Into an industry saturated with sequels, prequels, re-boots and re-skins, and where slapping a chainsaw on a shotgun is considered the apotheosis of creativity, comes Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain to remind us that there are still artists and visionaries alive and afoot. While Heavy Rain may not always fulfill the promise of its absurdly high aspirations, playing the game remains an immensely unique and unforgettable experience.
Superficially, Heavy Rain resembles a third-person action/adventure game, but really it’s more akin to an interactive novel or character-driven noir film. Movies like Se7en and Crash are admitted influences on the tone, narrative structure, and emotional arc and intensity of the game; Heavy Rain borrows heavily from the pacing and visual vocabulary of film. It’s nothing new to call a game 'cinematic' but this title perhaps comes closer than any in capturing the growing tension and dread that is at the heart of a great movie thriller.
The player controls, at various points, one of four disparate yet absolutely believable characters, all of whom are as equally capable of fumbling a key moment as they are playing the hero role. Scott Shelby is a paunchy, world-weary private detective; Norman Jayden is a young profiler for the FBI; Madison Page is an insomniac and photojournalist; Ethan Mars, the first character the player meets and in many ways the central figure, is a young, successful architect and his fall from suburban paradise to haunted desperation is at the heart of Heavy Rain. Tying the characters together is a relentless hunt for a serial killer and his possible latest victim. At turns, each character will seek to answer the story's central question, “How far would you go for someone you love?” and in doing so will come to grapple with their own flaws, fears, and failings. In a form of entertainment where 'heroic' actions are rarely motivated and 'villains' are cardboard-thin and devoid of complexity, the characters in Heavy Rain are remarkably layered and memorable.
Unlike most action games, where the story is propelled through an escalating series of high-intensity sequences, Heavy Rain is unafraid of relatively quiet moments, of scenes that exist only to establish mood and character, and the game is all the more effective because of it. As any reader or film fan knows, it's those seemingly quiet scenes that really build tension and foreboding. A pleasant afternoon at the mall takes a tragic turn; a routine interrogation becomes a life-shattering event: this is the way life works. In Heavy Rain, any one of the primary characters can die and the story soldiers on.
It should be noted that while the tone, style, characters, and behavioral ambiguities of the game are all brilliantly conceived, the plot is like a tin shack with a leaky roof: there are a lot of holes. Top-tier police procedural/thriller writers like Michael Connelly would be pretty appalled by the way Heavy Rain plays fast and loose with logic, and despite the veneer of free-agency, there are some peeks behind the curtain shatter the illusion—For example, somewhere near the endgame, one of the lead characters was clearly killed, yet inexplicably returned a few scenes later to finish out his story arc.
Inexplicably reccuring or not, both the main quartet of characters and a score of supporting figures are brought to life through stunning, bleeding-edge motion capture and facial animation systems. Tech demos of Heavy Rain have been circulating for years, but what quickly becomes apparent is that all the graphical heavy lifting is in service of the story and to bring to games a new palette of emotional gesture and nuance. While the game is not entirely free of some less-than-elegant animations and some fleeting dips into the Uncanny Valley—not to mention some outright bugs and crashes—there is no doubt that Heavy Rain has the potential for changing forever the landscape of characters' visual complexity.
Like the characters, the environments, based loosely on the economically depressed areas of Philadelphia, are evocative and detailed, framed and lit with the eye of a master cinematographer. Everywhere, from the chapter intros to the cross-fades between scenes and “crane” shots, the visual language of film makes its appearance.
Heavy Rain's contextual control scheme is one of the game's major gambles, and it's a risk that mostly pays off. Other than some basic movement controls, everything is cued to the needs of the moment. Some actions are slow and precise, others require lightening fast reflexes and a few demand some incredibly convoluted combinations of button presses and simultaneous stick rotations. It all aims to be transparent and intuitive, to make the player feel more connected to the actions of the character, and to force the player into flowing with the rhythm and pacing of the scene, since there's no button mashing through the action to get to the end. It works best in those high-tension sequences where the stress of reading and reacting to the on-screen prompts mirrors the confusion and distress of the characters, but in those moments where the action is something simple or mundane—the opening of a a drawer, for example—misreading a cue or mistiming an action can take the player out of the moment rather jarringly.
Quantic Dream founder David Cage wrote and directed Heavy Rain, and while he is no doubt an auteur and visionary, his mastery of dialogue is unfortunately questionable. If there is an aspect of Heavy Rain that fails to deliver, it is definitely in the writing and voice acting. Though usually not truly bad, rarely does the dialogue rise above the pedestrian, and it quite often torpedoes the emotional fidelity and poetic potential of the moment. Countless films and a deforested mountain of novels attest to the difficulty of writing dialogue that is all at once believable, eloquent, and characteristic. While the actors do their best to breathe life into their lines, the voice acting is a melange of spot-on and nuanced delivery, juxtaposed with some moving-target accents and wooden readings. The child characters, in particular, are voiced poorly, with odd pronunciations and speech rhythms; the English actor's stab at Jayden's Bostonian accent is cringe-worthy. In contrast to the uneven voice work, Heavy Rain's musical score is unfailingly tasteful and evocative, alternating between east-of-midnight melancholy and appropriately high energy underscoring for the action sequences. Likewise, sound design shines.
Heavy Rain is a product for mature gamers, not just because of its language, sometimes disturbing imagery, or sexual content, but because it allows and encourages its audience to become emotionally connected to its characters and assume control of lives that are troubled, complex, and most disturbingly, finite. As a game, Heavy Rain is a shot across the bow of those lazy, complacent, or creatively bankrupt studios that persist in repackaging tired variations of the same garish product. More than anything, Heavy Rain is further proof that games have truly come of age and are a viable platform for telling stories that will haunt your dreams and color your days.
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