Wait... Why Did He... That Doesn't Make Any... Uggghhhhhh...
HIGH The Saw-esque anticipation of something horrifying.
LOW The weak, head-scratching reveal of the murderer's identity.
WTF The install screen that made me bitterly regret never learning how to properly fold a paper airplane.
"I don't know if this genre will be still called point-and-click adventure in the future but games where the story, puzzles and relaxed pace are the main characteristics, will definitely stay here."
The above excerpt is from an interview I did with Machinarium lead designer Jakub Dvorsky, responding to a question about the future of point-and-click adventure games. While I don't have any idea if Heavy Rain was the kind of game he was alluding to, it certainly fits the bill (along with its spiritual predecessor Indigo Prophecy) as an evolutionary step forward from the adventure games of ages past.
The player is in control of one of four main characters trying to find a serial killer before he/she claims their next victim. The film noir feeling the game is gunning for is expressed beautifully through the cinematography and the player-induced insights into the characters thoughts. Like Indigo Prophecy, traditional adventure mechanics like item usage and problem solving are integrated with QTEs to heighten the player's interaction. All the pieces are in place for Heavy Rain to be an absolute knockout that pushes forward into a new genre borne from adventuring's ashes. Make no mistake—Quantic Dream is swinging for the fences here. Unfortunately, they'll have to settle for a shallow pop fly in every sense of the term—eliciting the "ooos" and "ahhhs" of a home run at first, but eventually just lazily dropping into nothingness.
First, the game has a number of technical problems. While it never crashed on me, there were a lot of audio and frame skips which were particularly bad during QTEs when they caused me to miss a button. There were also several instances where the subtitles were badly out of sync with what the characters were saying, which wasn't so much of a problem for me, but I can imagine this causing a lot of confusion for non-English speakers who rely on the subtitles. Still none of these problems were bad enough to break the game. Those honors go elsewhere.
I'll be blunt about it—Heavy Rain has bad controls. The "hold button to move" mechanic is absolutely ridiculous, as every single action I took could've been handled better by a simple joystick push, like in...well...almost every other joystick-using game ever created. The fact that the mere action of moving around the world was a chore that left my finger sore is a crippling flaw big enough to derail the control scheme by itself, but unfortunately that isn't the end of the control problems.
I was constantly fighting my character to keep him/her facing in the right direction, as turning is extremely sluggish and unresponsive. All too often I would go right past an interaction point several times before I was finally in the right spot and facing the right direction. The problem magnifies itself when the camera angle suddenly shifts when I'm moving. It's very easy to get turned around during these shifts, and as I said, getting set in the right direction is a pain. The sequences involving moving and turning in tight quarters are brutal, and as a result I spent very little time reveling in the suspense that was intended in these spots.
Picture this: I see a potentially torturous situation in front of me, and I cringe a little at the thought of what my character is being asked to do. I take a deep breath and head on into something that will certainly be hard to watch. I take the first few steps into this trap, and after a while I reach an intersection. Fortunately the game gives me a way to figure out where to go, so I attempt to turn in the correct direction. Nope. I'm stuck. The suspense level is obviously meant to be rising, as the music's pitch is growing higher and higher the further I go, and the pain my character is being made to endure is increasing with each step I take. However, instead of reveling in all of the wonderful aesthetic that was so clearly intended to take me in here, I am instead stuck, cursing the inability to simply turn in the direction I want to go. This particular instance was the worst of its kind, but there were several others throughout the game, and they only serve to highlight the game's flaws rather than allowing me to take in what the game is doing right.
However, pinpoint controls aren't why one plays Heavy Rain. An adventure game is its narrative. It is the heart and soul of the game, and no other aspect can even come close to its importance. Even with poor controls, the story can still wash all that away and make me push on just to see what happens next. Surely this is where Heavy Rain truly excels, right?
Wrong. Heavy Rain manages to drench its narrative in mediocrity too. When the whole driving force behind a game is the story and the player's connection to the characters, those two elements damn well better be good, and in Heavy Rain they're far from it. Obviously I won't throw any spoilers out here, but the plot is so full of holes, out-of-place characters, and illogical decisions that one would think George Lucas was brought in to write the script. It seriously feels like this was written on a weekend (especially the reveal of the murderer's identity) and then put into production without anyone editing it or noticing that major plot developments made no sense.
The one thing Heavy Rain does do quite well is express the emotion and tension in the individual scenes. The game wields the threat of horrific acts like a weapon, slowly building up the tension in a Saw-like anticipation of something terrible happening and then bringing it down with the force of a sledgehammer. Again, I won't describe any of them specifically, but this is the one area where I think they really nailed what they were going for. When they hit the high notes with these scenes, they hit them hard. Unfortunately, even this aspect falls kind of flat without a strong overall story to support it.
Let's take a look at what we've got here. The controls and interaction with the game world are suspect at best and downright awful at worst. And even looking past that I still come away disappointed. The script is weak, the characters' interactions/motivations are often left unexplained, and the voice acting is mediocre in some places and bad in others. The only thing Heavy Rain really has going for it is the composition of some of the individual scenes, and that's not nearly enough to carry the whole game on its own. So in the end we don't have much of anything except the spectre of what might have been.
It's an important step forward to be sure, and I think when we look back on the history of adventure gaming Heavy Rain will be listed as a milestone in its own right. However, it succeeds only in showing us what might be possible, and not what is possible. I really, really wanted to like Heavy Rain, but it has far too much working against it. So here's my advice—play it. Take a look at where the genre is going and try to see the potential here. Then discard it while it's still worth something at GameStop or wherever else and wait for another game to truly fulfill that potential.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS3. Approximately 8 hours of play was devoted to completing the game once on normal difficulty.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, nudity, sexual content, strong language and use of drugs. Lots of disturbing imagery and other stuff going on here, folks—keep the kids away.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All audio is subtitled and I only saw one significant audio cue in the whole game. The cue was not a game-breaker. However, deaf players may have some trouble due to the occasional lack of sync between the text and the spoken lines.