life defining crescendo. At the half-way stage, when the plot finally kicks in, Heavy Rain begins to shine.
Everything you’ve learned starts to become critical: things you’ve seen or remembered can supply you with clues, and through the augmented eyes of the FBI (arguably the game’s technical highlight) you can start to establish the facts around the game’s viciously nasty crimes. Joined by Ethan and Special Agent Norman Jayden is an aging, rotund Private Investigator named Shelby and a journalist, Madison Paige. As you’d assume, if you’re dotting the Is and crossing the Ts all four will be present in the game’s final scene.
Save for Mars (and family), the lead roles and the supporting cast are extremely well animated (comical circular walking motion aside) and up close and personal the various faces are alive with emotion and character – there’s clearly some incredible motion capture going on and when you’re in the presence of some of the more accomplished actors it’s clear where the development time (and budget) has gone – it’s just a shame Ethan’s delivery is so wooden as he’s easily given the most screen time in the game.
But it’s not a game, is it? It certainly doesn’t play like one. Split firmly down the middle, half of the time you’ll be steering your character around various locales (left stick to look, R2 to walk) and the other half you’ll be performing some of the trickiest Quick Time Events since Dragon’s Lair. Heavy Rain doesn’t just want you to tap – you’ll be holding, twisting, pushing and bashing that controller before the story is done, and often doing several of those at the same time.
There’s talking, too. Peppered with apparent choices (usually via the four face buttons and bizarrely sometimes hidden behind your character) you’ll be able to select a topic to try to ease the conversation forward, and although the button labels don’t always match what the on-screen player will actually say (often leading to a ‘fail’ situation through no fault of your own) through practice you’ll be able to memorise the appropriate vernacular for each situation. It’s an interesting process, one aimed at repeated play.
Thus, through a pack of initially disparate individuals and a plot-based excuse for them to visit all kinds of locations, Heavy Rain plays its cards well. The story might not be as ‘adult’ as it wants to be (cringe worthy nudity and sexism included) but once it finds its feet there’s no stopping the eventuality. Keep your eyes open and click on everything and you’ll have no trouble solving the crime, however – and although I didn’t guess the ending myself my character did, and thus almost without trying the game was over.
The treasure of Firetop Mountain was mine.
- Stunning graphics
- Some of the best music ever committed to Blu-ray
- A refreshing, brand new experience for PS3 owners
- The on-foot controls clash with the otherwise great animation
- Makes Metal Gear Solid’s cut-scenes look like snippets
- Probably won’t be what you expected.
Heavy Rain has arrived with a bang. It’s flashy, technically stunning but ultimately slightly empty. Characters vary from vapid to engaging, the FBI agent a highlight but lead Ethan tends to look bored rather than desperate. If you’re looking for a decent story with minimal interactivity to occupy a wet weekend, one cut with mystery and suspense, Quantic Dream’s latest might be right up your street, but gamers looking for anything else will be left out in the rain. A great idea, but unfortunately one not fully realised.